“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power” — former President Bill Clinton, speaking at the Democratic Party’s national convention on 27 August 2008.
It was Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, who said while still in office: “Governments that fail to adapt themselves to the impulses of society, put themselves in peril.” In the end, Gorbachev must have gone through an irony bypass, as his government, not adapting itself to the impulses of society, sat there transfixed as the once mighty Soviet Union collapsed all around Gorbachev’s ears. It was sweet revenge for not listening to one’s own sermons. “Revenge is mine, I will take it,” said the Lord, in the Bible. Much like one Colin Beveridge, from St Andrews in Scotland, wanted to do to a certain Mrs Thatcher. He wrote to The Guardian on 5 February 2002, saying: ‘I suggest that we place Mrs Thatcher’s statue in Trafalgar Square, so the pigeons can do to her what she did to us.” Mrs Thatcher had used Scotland as the laboratory for her unpopular poll tax policy that eventually helped to bring her down. Sweet revenge?
I hold no candle for former President Bill Clinton. But his words at the Democratic Party’s national convention on 27 August rang so true that I woke up in the middle of that night and wrote it down in my scrap book: “Most important,” Clinton said, “Barack Obama knows that America cannot be strong abroad unless we are strong at home. People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
Powerful words those! But don’t tell the current occupant of the White House. He might even pretend to be a Richard
Barnard from Wivenhoe in Essex, UK, who wrote to The Guardian in February 2002, telling the editor: “The best shop window sign I have seen was a courteous: ‘Ears pierced while you wait’.”
Yes, Her Majesty’s Kingdom is full of … characters!
Which says it is time for me to jump across the Pond to engage the characters in “God’s Own Country”. On 4 November, Americans — the whole lot of them — will have the opportunity to redeem themselves in the eyes of the world. For much of the 232 years of their independence, their leaders have stomped the world allegedly bringing “liberty”, “democracy” and “equal opportunity” to heathens like us. The current occupant of the White House has used the best part of the last eight years to assail our ears with the liberty and democracy message. He has even claimed that liberty is why his troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, let me ask: Does the concept of liberty, democracy and equal opportunity also extend to American women, and why for 232 years of American independence, not one — just one — woman has become president of the US? Is it a case of the American healer unable to heal himself?
Even in the Mother Country, for all the centuries that they have prided themselves of being the hosts of the Mother of Parliaments, only one woman — Mrs Thatcher of the Pigeons of Tralfagar Square fame — has become prime minister, and looking at the current positions of the two main parties, I can bet my bottom dollar that it will take a long, long time for another woman to occupy No. 10 Downing Street.
If you don’t believe it, check when women had the right to vote in Britain, on the Blurtit website. It will tell you: “All women over 21 have been able to vote in parliamentary elections in England since 1928 [as recently as 1928]. Some women had been eligible since 1918, but voting was limited to women who were over 30 years old and who were either householders or the wives of householders. The link between the right to vote and owning property or land also applied to men. In fact, men over 21 generally were only given the vote in 1918. Before that, men had to own property or pay rent over a certain limit and as recently as 1911, the electoral registers list only 60% of all men over 21 in the population. In the 1800s, rules were yet stricter and only men who were land owners qualified. In practice, this meant that only the richest people voted and they were able to keep control of their wealth and have a large influence on local and national politics.”
This, in fact, does not tell the full story about the hard struggle that British women went through to get the right to vote. When I last checked, the Suffragettes website had this to say:
“The move for [British] women to have the vote had really started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage. ‘Suffrage’ means the right to vote and that is what women wanted — hence its inclusion in Fawcett’s title… However, Fawcett’s progress was very slow [as she believed in peaceful protest]. She converted some of the members of the Labour Representation Committee (soon to be the Labour Party), but most men in Parliament believed that women simply would not understand how Parliament worked and therefore should not take part in the electoral process.
“This left many women angry, and in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. They wanted women to have the right to vote, and they were not prepared to wait. The Union became better known as the ‘Suffragettes’. [Unlike Millicent Fawcett], members of the Suffragettes were prepared to use violence to get what they wanted.
“In fact, the Suffragettes started off relatively peacefully. It was only in 1905 that the organisation created a stir when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney interrupted a political meeting in Manchester to ask two Liberal politicians (Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey) if they believed women should have the right to vote. Neither man replied. [Their silence angered the women, forcing them to create a stir, and being arrested for causing an obstruction and a technical assault on a police officer. Both women refused to pay a fine, preferring to go to prison instead. From this incident onwards, the Suffragettes decided to use violence for their cause].
“They burned down churches as the Church of England was against what they wanted. They vandalised Oxford Street, apparently breaking all the windows in this famous street. They chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the right to vote. They hired out boats, sailed up the River Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat.
“Other women refused to pay their tax. Politicians were attacked as they went to work. Their homes were firebombed. Golf courses were vandalised. The first decade of Britain in the 20th century was proving to be violent in the extreme…
“The government of Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act. When a Suffragette was sent to prison, it was assumed that she would go on hunger strike as this caused the authorities maximum discomfort. The Cat and Mouse Act allowed the Suffragettes to go on hunger strike and let them get weaker and weaker… When [they became] very weak, they were released from prison. If they died out of prison, this was of no embarrassment to the government. However, they did not die.
“But those who were released were so weak that they could take no part in violent Suffragette struggles. When those who had been arrested and released had regained their strength, they were rearrested for the most trivial of reason and the whole process started again. This, from the government’s point of view, was a very simple but effective weapon against the Suffragettes.
“As a result, the Suffragettes became more extreme. The most famous act associated with the Suffragettes was at the June 1913 Derby when Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under the King’s horse, Anmer, as it rounded Tattenham Corner. She was killed and the Suffragettes had their first martyr.
“However, her actions probably did more harm than good to the cause as she was a highly educated woman. Many men asked the simple question — ‘if this is what an educated woman does, what might a lesser-educated woman do? How can they possibly be given the right to vote?’
“However, Britain and Europe was plunged into World War I in August 1914. In a display of patriotism, Emmeline Pankhurst instructed the Suffragettes to stop their campaign of violence and support in every way the government and its war effort. The work done by women in the First World War was vital for Britain’s war effort. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act was passed by Parliament [which partially gave the right to some women to vote — those over 30 years old and who were either householders or the wives of householders.”
Today, the descendants of these men who had sat on the democratic rights of their women for centuries, come to Africa to preach the virtues of democracy, liberty and equal opportunity to us; and impose economic and other sanctions on Africans for failing to give ourselves more democracy, even though their own women are still kept away from the Number One post in their state houses. Liberty, democracy and equal opportunity indeed! Heal thyself, healer!
Well, 4 November is just around the corner. On 21 April 2008, Time magazine, reporting on Barack Obama’s mother, threw in a line that is still reverberating in my head: “Being partly African in America [talking about Obama] is still seen as being simply black, and colour is still a preoccupation above almost all else. There is not enough room in the conversation for the rest of a man’s story.”
We are all waiting to see the colour of the American vote. For 232 years of independence, Americans have been voting only people of European descent into the White House. On 4 November, they will have the chance to show the world the colour of their democracy, liberty and equal opportunity. Will the power of their example impress us more than the example of their power? We are waiting and watching.