Christina Patterson: Rarer than a rhino: a woman with true self-confidence

The Saturday Column
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's a delicious prospect. The man who once met a black man being pounded to oblivion at the despatch box by a black woman. The old Etonian son of a stockbroker being ejected from Downing Street by the daughter of a welder.

The husband of the daughter of a baronet being given his marching orders by a single mum from Hackney. As spectator sports go, it would certainly beat the World Cup.

When I heard Diane Abbott tell Sarah Montague on the Today programme that she thought she might as well stand for the Labour leadership, I nearly choked on my croissant. (A metaphorical croissant, I have to admit. I was actually involved in the daily struggle with the duvet, which, for some of us, is quite combat enough.) With fabulous insouciance, Abbott, who had been wheeled out to talk about a new boy band called the Miliballs (or something), suddenly announced that she quite fancied running the country herself. And she hadn't been to Eton! Or Haverstock! Or, indeed, ever been considered by anybody as a future leader of the Labour Party. But that wasn't going to stop her. People had, she claimed, been begging her to stand, and she'd decided to accede to their wishes.

You had to admire the sheer pluck of the woman, the marvellously unMachiavellian lack of machination or anything you might call strategy. Out it popped, this little bombshell, which had Montague struggling, briefly, for a coherent follow-up. What wasn't entirely clear was the point of it. Was it a beauty contest? A pantomime? A dinner party? Whatever it was, it was clearly something where the lack of women was a bit embarrassing, and so was the lack of non-forty-something, non-Oxbridge, non-special-adviser-turned-MP men. If so, Abbott could help (though not on the Oxbridge front). She could set cats among pigeons, enliven debates and generally pep things up.

If the nation's commentators were sniggering over their espressos at this outburst of most unBritish chutzpah, one group was thunderstruck. It's a group, according to an interview by Oona King this week, that male MPs call "melons", but some of us melons are happy to stick with the traditional term: women. How, we wondered, could a woman so casually announce that she thought she'd take on the boys? At least two of whom, it's clear, have been eyeing this prize for years. And in a voice which hadn't gone up five octaves and didn't make it sound as though she'd gone all red and sweaty and tense?

Diane Abbott is a great performer, an excellent speaker, a good MP (and, incidentally, my MP) and a passionate campaigner. She's a big woman with a big heart, a big brain, a big personality – and a thick skin. Anyone with a black skin in a predominantly white culture needs a thick skin. So does anyone in politics. A black woman in politics needs the hide of a rhino. And a woman with as much confidence as Diane Abbott is about as rare as a rhino.

Estelle Morris pretty much made the history books by resigning from her post as Minister for Education because she thought she wasn't up to the job. Harriet Harman told Woman's Hour that she agonised even over whether to stand for the deputy leadership. Whatever the ads might tell us, we clearly don't think we're worth it. We're not good enough, not bright enough, not old enough, not young enough, not clued-up enough, not tough enough – and not, in the end, brave enough. And while we continue to think like this, we'll continue to see a paltry sprinkling, if we're lucky, of women at the senior echelons of power.

The horrible irony is that the correlation between confidence and competence is far from clear-cut. The best actors generally experience the most stage fright. Most of the great writers and artists I've interviewed over the years are haunted by the fear that they're never good enough.

People who do things badly, according to a recent study at Cornell University, are often "supremely confident of their abilities", while "the most able subjects" are "likely to underestimate their own competence". Confidence, in other words, is an indication of absolutely nothing except confidence.

Who knows if it's hard-wired, this quality that enables young men to launch into mini PhDs on the finer points of foreign policy, or the global economic crisis, or the shortcomings of the Booker shortlist, while female colleagues of twice their age and experience remain silent? I don't think we need a study from Cornell to tell us that cultural factors – background, class and education – play a significant part. A quick glance at the current Cabinet will suffice.

The contest for the Labour leadership is not a beauty contest, a pantomime or a dinner party. It's a contest to make Labour electable. Diane Abbott doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell, of course, but she does win the prize for balls. To paraphrase George Galloway on meeting Saddam Hussein: "Madam, we salute you."

The beginning of the end of the affair...

I've loved him for so long. And while I have to admit that I haven't exactly been alone in my adoration for Barack Obama, I can, I think, claim unstinting loyalty. I was there in the good times: the great surge of hope that rippled out of Illinois and then swept, like a tidal wave, across America; that glorious moment when a man who was not only thoughtful and erudite, but also handsome, charming, a master craftsman of the English language and, oh yes, not white, became the most powerful man in the world; that almost even more historic moment when an American President passed a law that ensured that poor people, in the richest country in the world, could go to the doctor and still afford to eat.

When others accused him of dithering, I knew he was just biding his time. When others lambasted the Nobel Prize committee for a premature decision, I knew he would earn it. In triumph, in adversity, in fiscal stimulus, in the assault on Wall Street, I was there. But my beloved has let me down. The Mexican Gulf oil disaster was an accident. An accident for which it's clear that lax regulation was at least as culpable as BP. Tony Hayward may have made some unwise comments, but he's trying bloody hard. Obama's sudden discovery of his petulant inner child, whether strategic or (as seems unlikely) genuine is unattractive, undignified – and, more importantly, just plain unfair.

A hero, and a bit of polymath, in our time

There was a time, before Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton and Ant and Dec, when you could hardly switch on a telly, or a radio, without hearing the adenoidal tones of Melvyn Bragg. There he'd be at the start of the week, haranguing historians and savaging politicians. There he'd be at the end of it, nodding to the ramblings of rock stars and singing the praise of poets. As Oxbridge-educated TV bosses decided that culture was a minority interest, perhaps on a par with Morris dancing, to be scheduled later and later, and then not at all, Bragg's status changed from slightly irritating media monopoliser to saint and martyr. By the time he won his Bafta fellowship on Sunday, he had certainly earned it.

The real award, however, should go to In Our Time, the thrillingly highbrow discussion programme he hosts on Radio 4. This week's was on al-Biruni, a 10th-century historian and scholar from central Asia, who was also a master of maths, medicine and astronomy. Suggestions for further reading on the website include "An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines" and "Al-Biruni's Arabic version of Patanjali's Yogsutra". Sure beats Big Brother.