2000s >> 2009 >> no-1256-april-2009

Greasy Pole:The Rise and rise of “Harperson”


The Rise and rise of “Harperson”

After the next election, spare a thought for those whose job is to analyse and interpret the result – especially those who must point out, among the national assumption that the votes have led to an effective, much needed change in society, that all that has happened is the substitution of one set of reactionary prejudices for another. Consider, for example, the matter of Harriet Harman and all that is thereby implied. She emerged into the political universe in the guise of a feminist so revolutionary and steadfast that one wit could suggest it would be more consistent with her proclaimed principles if she changed her surname to Harperson. This piece of pedestrian humour harked back to the times when anyone observing the House of Commons benches (and even more so those in The Other Place) could be understood for remarking that the only possible government must be over-weighted with mature, wealthy, overbearing males.

From that observation it was only a short, if misdirected, step in logic to the conclusion that the problems  – poverty, lack of proper housing, social alienation, war – of current society must spring from that prescribed composition of the occupants of the seats of power. And from that position it was tolerable – if not sustainable – to argue that the only certain remedy for those ills was to elect  governments weighted with younger, less monied, more dynamic females.  Which returns us, abruptly, to the matter of Harriet Harman – Chair and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal, Minister for Women and Equality, QC – and hovering contender for the Party leadership in the event that anything should “happen” to  Gordon Brown – like being ditched by Labour after too emphatic an electoral defeat.

Harman is very much a product of the traditionally well-heeled Labour political families with connections significant enough to encourage party members to feel comfortingly patronised by them. (Although what this does for the patronisers is, of course, a matter for speculation). In her background are to be found the Earl of Longford, Lady Antonia Fraser and, earlier, some of the Chamberlain family who once dominated Conservative politics. True to this tradition, Harman was for five years the legal officer of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty); in that capacity, on the Grunwick picket line, she met her husband. In 1981 (this seems hardly believable now, were it not that for a politician everything is to be believed) she rebelled against the “royalist orgy” of Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana Spencer by joining with Peter Mandelson and others on a cross-Channel ferry for a republican protest away day in France. “We were a happy band, we had a great deal of fun” the then editor of the New Statesman assured us. But this kind of behaviour had to be curbed soon afterwards – in October 1982 Harman joined the other Honourable Members who had fawned so loyally over the doomed royal couple when she won a by-election in Peckham. Her wilder indiscretions looked to be further tamed when, in 1984, she was raised to the opposition front bench, speaking on social services, health and then Treasury matters. After Labour’s 1997 victory Blair put her in charge of the misnamed Department for Social Security but she was sacked after a little more than one year; fulfilling her brief to “reform” the system she had cut the benefit of lone parents but – perhaps more crucially – she had crossed swords too often with junior minister Frank Field.


Proving that she has the resilience essential to anyone with ambitions to claw their way up the greasy pole, Harman quickly bounced back; in June 2001 she became Solicitor General – the first woman to hold the job. Since then she has risen steadily, leaving behind her female rivals such as Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint. This is unlikely to have happened without her demonstrating a uncritical readiness to support the government policy on matters such as the “anti-terrorist” laws, the imposition of identity cards, the renewal of Trident. She also voted for the invasion of Iraq – which caused her considerable discomfort later when she appeared to have changed her mind. Responding to a question from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight she confessed: “If I’d have known if there weren’t weapons of mass destruction I wouldn’t have voted for the war. Clearly it was a mistake”.  However this was no unconditional conversion because she did not keep to her implied promise when agreeing with Paxman that the Labour Party should apologise for the attack. In any case this was all much too late to save the buildings wiped out by the missiles and the bombs and the tens of thousands of people who had been killed. But it was well timed for Harman’s campaign for the Labour Deputy Leadership, after her own poll had persuaded her that the public favoured her above the other candidates.


Labour MPs in the Commons are often driven to a restless embarrassment at Harman’s performance when Gordon Brown is away and she takes over at Prime Ministers Questions. This is not a time for the considered, meticulously argued response; the MPs want something to make them jeer and wave their order papers. It does not help to have Harman fumbling and stuttering, for example when she said that Fred Goodwin, the sacked ex-boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, was awarded a knighthood for his work for charity when, as any City wide-boy knows, it was for “services” to banking. The same can be said when she, a solicitor and a QC, announced that the government would stop Goodwin collecting the pension awarded him by the bank he wrecked, in spite of the fact that to do so would be illegal. But these are only incidents in Harman’s drive for the top, in which she is ready to attempt to conceal all unhelpful facts and bend  any others.      


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