Tag Archives: Margaret Thatcher

CONSERVATIVE CAD – Cecil Parkinson Ruined Sara Keays

PUBLIC MAN, PRIVATE HAREM

The Conservative Party mourns the death in January 2016 of one of its great players, Cecil Parkinson. He contributed greatly to public life, to the transformation of Britain by Thatcherism, the party said this week.

His political career was, say the obituaries, ruined by a woman. What they don’t say is that a woman’s political career was ruined by Cecil Parkinson.

The woman was Sara Keays, his lover for 12 years, his secretary, companion and confidante. She was a resilient, respectable middle class woman from the fastnesses of Conservative England.

Her tragedy was to trust an ambitious Tory politician, and to vest her own political ambitions in proximity to power.

Prime-Minister-Margaret-Thatcher-with-Cecil-Parkinson

PA

What remains unnoticed is that Cecil Parkinson not only repudiated the woman he’d loved, spent his days with, and relied on since the early 1970s and refused to acknowledge their daughter, but — unbeknown to Keays — killed off her political ambition.

He got her kicked off the Conservative Party candidates list for the Bermondsey by-election following the resignation of the Labour incumbent Bob Mellish in 1982.

The journalist Frankie Rickford once described powerful men’s promiscuous dependencies on women as being like a modern version of a harem: wives at home and surrogate wives at work.

Cecil Parkinson’s relationships with women — his wife, his secretary, his leader — were an exemplar. He was a suave lieutenant of Thatcherism, he was regarded as a beautiful performer, an adroit party manager and strategist, and he blessed those around him with charm, flirtation, political panache and promise.

But his career was serviced, and sometimes sponsored, by women.

The moralism of ‘traditional values’ that was promoted by the Thatcherites was well understood in the 1980s to be intended not for the Tory elite but for the masses.

Sara Keays is blamed for his demise in 1983. Yet Keays was no more to blame than his wife, his leader or any other woman. He was to blame. It was as if the act of putting himself inside a woman was nothing, as if the pregnancy was nothing to do with him.

His party, too, was to blame for not reading the runes of a society whose sexual culture was being shamed and enlightened, by women — more sexually tolerant and more alert to consequences.

Cecil Parkinson was a favourite of his party and above all of Margaret Thatcher. When he confessed to her on the night of the 1983 General election that he’d been having an affair with his secretary, Thatcher refused to let him go.

PA

PA

But pregnancy — that was another story. He hadn’t told her about that. Thatcher only learned of it from a letter written to her by Keays’ father, Colonel Hastings Keays.

The letter arrived next day and she presented to Parkinson at a lunchtime meeting. Thatcher still didn’t dump him: he was given trade rather than the Foreign Office.

Sara Keays lost him, of course, and by the autumn party conference he announced that he would remain with his wife and children. He would never speak to Keays again: she was, indeed, a woman scorned. Sara Keays had refused to go quietly to the abortion clinic and decorous obscurity.

She wanted to be recognised not as mistress, not as a phantom of collective fantasies about him, but as herself.
So, it wasn’t ‘kiss and tell’ when she produced a book, A Question of Judgement, in 1985. Certainly, she laid trails, little clues deigned not to betray him or the government but to show that she had been important enough to him to share state secrets.

She wanted her reputation, she wanted be recognised as a considerable person, as a woman who had been loved for a long time, who had been respected by Parkinson and who felt that she deserved respect in her own party.

But their relationship was the traditional personal-political contract served on women by powerful men: his social prowess, his comings and goings (while she served and waited) meant that his power was manifest whilst his dependency was covert.

The Parkinson scandal was not so much about morality: it was not unusual for Cabinet ministers to have their harems — wives at home, ‘wives’ at work; and it was not the only time the Tories were confronted by their own contradictions.

Men were assumed to be sexually incontinent. Parkinson was not expected to be responsible for his ‘private’ life — that was women’s work.

During my research in the 1980s on Iron Ladies, a book about Tory women, all the women I asked blamed her. She must have known what she was doing, they said, ‘Well, men! They don’t do they.’ said one of them, echoing all.

They grieved for their loss of Cecil, not just because the party lost his political charisma, but because their fantasises about this man had been ruined by reality. His decline and fall — like his power — was eroticised.

They longed to save this Icarus, to protect him — but from what?

She was blamed for ruining him and worse: by declining to go quietly, she had revealed the reapolitik of unequal romance which cost her reputation and her own political career.

She exposed the sexual division of labour in Conservative political culture: the illusion that proximity to power gave women power.

Sara Keays told me that she had subordinated her own political ambitions to his. She had been on the candidates list for Parliamentary elections.

‘The events of 1983 ended my career. The party refused to have anything to do with me and never gave me any reason for taking me off the candidates list.’

What Keays had not known was that before the 1983 by-election in Bermondsey, Parkinson had intervened to get her off the Tory short-list for the south London seat.

During the scandal, she said, the then party chairman John Gummer called her in for a meeting. It was all over. But they ‘never put anything in writing,’ they never explained, they never apologised.

It was clear, ‘Cecil’s position in the government could only be secured by minimising the scandal, which was done by belittling his involvement with me and concealing that he’d consistently lied to us.

‘Various Tory supporters in the media have written about him as my victim. He’s paid the price and served his sentence. It was acceptable for my career to be destroyed.’

She wondered whether, had she been a politician already, ‘my position would have been secure. But because I wasn’t, people had very little to go on — perhaps they thought I hadn’t lost anything.’

By 1985 everyone expected Parkinson to be fully rehabilitated. But the Daily Mirror published extracts from Keays book about this saga, including vignettes about the Falklands war cabinet.

‘That’s when she had the government in her power,’ commented a prominent Tory. That’s when the government knew she was dangerous.

Not because she was about to share those secrets, but to show that she knew stuff, that she’d been important to Parkinson, she was somebody.

His obituaries celebrate his charm and adroit political intelligence. They don’t recall his punitive court action banning any public reference to their daughter Flora, his reluctance to contribute financially to her care, his refusal to acknowledge her personally — never a card, a gift, a word.

Keays is still cast in the role of the woman scorned. She was, of course, scorned. But not for what she exposed about him, more for what she insisted upon disclosing about herself:

She risked shame to protect her own dignity. She was defending her honour.

But if women like Sara Keays knew that they were, and are, indispensable to men’s power, they were wrong to imagine that it would be reciprocal.

Being necessary to men always meant that power-sharing between men and women was unnecessary.

Late Night Live: The Formidable Mrs Thatcher

I’m a regular contributor to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s nightly flagship arts and current affairs programme Late Night Live.

Here’s my latest discussion alongside Matthew Parris, The Formidable Mrs Thatcher.

The Formidable Mrs Thatcher on ABC's Late Night Live

IRON LADY

From my book: THE IRON LADIES
Virago 1987

The Iron Ladies by Beatrix Campbell, 1987Margaret Thatcher’s friends and enemies would say: she’s just like a man! She is the best man among them!

Uniquely in the public mind she belonged to one sex yet could be either. But she was not like a man; she was more than a man: a prime minister, a warrior and (allegedly) a housewife. Men are warriors and prime ministers but they are not housewives.

Part of women’s pleasure in Margaret Thatcher was everything to do with gender and her performance of power. But what did that say about femininity and its changing forms?

Thatcher was given the opportunity to engage with women’s political history, and she spurned it. For that would have involved acknowledging that first of all it was a struggle; a struggle to reach beyond the boundaries of domesticity to embrace power in the public sphere as well as responsibility in the private; and it would have posed the question: what was her own commitment to the political struggles of women in her own time?

All of that was impossible for Thatcher.

She insisted, ‘The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone for ever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women’s Libbers.’

Margaret Thatcher invokes only the idea of the housewife, not the lived experience, she does not refer to her work, her isolation, her sacrifice, her other longings.

She made the domestic visible – but she made it the experience of women. But in making it visible she also rendered invisible the housewife also engaged in waged work and the contradictions experienced by the wageless housewife.

Margaret Thatcher, Housewife in Kitchen

Credit: AP

State support is reconstituted as an inducement to sloth. Women’s powerlessness is suppressed in her division of society into two classes – powerful state bureaucratic elites and the manipulated masses, including trade union ‘barons’ and ‘bully boys’.

‘We never went on demonstrations or on strike,’ she said.

Thatcher’s politics are patriarchal, but that doesn’t make her a man.

She shows how femininity is a production: femininity is what she wears, masculinity is what she admires.

She puts femininity and power on display. It is not femininity, it is buccaneering masculinity that is evoked in her celebration of Victorian values, earlier prime ministers, merchant venturers, philanthropists… ‘This is a nation built on the success of the merchant venturers. Men who sailed into the unknown to carry our trade and bring back wealth to our people.’

Margaret Thatcher seeks something not given to women: valour.

She borrowed it – during the miners’ strike, the Falklands war, the resistance to détente…

‘I stand before you tonight in my evening gown, my face softly made up, my hair gently waved…the Iron Lady of the Western World! Me? A cold warrior? Well, yes…’

One of her advisers, Patrick Cosgrave, thought that some women who had been Labour voters might have been touched by the women’s Liberation Movement, and might be engaged by an emphasis on Thatcher’s sexual identity. But she ‘turned the scheme down flat’.

Many Conservative women felt disappointed that Thatcher did not empower women in the party. She was the triumph of an older tradition, albeit one that she herself transformed. She did not follow feminine archetypes in the Conservative Party, she preferred the prototypical patriarch: Churchill.

She was a model neither of traditional femininity nor feminism, but something else:

She offered feminine endorsement to patriarchal power and principles.

Margaret Thatcher is Dead

Barack Obama said that Margaret Thatcher was an iconic role model for our daughters.

Wrong.

Obama’s election as the first black president of the United States was a moment of vindication for black Americans.

His mantra during his election campaign, Yes We Can, could have been their maxim, too. Yes, black America, Yes WE Can!

But the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister offered no such promise. What she believed was Yes I Can.

Margaret Thatcher in Tank

She didn’t share power with women. She didn’t expand women’s democratic room for manoeuvre. On the contrary, she diminished democracy. She didn’t empower women.

Equality was a word purged from her vocabulary. And feminism, she believed, was ‘poison’. Without it, of course, she would never have become a Parliamentarian, a Prime Minister, or even a voter.

Margaret Thatcher in Tees Valley Crowd

Unemployment in the Tees Valley stood at almost 20 per cent. Jobless Eric Fletcher found his way through the crowd to the Prime Minister, with his file containing all his job applications: more than 1000.

For sure, Thatcher proved that she could perform power like no man: she could be more than any man — but she wrapped a feminine endorsement around a thoroughly patriarchal project.

Her mission was to re-structure the state and society, and she engineered this with surgical elan; Thatcherism tilted the axis of British politics, she made the lore of the market appear to be the language of life itself.

After her third election victory, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to Teesside, a region laid waste by Thatcherism.

After her third election victory, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher paid a visit to Teesside, a region laid waste by Thatcherism.

It was — as the great Jamaican scholar-activist Stuart Hall, the pioneering theorist of Thatcherism — described it a project of modernisation: REGRESSIVE MODERNISATION.

It spoke freewheeling free marketeering into one ear, he said, and ‘the voice of respectable, bourgeois, patriarchal man’ in our other ear.

Hear this fast, bracing debate between the lovely Tory MP Margot James and myself.

Thatcher, Bea Campbell and Margot James on Radio 4

Listen to Beatrix Campbell and Margot James on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme…