Mo Mowlam's disarming ways may be just what is needed today

Suzanne Moore woman in the maze
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The Independent Online
"Astonishing". "Unprecedented". "Audacious". These were among the words that greeted the news that Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is going to walk into the "the lion's den" of the Maze Prison in order to talk to loyalist inmates to try to persuade them to stay in the peace talks. All these words could be used of Mowlam's political style itself. No other Secretary of State has gone to the H-blocks for discussions with convicted terrorists but then no other Secretary of State has been Mo Mowlam.

Clearly many observers were shocked and dismayed by her decision. When it comes to Ireland, it is almost as if we are so familiar with inertia and failure that anything new is a threat in itself. While the old methods used to bring about peace have not worked, there is still a tangible fear of the new. Mowlam's "gamble" comes out of her determination to keep the peace train in motion. Indeed her language these days indicates that her goal has shifted from finding a peace settlement to simply being that of keeping everyone talking. We do not need to be reminded of what the alternative to not talking is.

Should the talks fall apart this would be perceived not only as a political failure for Mowlam but a personal one too for a woman who values communication above all else. Her whole image is that of a matey, earthy woman who talks easily and affectionately to everyone.

This is not just an image, as anyone who has met her will tell you. Chewing gum, Mowlam will kick off her shoes and complain that her bra is too tight. As a politician she has kissed not just babies but granite-faced old unionists. She puts her arm around anyone who gets near, patting and prodding her way into meetings. She tells bad jokes and reveals more than she should about confidential matters. Her informality is part of her charm. Though she may appear as someone who doesn't care what people think of her, anyone who makes this much effort with others obviously cares enormously what other people think. All this "take me as you find me" lark must also be calculated. It marks her out from other politicians and has worked up until now largely to her advantage.

Not everyone succumbs to Mo's charm. The condemnation of her by many in Northern Ireland can be seen, as David McKittrick has pointed out on this page, as good old-fashioned chauvinism. Politics in the North is still frighteningly male-dominated. Republicans and unionists alike may have actually found it easier to deal with the quasi-colonial attitudes of former Northern Ireland Secretaries than the unknown quantity that Mowlam represents.

What she has done, which no previous occupant of her post has managed to do before, is to bring the troubles home. People in Britain are more interested in the peace process because of the way she has personalised it. Up until now, the politics of Northern Ireland, though declared important, have actually been a minority interest. A mixture of ignorance and frustration has governed the British attitude to the whole mess. While many male politicians have talked loftily about securing a place in history should they bring peace to Northern Ireland, Mowlam just wants to talk, replacing ideology with what feels like common sense. What was once dismissed as Mowlam's effortlessly chatty and over-familiar style reveals itself to be an entirely new way of thinking about the Northern Ireland situation, one which is inclusive and human. This is not just the result of her pragmatism but also of her intellect.

If it pays off then, it will have been a stroke of genius by Blair to put his most touchy-feely player in charge of the hardest game in town. Yet if Mowlam represents the new politics, a new way of doing things, then we might ask where the up-and-coming Mo Mowlams are among the surprisingly docile intake of female MPs. Maybe it is too early for many of them to manifest anything like an individual style as they are subject not only to party discipline but also the reality of life in the House. As one poor woman MP replied in the recent Fawcett Society survey of women MPs, "I have been desperately unhappy since being elected ... I hate this place."

The problem for these women is precisely the one that Mowlam seems to have conquered. How are they to be themselves - that is, women - and operate in this hostile political culture. One could argue that the most successful women politicians, from Barbara Castle to Margaret Thatcher and now Mowlam herself, have not denied their femininity but used it strategically. Thatcher was expert at donning the garments of various female archetypes - housewife mother, warrior queen - when it suited her, and dismissing other aspects of her femaleness when it didn't - so that she could be more of a man than any of her colleagues. Castle always made sure her hair and clothes were perfect, as though her ultra-femininity would lessen the threat of her political nous.

Mowlam's strategy has been different. She acts like one of the boys but, because she is not one of the boys, she both gets away with things that none of them would and insulted for things they wouldn't. Her sheer bravery over her illness, her matter of factness about her appearance, the famous slapping of the wig on the table reveal a woman who knows that there is more to life than feminine vanity. She is thus curiously vulnerable and unbelievably hard at the same time.

In some peculiar way, her illness (and the weight gain that has accompanied it) has made it possible for her not only to cuddle up to all sorts of strangers but for them to cuddle up to her too, as she appears devoid of threat.

There are those who wonder whether despite her constant good humour she is being asked to deliver more than she is capable of. The drudgery of this job, the endless flights, the incredibly slow progress must take their toll. If her charm doesn't work, what other resources dos she have? We have seen how tough she is physically but there is still uncertainty about her political toughness. But then isn't this always the question that is ultimately asked about women in powerful jobs. Can they hack it?

However, when people talk of the feminisation of society, of the effect of having more women in public life and in the workplace, they are usually referring to the qualities that we so value in Mo Mowlam coming to the fore and being properly recognised. A less hierarchical, more informal, more personalised style will dominate. Indeed the new management books are full of this feminised language, of webs and horizontal, rather than vertical, structures; full of workers co-operating instead of competing with each other, all to the benefit of the company.

If this is the case, where then are the other Mo Mowlams? Why does she appear so exceptional? Why is it so difficult for women in power to retain a personality that has not been prepared earlier by the Millbank geeks, one that is full of complexity?

In the present situation, however, we must be thankful for Mo's uniqueness. It is what makes her so disarming. Let us hope that the murderers of the Maze are equally disarmed by her.