The political world has been seen as an abrasive, macho and male club for centuries. Across the West this is meant to have changed in the last couple of decades, with record levels of women's representation and female leaders. Yet, despite this, the male exclusivity tag still hangs over much politics.
Neither the Labour party or Liberal Democrats (or their predecessors, the Liberals) have ever had a woman leader. The Tories may have given the UK two leaders and two prime ministers, but until recently they had a terrible record in regards to female MPs. And the total number of women elected in the last century has only just exceeded the number of men in the current House of Commons.
In the year when we marked 100 years since women first won the vote in the UK, although it took another decade for gender equality (and then another 20 years for the UK to abolish plural voting), it is a bit of a reality check for some optimists when a number of Tory MPs talk in a disgusting and unacceptable way about their leader and PM, Theresa May.
One Tory MP told the Sunday Times: 'The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She'll be dead soon.' Another Tory MP told the Mail on Sunday that 'She should bring her own noose to the '22,' – meaning the 1922 backbench committee of Tory MPs. What is surprising is that anyone is shocked by Tory MPs stating such violent opinions. The real story is not that a section of Tory MPs speak like this frequently, but that this group chose to do so to a journalist, who was able to quote them.
The Tory party has long had a history of prejudiced opinion and this includes sexism and misogyny. Past leaders like Winston Churchill made offensive comments about women – some of which are well-known and widely quoted – which are, in the way of Churchillian quotes, typically dismissed as part of his charm.
In the present age, a host of Tories feel comfortable enough to say the most offensive opinions about women generally. It does not always come from right-wingers and the neanderthal, unreconstructed brand of Tory. Former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, has no regard for May, who sacked him when she became PM. In September last year, he said that he would not rest until May was 'chopped up in bags in my freezer,' and has repeated these sentiments on more than one occasion. No disciplinary action or censure befell Osborne, who dreams of re-entering elected politics.
Environment minister Michael Gove, when recently talking about the BBC Radio Four Today programme, said appearing on it was 'like going into Harvey Weinstein's bedroom – you hope to emerge with your dignity intact.' On a far worse scale, Tory MP Philip Davies has made numerous problematic interventions, blocking parliamentary legislation on 'upskirting', and referring to feminists as 'zealots'. He has tried to have the word 'women' taken out of the House of Commons women and equalities committee, and two years ago spoke at a conference organised by Justice for Men and Boys, who have such material as '13 reasons women lie about being raped' on their website.
None of this is the total preserve of the Tories. Labour MP Austin Mitchell told Tory MP Louise Mensch when she resigned from the Commons: 'Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn't disagree with her master in public,' in reference to comments made by her husband. Labour MP Clive Lewis instructed someone at a Momentum rally to 'get on your knees bitch.' The Lib Dems have Lord Rennard, while Alex Salmond has been known to make questionable remarks.
Having said all that, there is something special about Tory attitudes in this area. What drives present-day Tory sexism, misogyny and the everyday use of a language of violence towards women? There are several reasons which make such views permissible in Tory circles. One factor is the Tory party entitlement culture, which still believes that they were born to rule and that everyone else is beneath them. This attitude gives a certain type of Tory man an insufferable sense of their own superiority, and in some a belief in the inferiority of women – and indeed everyone
beyond Tory men.
Tories have historically believed that they own the 'idea' of Britain and that their interests and that of the 'national interest' are one and the same. Former adviser to William Hague, Amanda Platell, said recently that the Tories were looking for a 'new prime minister of the Conservative party' – a rare, but revealing slip, which shows how most senior Tories think.
This overlaps with a tension within Toryism between those who see themselves as reflecting modern Britain in its diversity – think of David Cameron and same-sex marriage – and the more traditional Tories who see the advance of the modern world as a threat to their way of life. An example of this latter tendency was the Daily Mail under Paul Dacre's editorship, which waged a continual war against the modern career woman.
The anonymous Tory MPs who spoke in such a vile way about Theresa May have been widely condemned by other Tories, and across the political spectrum, but it is part of a wider picture about how women are treated, and a general coarseness and abrasiveness in public life.
It is alarmingly just over two years since Labour MP Jo Cox was killed: stabbed to death by a far-right extremist who shouted 'Britain First' as he attacked her. Numerous Labour MPs such as Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips have faced horrendous abuse online for being outspoken and of independent mind. Then there is the abuse which Diane Abbott continually faces – both online and offline – of a vile racist, sexist kind, which she acknowledges has got much worse than when she was first elected in 1987.
There can be no collusion with abusive comments and abusers – whatever the origin and whatever the target. Too many people collude with hate comments because the object of the abuse is someone they disagree with, for example a Tory, a non-Corbynista Labour MP, or an anti-Scottish independence politician. This is not good enough.
If anyone thinks the best way to deal with such comments is to just ignore them and hope they will go away, they need to get a reality check. Have a look at the state of US politics. Donald Trump was elected president having left a trail of disgusting, misogynist comments on the public record, from talking about 'grabbing them by the pussy,' to subsequently, since he was elected, comparing Stormy Daniels to a 'horseface' and much worse.
There is also in the Tory party something at play about the obsession of some with Brexit. This takes some politicians into territory where anything can be said. Thus, in the last few weeks, we have had the EU compared to criminals, with regular invoking of the EU as similar to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union: the latter by no less a figure than the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
Combine that hothouse atmosphere with the Tory male boorish culture in Westminster and the Commons, and the resentment many Tory MPs feel towards Theresa May, and you have a perfect storm for making offensive comments. We might not be able to bring some Tory MPs into the modern age and Britain, but we can call out such comments, and make the politicians and parties which allow them pay a heavy price at the polls.