Girly Swots, Arise!

Parliament is back in business, which means I no longer need that Netflix subscription. For anyone looking for drama, male-on-female aggression, misogynist abuse and blood-curling tension, BBC’s Parliament channel is all you need.


shutterstock_680373463Although I much prefer comedy, I couldn’t tear myself away from the tv screen last night. I watched in horror as the prime minister and senior cabinet members openly mocked female members of the opposition who called for the government to refrain from using inflammatory language.


Addressing the prime minister, Labour MP Paula Sherriff spoke of death threats made against her and other female MPs:


“Let me tell the Prime Minister that they often quote his words – ‘surrender’ act, betrayal, traitor – and I, for one, am sick of it. We must moderate our language, and that has to come from the Prime Minister first…”


Feigning outrage, the prime minister dismissed Sherriff’s heartfelt plea as “humbug.”


Since the murder of Jo Cox in the lead-up to the EU referendum, female MPs across the political divide have received death threats and threats to their families. Last night, Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson told MPs that she’d just reported to the police a threat against her child. Later, Anna Soubry stood up, her eyes red from crying and spoke of her distress at the angry scenes in the House of Commons:


“I am 62, I’ve been around, and I’ve seen quite a lot of stuff in my life. It takes a lot to reduce this Honourable Member to tears.”


Whatever your views on Brexit, there’s no denying that female MPs are especially exposed to threats of violence, merely for speaking up for what they believe in.


Not only politicians are affected, however. Gina Miller, the businesswoman who twice took the government to court over its handling of Brexit, had to install 24-hour security in her home and hire security guards after receiving physical threats. In July, Rhodri Philipps, a British aristocrat, was jailed for three months for directing extreme racial abuse against Miller and for offering £5000 to anyone who would run over and kill her.


The press plays a part in this as well. The Daily Mail this week published a profile of the supreme court’s president, Lady Hale, in which it referred to the 74-year old legal superwoman and defender of democracy as an “ex-barmaid.” 


In light of the appalling behaviour of members of the government last night, as well as the bullying tactics of the tabloid press, I can’t help but worry about the future of my daughters’ generation. How can we ask children to ‘behave’ and ‘be nice’ to each other, when adult leaders of the country are openly sowing discord in order to get their way? As Kirsty Blackman, SNP, said when speaking in parliament today: 


“Young people are watching our parliament today; they are watching and learning that in order to get to the top, all you need to do is break the law and shout people down.”


Speaking earlier, Labour’s Jess Phillips invited the prime minister (who was not present) to reflect on his choice of words last night and called out his deliberate strategy of dividing the country for his own benefit. 


As one MP after another got up to speak, urging a more conciliatory tone in parliament and speaking of intimidation and bullying, what struck me was just how visible the feelings of worry, sadness and fear were on their faces. These women are not just politicians, they are also mothers, grandmothers and aunts, and for them, this is so much more than a sinister political game. 

God Save the Queen

It’s official: I’m a British citizen. This morning I put on a dress and brought my husband and mother-in-law to Hendon Town Hall for the obligatory citizenship ceremony, where I had to declare “solemnly, sincerely and truly” to be “faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second…”

Even crazy Swedes are admitted

I was one of about forty people from 29 different countries to receive a citizenship certificate from the Mayor of my local borough, and more than half of us were EU citizens. If it weren’t for Brexit, I doubt all of us would have bothered to apply for citizenship. Other new citizens included people from Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, China, Ukraine and Malaysia and we all cheered each other on as our names were called.

When I phoned to register for the ceremony, I was advised to dress ‘appropriately’ and while I was sorely tempted to channel my inner Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls, I demurred and chose a more conservative outfit.

What I really wanted to wear…

The ceremony was held in large wood-panelled room adorned with the union jack and a portrait of the queen. The new citizens were seated in rows, facing the Mayor while guests sat in the galleries, cut off from the rest of us by a glass panel. The layout reminded me a little too much of that of a courtroom, a feeling that was accentuated by the occasional wailing of an infant.

Not only were we required to affirm our allegiance to the Queen, but we also had to pledge to uphold the democratic values of the United Kingdom and to observe its laws faithfully, an obligation that seemingly doesn’t extend to the current prime minister.

In an effort to inspire a sense of civic duty amongst her borough’s most recent citizens, the Mayor quoted John F Kennedy:

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Lady Mayor, I know exactly what I can do for my new country; help dethrone Boris Johnson at the next election.



Kindness Wins

“What would you do if the ambassador you worked for, got himself drunk at an official function?”

That was a question posed to me when, at the age of 25, I applied to the Swedish foreign service. Having passed the written test twice (yes, I’m bragging), I’d been invited for a series of interviews at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm.

I don’t recall what my answer was, but suffice to say I didn’t get in. And that was probably a lucky escape, for me as well as for the Swedish Foreign Service. As my family would readily agree, diplomacy is not a skill with which I’m generally associated.

Stroking other people’s egos, obeying protocol and being pleasant to everyone? No, that’s not part of my toolbox, which is also one of the reasons why I never followed family tradition and sought a career in book publishing. Stroking egos, I’ve observed from a comfortable distance, is very much part of a publisher/editor’s job. With me in charge of looking after authors, the publishing house would go bust.

Still, I’d like to think I am a reasonably friendly person, despite my temper and lack of patience.

“Yes, but when you dislike someone, it shows,” my husband says, “you just can’t hide it.”

“No, darling, that’s just my resting bitch face.”

It’s funny how often our self-image jars with other people’s perceptions of us. Take empathy, for example. Having once trained in conflict resolution and mediation, which require a lot of empathic skills, I’d say I do empathy rather well.

“Ha,” laughs my husband, “how come the kids always come to me, not you, when they’ve hurt themselves?”

My family’s opinion aside, I still maintain I’m an empathic person. And kind. Sort of. At least I believe in being kind, not sugary-sweet kind, but kind as in compassionate and accepting of others. Unfortunately, kindness seems to have little currency in our competitive, success-driven society.

Sure, we teach our children to be kind to their peers, but do we model that behaviour ourselves? Not as much as I think we could. And it’s only a matter of time before our children call out the discrepancy between what we’re telling them to be and do, and the behaviours and attitudes we exhibit.

Just look at what’s going on in British politics these days. In recent weeks if not months, the general tone of political discourse has been fraught with contempt, ridicule and personal attacks, temperaments that spill over into the public arena, and into people’s homes. As a result, our sense of community, of mutual belonging, is slowly but surely eroding from underneath our feet and it’s anyone’s guess where it will end, but I’m sure it won’t be pretty.

It may not be cool to be kind, and it may not get you to the top of the career ladder, but kindness, I believe, is a vastly underrated commodity in today’s world. Some people seem to confuse kindness with self-sacrifice bordering on martyrdom or with weakness but that’s not what kindness is. If anything kindness is intrinsically bound up with self-respect, assertiveness and courage.

There’s strength in kindness too, and being kind doesn’t mean you have to be a ‘good girl’ or that you can’t still be a rebel; of course, you can. Ultimately, it is when we speak and act from our heart rather than our mind that kindness finds its way into the world.



Out of the Wreckage, What?

When I was little, I sometimes played ‘cops and robbers’ with the kids in my neighbourhood. I was almost always the cop, running after the baddies with a toy cap gun in my hand.

Forty years on, my daughter’s generation still plays a version of cops and robbers, but I recently noticed they’ve put names to the robbers: Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro.

No, I’m not making it up. And instead of the usual, ‘you’re the worst mummy in the world,’ my 9-year old recently accused me of being ‘as bad as Boris Johnson’. A bit harsh if you ask me.

Speaking of which, the last couple of days has me thinking that not even the best trained political scientists can make sense of the current state of British politics. For that, we have to look to British literary giants such as William Shakespeare and George Orwell, aided by the comic masterminds of Monty Python.

You know things are really bad when the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, feels the need to apologise to the visiting delegation of Lebanese politicians for the appalling behaviour of British MPs.

If Johnson aimed to bully the EU into submission, his strategy seems to have backfired spectacularly, for there’s no indication that Brussels is about to back down on its position regarding the Irish backstop.

But, following the shambolic proceedings in the House of Commons this week, I wouldn’t blame the EU for wanting to be rid of Britain as soon as possible. I can just imagine Michel Barnier dancing down the street with open arms the way Nicole Kidman famously did when she left her lawyer’s office having finalised her divorce from Tom Cruise.

The usual veneer of civility amongst British MPs this week gave way to overt contempt, aggression and resentment as if they’d all finally taken their masks off and shown themselves for who they truly are. It was an ugly sight to behold.shutterstock_405118246

And yet, I can’t help thinking that there’s something good about what’s happening right now. Upsetting the status quo is a requisite for effecting change, and change we need.

As much as I would have preferred that Britain didn’t vote to leave the European Union, I don’t agree with those who still hold out hope that Brexit will never come to pass. For that would mean a return to business as usual, re-establishing the old order – it would be a missed opportunity for the kind of progressive change that would render British society more equal, just and fair.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much psychology, but out of breakdown comes breakthrough. Crisis, psychology teaches, is necessary for the system to evolve and progress. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the current crisis in British politics will lead to progress, but at least there’s an opening.

Just imagine, if rather than becoming Singapore-in-Europe, which surely would please the wealthier echelons of Britain’s movers and shakers, post-Brexit Britain emerged as the most progressive country in Europe, leading the way in terms of climate-friendly politics, social and economic justice, etc.?

Oh, I know, it’s a hopeless utopian dream, but please don’t wake me up!

Then again, it bears reminding that Extinction Rebellion is a homegrown British movement, and the British suffragettes were nothing if not radical. So, perhaps we need to dream the impossible for it to become a reality.

For, as Father Topo, the kind-hearted and wise elf in Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, says, ‘an impossibility is just a possibility you don’t understand yet.’