Suffolk Woman: the new sexual vigilante

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The Independent Online
ALONE among Britain's political parties, the Conservatives have consistently brought sexuality into political discourse. They have straddled the boundary between public and private.

Their current crisis is not merely conjunctural, caused by the impact of John Major's 'back to basics' mantra on a parliamentary party with a precarious claim to monogamy. It is a crisis of an entire political culture that is estranged from the revolution in sexual relations.

MPs, particularly Tories, are more male, more married and apparently more heterosexual - and thus more covert and conservative - than the communities they represent.

Stuart Hall, the Open University's Professor of Sociology, says: 'Male MPs polarise and exploit the gap between public and private because it enables them to keep up the relationship with home and constituency as surrogate families while living a kind of bachelor life in Parliament.'

Shamed or stalwart wives have now been defended by the sexual vigilante, a Tory stereotype whose agenda is anchored in old conventional wisdoms about men as beasts and deceivers.

The sexual vigilante's tradition nests in law and order and family values; she derives strength from her subordination, deplores desire as danger and waves a whip where others wield a vibrator. She entered political legend in the guise of the Hell's Grannies, furious fugitives, hangers and floggers who bequeathed to modern Conservatism a politics of sexual pessimism.

Embodied this Christmas by Suffolk Woman, the vigilante is not to be confused with the brittle ministers responsible for last year's crusade against single mothers. The target of the angry young ministers was women. The vigilante's target is irresponsible men.

Her agenda has been mobilised now by Major. But - unlike the Labour and Liberal Democrats, who have evacuated the politics of the personal - what the Tory leaders have not assimilated is that the vigilante's agenda was always part of the party's argument with itself: it was the place where these women were having it out with their men.

In 1939 they challenged the party modernisers by sexualising the language of law and order and voting against their leaders' proposed abolition of corporal punishment, a revolt organised in the name of women and children against marauding masculinity.

Tory women repeatedly challenged the modernisers of the late Fifties and early Sixties in the name of an endangered sex seeking political safety. Indeed, a party manager noted in 1961 that the debate on criminal justice was 'supposed to be entirely for the ladies'. Law and order was where women posted their critique of men.

Thatcherism faced a new challenger, Victoria Gillick, whose campaigns against sex began as an organisation called Parents in Suffolk. She visited upon daughters a premonition of desire as woman's undoing, a vortex of destruction and dependency. She promoted femininity as a state of innocence. Masculinity was, by contrast, biological, incontinent and dangerous.

Although Ms Gillick was never endorsed by the Conservative women's organisations, she animated the traditional fantasy that femininity was to be protected and masculinity policed.

Majorism has eschewed modernity, instead mobilising that old Tory tradition.

The sexual vigilante, a Carry On caricature - Hattie Jacques cloned with Margaret Rutherford - is a much- mocked party soldier. But sometimes she moves majestically from subordinate to scourge. Politicians are no match for her paranoia. Ministers are being taken out by her virulent democracy. Major's reinstatement of the polarisation between public and private cannot now save his men from scrutiny.

'Back to basics' has given Suffolk Woman her legitimacy. And yet in her triumph, it is she who has appeared as the transgressor, rather than her party, or government ministers, or her modern alter ego, Metropolitan Woman, the sexually active, self-sufficient single parent.

Suffolk Woman spoke out. But her excess of logic made her mutiny embarrassing - she was supposed to serve her Member, not to judge him. The complexity and diversity that describes their - and our - sexual circumstances is what parliamentarians deny. That denial, which has been historically privileged, is now their undoing. It is time for Major's ministers to grow up and come out.