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

The Saturday Column

Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Assistant - Windows XP/7/8, Networks Firewalls/VPN's

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Assistant - Windows XP/7/8, Netwo...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £140 per day + Flexible with benefits: Randstad Education Group: Key St...

English Teacher (Full time from Jan - Maternity Cover)

£100 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: This good to outstanding school...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Abortions based solely on gender are illegal in Britain  

Abortion is safe, and it should be as available as easily as contraception

Ann Furedi
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album