Politics: MP puts up defences over women

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Forget GI Jane - Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for New Forest West and a Territorial Army Major with the Warwickshire and Worcester Squadron of the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, will not hear of women at war. Fixing lunch, perhaps, but not bayonets.

Mr Swayne intervened in a Commons defence debate some weeks ago, and, in a late-night aside, he put his strong views about women in the armed forces.

Those remarks yesterday formed the heart of a Commons motion signed by 14 Labour MPs, condemning and dissociating themselves "from the utterly shameful use of a quotation of St Bernard of Clairvaux" by Mr Swayne.

The motion said Mr Swayne had used the following quote: "To be always with a woman and not to have intercourse with her is more difficult than to raise the dead." It then accused him of adding to his "reprehensible" conduct by remarking: "As one is not capable of the latter, one is certainly not capable of the former."

Mr Swayne yesterday protested that a bunch of "fanatical zealots" had misunderstood his "light-hearted allusion".

He told The Independent that he had actually been telling George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence, that he had not gone far enough in opening up opportunities for women in the forces.

"I gave the example of my own squadron headquarters," he said, "where I rely on the services of two female high frequency radio operators, who ... would be prevented from serving with us [in action], and that has not changed as a result of the Secretary of State's statement, and that was regrettable." However, he added, Mr Robertson was right in one respect. "The thought of a woman fixing a bayonet and closing with the enemy I don't believe is operationally sustainable and frankly is wholly repugnant."

As for St Bernard, Mr Swayne said initially that he had not delivered the quote. He then accepted that he had said it - in a light-hearted tone. Mr Swayne said he had been woken up by the Daily Mail this week, asking for a comment on a Ministry of Defence announcement that it paid pounds 58m compensation to servicewomen who had become pregnant and had been dismissed. "Good grief," he told The Independent, "perhaps St Bernard was right after all".

- Anthony Bevins