A bloodthirsty lot, the women in the House

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The Independent Online
I HAVE remarked before on the tendency of our great newspapers no longer to provide ordinary political facts but to prefer instead stories about people, their splits, rows, gaffes or whatever. Now, no Mr Gradgrind I. Facts are a good servant but a bad master. That is my opinion. Moreover, I enjoy a good political row as much as anyone. But one has to have something to go on first.

To be fair to the papers, they did carry a parliamentary report of Tuesday's debate on Iraq: a form of political reporting that has fallen into desuetude, to be dragged out of the cupboard only on what are judged to be the most special parliamentary occasions. The papers also gave us the (to me) surprisingly large government majority, 493-25. They provided the names of the dissentients as well. But of any further analysis there was a distinct lack.

In pursuance of my policy of encouraging public service journalism, I have tried to fill the gap. For example, how did Labour women vote? How many of Tony Blair's babes (though they are called that only in the papers) favour the incineration of Iraqi children, should that sad outcome be judged necessary by Mr Bill Clinton? They are a mighty army. They may not frighten Saddam Hussein but, by God, they frighten me.

They consisted of Hilary Armstrong, Charlotte Atkins, Hazel Blears, Karen Buck, Christine Butler, Anne Campbell, Lynda Clark, Ann Clwyd, Ann Coffey, Jean Corston, Valerie Davey, Janet Dean, Julia Drown, Gwyneth Dunwoody, Angela Eagle, Maria Eagle, Louise Ellman, Lorna Fitzsimons, Caroline Flint, Barbara Follett, Maria Fyfe, Linda Gilroy, Llin Golding, Jane Griffiths, Harriet Harman, Sylvia Heal, Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Hodge, Kate Hoey, Beverley Hughes, Joan Humble, Glenda Jackson, Helen Jackson, Melanie Johnson, Fiona Jones and Helen Jones.

They were joined by Tessa Jowell, Sally Keeble, Ann Keen, Jane Kennedy, Tess Kingham, Jackie Lawrence, Helen Liddell, Chris McCafferty, Siobhain McDonagh, Anne McGuire, Fiona Mactaggart, Judy Mallaber, Gillian Merrion, Laura Moffatt, Margaret Moran, Estelle Morris, Kali Mountford, Sandra Osborne, Linda Perham, Bridget Prentice, Dawn Primarolo, Barbara Roche, Joan Ruddock, Christine Russell, Debra Shipley, Clare Short, Angela Smith, Geraldine Smith, Jacqui Smith, Rachel Squire, Gisela Stuart, Ann Taylor, Dari Taylor, Joan Walley, Claire Ward, Betty Williams, Rosie Winterton and the teller Janet Anderson.

From the Liberal Democrats they were supported by Mrs Jackie Ballard, Mrs Ray Michie, and Dr Jenny Tonge. I hope they are all telling their children, if they have any, what it feels like to be burned alive.

The Liberal Democrats polled 100 per cent of their surprisingly low women's strength, three. Labour had 74 out of the party's 101 women members. The two Scottish Nationalists, Ms Roseanna Cunningham and Mrs Margaret Ewing, both abstained. Only three women, all Labour, voted against the Government's policy of unquestioning support for the United States: Ms Diane Abbott, Mrs Alice Mahon and Mrs Audrey Wise.

Conservative women are a notoriously bloodthirsty lot who have not changed much in the 40-odd years during which I have taken an interest in these matters. So I am not bothering with them (there are only 13 of them anyway), except to note that I was surprised that Mrs Teresa Gorman, together with the rest of the official Opposition, voted with the Government: not so much because Mrs Gorman is notably pacific by nature - quite the reverse - as because she possesses strong views on the independence of this country.

There was no alliance such as had been predicted between old left and old right. Members of the latter group in addition to Mrs Gorman - Mr Christopher Gill, Sir Michael Spicer, Mr John Wilkinson, Mr Nicholas Winterton - were apparently content to vote obediently with Mr William Hague and Mr Blair. The old left similarly has collapsed ignominiously as a political force.

Certainly Mr Tony Benn remains the finest parliamentarian in the place. But his ally Mr Tam Dalyell, though virtually his equal as a backbencher (some would say Mr Dalyell is his superior), is not a man of the left at all. He is simply an independent member who, incidentally, hates to be called "eccentric", as he undoubtedly is and none the worse for it. Mr George Galloway is another independent spirit about whom I shall say nothing further at this stage, favourable though it would be, because he is as ready with a libel writ as Mr Rupert Allason, and it is better to be on the safe side. When you think that the 25 dissenters (27 if you count the tellers, Mr Benn and Mr Dalyell) included four Welsh Nationalists, you must conclude that the left in 1998 is in a pretty bad way.

But so is dissent altogether. I use the word in its political rather than in its religious sense. There is an overlap but they are different concepts and different groups. In the same way political dissent overlaps with the political left. Mr Dalyell is a dissenter; Mr John McDonnell (another of the 25) is of the old hard left of the early 1980s; while Mr Benn is a bit of both.

In pieces of this kind it is as well to put one's cards on the table. I supported, though without much enthusiasm, the Falklands War of 1982. With more conviction I supported the Gulf War in 1990-91. On both occasions the reason for my support was the same: that a country had invaded the territory of another country in clear breach of international law.

Over Iraq today the United States and United Kingdom governments have provided the most specious justification for the use of massive force, which is that Iraq has been and is in breach of United Nations resolutions. Lord Mayhew, the former Conservative attorney-general, comprehensively demolished this argument on Tuesday in the debate in the Lords. In any case, if disobedience to UN resolutions provided a justification for armed attack, Israel would long ago have been reduced to rubble. But then, Israel is a client-state, a dependancy, of the USA; whereas Iraq was merely armed by that country and by this one in the not very distant past.

Mr Blair has not only emasculated the left. He has also, it appears, very nearly destroyed British high-mindedness as well. True, the women members I listed earlier are not, by and large, names to conjure with or even to toss about in the back garden before going off to the pub. There is, however, at least one exception in Mrs Clwyd. She is high-minded, a dissenter and of the left, sort of. What made her support Mr Blair, who has not, to put it at its lowest, treated her with much kindness?

At least she made a speech explaining her position, which was more than the rest of her sisters managed to accomplish. Mrs Clwyd is against Saddam because he is a bad lot who has been beastly to the Kurds. But the world is full of shady characters who have been horrible to all kinds of people. That does not mean you can lawfully go and drop bombs on them. Mrs Clwyd, Mr Blair, a huge majority of the House of Commons and, it seems, most of the voters adopt a contrary opinion. As John Morley said of the Boer War, they are wrong. For as Enoch Powell once said to me and, doubtless, to numerous others as well: error is none the less error for being universal.

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