The International Men’s Day (IMD) debate was led by Nick Fletcher, chair of the APPG on issues affecting men and boys, and Conservative MP for Don Valley. Mr Fletcher would not win any prizes for his oratory. However, the content of his speech was good. In particular he called, repeatedly, for a Minister for Men, so as to be able to address with action the issues he raised in his speech.
Ben Bradley (Conservative, Mansfield) led the IMD debate in 2020 and was (I think) the first to call for a Minister for Men in Parliament. Bradley was pilloried in the press for it, with the trotting out of the tired old “why have IMD when men already have 365 days a year”. I thank the authors of these articles for proving the thesis of the empathy gap. Lamentably, in the IMD debate in 2021, some MPs still found it necessary to display their gynocentrism even on the one day that it would be nice to have it put aside.
The good news, though, is that just two years after Ben Bradley broke the ice, the pushback against the idea of a Minister for Men even being mentioned has diminished. This is an object lesson in how issues can enter the Overton Window.
A bit of history is in order. The first IMD event was organised by Thomas Oaster in 1992, and again in 1993 and 1994. Oaster was an Associate Professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. He continued to pursue the idea of IMD against the predictable feminist opposition until (inevitably) he was accused of sexual harassment. The hounding of Oaster continued until he was too uncomfortable to remain in his job, effective “cancellation” before that term entered general usage. The idea of IMD was resurrected in 1999 by Jerome Teelucksingh of the University of the West Indies.
Feminist opposition to IMD did not go away, far from it. In 2014, the universally loved male feminist academic, Michael Kimmel, wrote in the Guardian that his idea for a day celebrating men and boys should consist of this,
“…fathers can invite their sons into their own homes, so that they can learn how to clean, cook, vacuum, do laundry and childcare …. I know what you’re thinking: ‘Who is going to teach the fathers how to do those things?’ Point taken. I’m certain that there are shelves of books and thousands of websites for the DIY kind of guy to learn such skills.”
Feminists are blind to how such mockery reveals the origin of their perspective, not in empirical reality, but in the darker recesses of their own psyches.
Then, in 2015, Jess Philips MP (Labour, Yardley) famously mocked the very idea of IMD or of having an IMD debate in the House of Commons. Phillip Davies MP (Conservative, Shipley) however won his IMD debate – the first in the UK Parliament.
However, back to 2022.
Like almost all speakers always do at these IMD debates, Nick Fletcher discussed male suicide. I have no problem with that, except that other speakers invariably blame “men don’t talk”, “men don’t seek help”, “men need to be more open about their feelings”, etc. Mr Fletcher, thankfully, said that talking is good but not enough: practical support is needed. Quite.
Nick Fletcher also scored points with me for being forthright regarding the realities non-resident fathers face in seeking child contact. I don’t think anyone has previously stated in Parliament, so bluntly, that every other weekend is what fathers can expect…if they are lucky…and even then they can also expect court orders to be breached routinely with no consequences. Well said, Mr Fletcher.
Another male Conservative MP made a couple of useful interventions. One was an observation made on social media regarding to whom men turn when they have problems. The response on social media was “to nobody, no one cares”. There’s a succinct expression of the empathy gap for you. I congratulate the MP who recognised its relevance. The same man raised the issue of the need for a men’s health strategy. (This clearly targeted at Maria Caulfield, the Under Secretary of State for Mental Health and Women’s Health Strategy and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women who was present).
A number of MPs bemoaned the poor attendance at the debate (I made it 13 MPs), and two of those were there because their ministerial /shadow-ministerial brief rather demanded it.
The next speaker was Margaret Ferrier (Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West) who chose to talk about body image, eating disorders and OCD. Well, that has the merit of novelty, though I wouldn’t put those issues especially high on the list of men and boys’ issues. Nevertheless, an unobjectionable contribution.
Dean Russell (Conservative, Watford) was next. Rather a rambling speech. Probably the best part was his reference to the social media pile-on which occurs if you try to raise issues affecting men and boys.
Miriam Cates (Conservative, Penistone and Stocksbridge) talked about family breakdown and the socioeconomic marriage gap and called for family taxation rather than individual taxation as an encouragement to marriage. Her most interesting contribution related to young men attending the poorer universities who went on to earn less than their year group who did not go to university at all. They would be better off not going to university was her message, and called for an expansion of apprenticeship opportunities. However, her big thing was very clearly porn. Traditional conservative ladies really don’t like porn.
Next up was Steven Bonnar (SNP, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill). I braced myself. Obviously we got the usual suicide-men-don’t-open-up theme. But he did mention parental alienation as a cause of male suicide, for which I give him a good solid point. Unfortunately he then went on to use the opportunity to castigate the Government about immigration (on the grounds that immigrant men are especially disadvantaged and so should be helped more – not about stopping the flood tide of illegal immigration).
Yasmin Qureshi (Labour, Bolton South East, Shadow Women & Equalities Minister). You wouldn’t think she was a barrister from her failure to project as a speaker. A fairly bland performance livened up when that same excellent Conservative MP asked if she supported a Minister for Men. She ducked the question in true politician’s fashion by saying she’d “take that back to her team”. This is progress – it seems it is not now acceptable just to dismiss the suggestion as risible (as, we can be sure, she would believe, but seemingly cannot now say). She finished by reminding us that, despite being obliged to say a few words about men that were not accusatory, it is only women that count really…specifically by telling us that IMD is just a week before White Ribbon Day, and made reference to Sarah Everard, telling us (surprise!) that women are the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic abuse.
On that note, take a look at Figure 10 of the latest CSEW. Men are the majority victims of domestic abuse in Wales, and men and women victims are close to parity in London. (ONS attempt to crawl out of the Welsh results, stating “Higher prevalence rates for men compared with women are likely to be the result of a small sample size”. Actually, I can believe it – the regional variations do look excessive). Nevertheless, the well-worn mantra which Ms Qureshi repeats is becoming ever more at variance with reality.
Last to speak, the Government’s closest relevant Minister. Yes, the closest relevant Minister that the Government has to men’s issues is the Minister for Women, Maria Caulfield – or, to be precise, the Under Secretary of State for Mental Health and Women’s Health Strategy and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women. Nadhim Zahawi’s brief reign as the first male Equalities Minister – with a title that was not sex-specific, was short-lived, just 7 weeks. The lack of focus on men and boys by the Government Equalities Office is hardly surprising given that, on their web site, under “what we do” they write, “The Government Equalities Office leads work on policy relating to women, sexual orientation and transgender equality. We are responsible for a range of equalities legislation”. I have news for the GEO (and this includes the nameless civil servants behind it) the clamour for a Minister for Men is only going to get louder.
You might have thought that a more appropriate Minister for the Government to field would be a Minister with suicide in their brief. As near as I have been able to discover, no Minister has the suicide brief. The first to do so was appointed in 2018 under Theresa May as PM, and there have been three such Ministers – all women. But none now, it seems. Well, that’s what eight years of Parliamentary debates on IMD – almost all speakers in all years majoring on male suicide – have accomplished.
But, to close, we have Maria Caulfield’s sterling contribution. Having been indirectly challenged on her very title, specifically the Women’s Health Strategy part, she said this: “women’s time spent in ill-health is greater than men’s which is why there is a women’s health strategy but not a men’s health strategy”. People will always rationalise their prejudice.
Let me spell this out. The reason why women spend more time in ill-health is because they live longer; they are therefore old for longer. So, to express Ms Caulfield’s statement rather more honestly it reads, “women live longer which is why there is a women’s health strategy but not a men’s health strategy”. Doesn’t sound quite so reasonable now, does it? To be even blunter it means this, “men die younger so we don’t need a men’s health strategy”.
So, today’s prize for the best illustration of the empathy gap goes to Maria Caulfield. Well done, Ms Caulfied, against strong competition from the opposition front bench.