Is Theresa May serious about tackling domestic abuse? We’re about to find out

 Daily Telegraph, Friday 9 March 2018

This is Theresa May’s big chance. It might seem a bit early to talk about her legacy, but will she go down in history as the Prime Minister who finally took domestic violence seriously - and did something about it? Many of the signs are promising. This week, May chose International Women’s Day to launch her long-awaited public consultation on domestic abuse. It is wide-ranging, seeking evidence from a range of experts and survivors, and will feed into what is promised to be a flagship domestic abuse bill.

Not just that: in a signal of how seriously the government takes the issue, May was flanked by two Cabinet colleagues, the Home Amber Rudd and the Justice Secretary David Gauke, when she outlined her proposals. For a habitually cautious politician, she made a very significant promise, insisting that her proposals ‘have the potential to completely transform the way we tackle domestic abuse, providing better protection to victims and bringing more perpetrators to justice’.

This is the kind of commitment campaigners have hoped to hear for years. One of May’s most striking proposals is that economic abuse will be recognised for the first time, acknowledging the extent to which some women are forced to surrender control of their finances by dominating partners.

We have known for a long time that victims are being denied access to jobs and transport, kept so short of money that they can’t even leave the house without pleading for cash, and in some cases forced to take out loans. Few people realise that this kind of abuse is actually easier to prove – using evidence such as bank statements – than other forms of coercive control.

May has promised greater protection for victims, including tough new Domestic Violence Protection Orders. These will give the courts powers to place conditions on perpetrators, including compulsory alcohol treatment or programmes to address underlying addictions and abusive behaviour. Breaching an order will become a criminal offence.

She also wants to create a statutory aggravating factor in sentencing, similar to those that already exist for hate crimes, to toughen sentences in cases where domestic abuse affects a child. All of this is good news and consistent with her insistence, going back to when she was first appointed Home Secretary in 2010, that tacking domestic violence is of central importance to her.

Unlike many of her predecessors, May appears to understand that domestic abuse is widespread, encompasses a range of behaviours and causes tremendous damage – to society as a whole as well as individuals. This is not just about physical violence, although that is bad enough for those experiencing it, but relationships that affect every aspect of victims’ lives. Women (and the smaller number of male victims) can’t reach their full potential while they are living in fear, and the impact on children is far-reaching.

At the same time, it is important to recognise that this is not just a matter for the criminal law. New offences and tougher sentences have their place but May needs to answer hard questions before her domestic violence bill is seen as a defining feminist moment in her premiership. Her consultation promises small amounts of public money for specific projects – £2m to support female offenders who have been victims of domestic abuse, for instance – but ducks the big issue of resources. For women in the most dangerous relationships, the most urgent need is a place of safety for themselves and their children – and in many cases that means a refuge.

In the period during which May has been Home Secretary and prime minister, refuge provision has been cut to the bone in this country as a direct result of government policy. Most women’s refuges are funded by local authorities. Savage spending cuts imposed by central government have made them vulnerable – an easy target when cash-strapped councillors are deciding, however reluctantly, where to make savings. The result is desperate women sleeping on friends’ sofas or, in the worst case scenario, staying with a violent man because there is nowhere else to go.

This is happening now, and May is a key member of the governments that created the crisis. Her consultation document says ‘we have heard the need for sustainable funding for refuges’ – and asks for charities and frontlines organisations to come up with ideas on how to deliver it.

They will tell her that what is needed is secure long-term funding, whether it comes from central or local government – and some will ask whether the police will get the resources they need to put new laws into effect.

The government’s proposed domestic violence bill could be a milestone for women,. But the big question is which Theresa May will win out – the feminist or the fiscal conservative?

Diary note

This week, Tuesday 6 February 2018, marked the 100th anniversary of British women (those over 30 at least) getting the vote. I talked about the anniversary and the tactics of the suffragettes on Jeremy Vine’s lunchtime programme on Radio 2. I still find it hard to read about how brutally the state treated women who were demanding a fundamental civic right – and it was great to see the anniversary celebrated so widely.


In a dark and dangerous forest

Sunday Times, 28 January 2018

Force of Nature, Jane Harper (Little, Brown £12.99)

A woman vanishes in the bush in the impressive second novel from the author of The Dry

It is only a year since Jane Harper’s first crime novel, The Dry, was published in the UK to instant acclaim. The story, of an apparent murder-suicide in an isolated Australian community ravaged by drought, was a reminder of how harsh life can be outside the country’s cosmopolitan cities. It was my Sunday Times book of the month and went on to become a bestseller, winning the CWA Gold Dagger in addition to the awards Harper had already won in Australia.

For her second novel, Force of Nature, she has returned to the severe, unforgiving territory of the bush — and it is even more impressive than The Dry. Where the first novel presented a landscape desiccated by years without rain, the new book has too much of it, and Harper handles several plot lines with apparently effortless confidence.

It is set in a fictional nature reserve outside Melbourne, popular with executives in search of a corporate bonding experience. Five women set out on a camping trip, but only four of them emerge from the reserve, bruised and traumatised. The fifth woman, Alice Russell, is missing and a huge search begins.

It is a clever twist on the traditional locked-room mystery, set in a forest as alien and hostile as anything in a fairy tale. But it is done in a thoroughly modern manner, with alternating chapters documenting the increasingly frantic search and the women’s accident-prone trek. Harper makes it look easy, but she has to pace two narratives without giving too much away, creating an almost unbearable level of suspense.

Her success has taken Australia by storm, all the more so because even hugely popular Australian crime writers, such as Peter Temple, Kathryn Fox and Garry Disher, have struggled to make an impression beyond their home country. So it’s ironic that Harper, who is being hailed as the next big thing in Australian crime fiction, isn’t even a local.

She was born in Manchester and moved to Melbourne, where she now lives, at the age of eight. Her family returned to England when Harper was a teenager and she trained as a journalist, landing a job in Hull. She didn’t return to Australia until 2008, arriving at the Geelong Advertiser at the end of a prolonged drought, where the fire-ravaged landscape planted the seeds of The Dry.

There is a precedent for English authors finding themes and inspiration in Australia. Nevil Shute, the British aeronautical engineer who wrote some of the most quintessential “Australian” novels of the mid-20th century, didn’t move to his adopted country until he was in his early fifties. Many readers formed their impression of the continent through Shute novels such as A Town Like Alice and On the Beach.

Harper is a more sophisticated writer than Shute, and Force of Nature showcases her ear for dialogue, exposing hierarchies of class through speech. It is also more character-driven than The Dry, pulling no punches as the veneer of civilised behaviour is stripped from the women, who bicker among themselves as they wander through the dense, dripping trees.

Harper has wisely brought back Aaron Falk, the detective who almost lost his life in The Dry, but this time he is involved in an official capacity. In the earlier book, Falk returned to his home town for a funeral and was drawn into an unofficial investigation in an attempt to clear the name of a childhood friend. This time, he has a professional interest in the missing woman, Alice, who has been secretly passing him documents exposing money-laundering at the accountancy firm where she works.

Falk rushes from Melbourne to join the search, gripped by the fear that his investigation has put her in danger. Her fellow-hikers include the CEO’s sister, who has everything to lose if the company goes under, and the only clue to Alice’s fate is a faint voicemail left on his mobile phone in the early hours of the morning. But it is also clear that the little group was woefully unprepared for the trip.

Harper’s work has been compared to that of Disher, whose acclaimed Bitter Wash Road (2013) is set in an inward-looking community not unlike the fictional Kiewarra in The Dry. But Harper is enough of an outsider to realise that the Australia she is writing about is unfamiliar even to many Australians, a point underscored by the reaction of her female characters when they have to spend a couple of nights in the bush.

They are descendants of European settlers, cocooned in coastal cities that protect them from the extremes of climate that lie a few miles inland. Nature is a hostile, unpredictable force in both of Harper’s novels, but her brilliance lies in making it into a test of horribly fallible human nature.

Theresa May should order an urgent inquiry into the Worboys case

Daily Telegraph, Friday 19 January 2018

For many women, the UK’s criminal justice system is now on trial. The government’s decision not to challenge the release of one of the country’s most prolific sex attackers, the black-cab rapist John Worboys, has added insult to an already simmering sense of injury.

Today’s announcement by the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, means it has been left to two of Worboys’ victims to make a last-ditch effort to prevent his release from Wakefield high security prison in a matter of weeks.

Gauke said he owed it to the victims to pursue all the options available to him – but told the House of Commons he could not reveal the detailed reasons behind his decision not to seek a judicial review.

The Worboys case is unusual in many respects, not least because the number of his victims is so high. He is believed to have assaulted more than a hundred women, picking them up in his black cab and drugging them in a series of pre-meditated attacks.

But Worboys isn’t just a predator who has repeatedly shown himself to be dangerous to women. Among many special features of this awful case, he is a former taxi driver who knows where some of his victims live. That alone is reason to ask whether it can ever be safe to release him – or is every single one of his victims expected to move?

Two of his victims, identified only by initials to protect their identity, are hoping to crowd-fund a judicial review of the parole board’s decision. Judicial reviews are expensive, which is why many people hoped and expected that ministers would challenge the parole board’s decision.

The sense of outrage from victims, their lawyers and the general public, is palpable. ‘It is crucial that the decision to release this manipulative, calculating and dangerous man can be considered by the courts as soon as possible,’ said Richard Scorer, a lawyer at the firm which represented 11 of Worboys’ victims.

He is absolutely right, but why should it be left to individual women, who have already been let down by blunders going back years, to protect themselves and other women?

The mistakes started a long time ago, when police officers in London didn’t believe women who said they’d been drugged and attacked by the driver of a black cab. When Worboys was finally caught, many more women came forward with similar stories – but the crown prosecution service decided to proceed with only a dozen cases.

That decision seems to have been based on the fact that Worboys drugged his victims, making their cases more difficult to prosecute, but it has had unforeseen – and disastrous – consequences. Victims who wanted to give evidence were told there was no need because Worboys was going to prison for a very long time – an assurance that now turns out to have been misguided.

Worboys was convicted of 19 offences against 12 victims and jailed indefinitely in 2009, with a minimum sentence of eight years. Earlier this month the parole board, basing its decision on Worboys’s relatively small number of convictions, decided it was safe to recommend his release. He has served less than ten years, which amounts to only a month for each of his alleged victims.

Scorer says it is ‘imperative’ that the failure to prosecute more cases against Worboys is re-examined. Some of his victims, whose lives were shattered by his violence and who remain in fear of him to this day, learned about his impending release from the news headlines.

This catalogue of errors would be bad enough in almost any area of the criminal law. In the case of an offender as persistent and devious as Worboys, it almost beggars belief. The decision to release him became public just days after it emerged that a man who pleaded guilty to the murder of his former partner had previously killed two other women. No one should be surprised if public confidence in the ability of the law to protect women from manifestly dangerous men is at an all-time low.

It is now clear that something has gone badly wrong at every stage of the Worboys case, from the botched initial investigation to the behind-closed-doors deliberations of the parole board. We are not allowed to know why the board thinks Worboys no longer poses a threat to women – and his victims will have to rely on assurances about his licence conditions. In the case of such a persistent, systematic predator, it is hard to see how they can ever feel safe.

After initially appearing sympathetic to public outrage, the government has held up its hands and left victims on their own to fight against Worboys’ release. They have raised more than £17,000 so far, with more cash likely to be promised now that ministers have walked away from the case. We should be grateful to these brave women for taking action, since the government won’t.

But the prime minister, Theresa May, has repeatedly spoken about her commitment to reducing violence against women. If she means what she says, she should immediately order a public inquiry into every aspect of this truly appalling case.


Why don’t the police do more to assess risk – and save women’s lives?

Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2018

Katrina O’Hara and Angela Best did not know each other. They lived in different parts of England and had nothing in common, except for this dreadful fact: both women were murdered by former partners. And each of them, as we’ve learned in the last few days,  was let down by a system that keeps on failing to protect women from dangerous men.

Ms O’Hara, 44, reported her ex-boyfriend, Stuart Thomas, to the police after he harassed her, including an incident when he climbed into her bedroom through a window. Thomas was arrested and freed on bail but, astonishingly, the police took away Ms O’Hara’s mobile phone to check for threatening messages and didn’t offer her any alternative means of contacting them.

A week later, in January 2016, Thomas lay in wait outside the hairdressers in Dorset where Ms O’Hara worked and stabbed her twice in the chest.

Ms Best, 51, lived in north London and had a long-term relationship with a man called Theodore Johnson. When she met him in the 1990s, she was unaware of a crucial fact – that Johnson had twice been convicted of manslaughter after killing two previous partners. Ms Best eventually found out that he had killed one woman but Johnson was abusive and controlling, making it difficult for her to leave. When she did, Johnson lured her to his flat a couple of months later in December 2016 and strangled her, just as he had done to his second victim.

So many things went wrong in these two cases that it is hard to know where to start. A review by the Independent Office for Police Conduct has acknowledged that Ms O’Hara was left feeling ‘afraid and vulnerable’ without her phone. It has recommended that all victims of domestic abuse should ‘immediately’ be provided with alternative means of communication.

But the really disturbing thing about both cases is that both men had a history of abuse in previous relationships. Thomas was already the subject of a restraining order in relation to another woman, while Johnson’s record of extreme violence was known to both the police and mental health authorities. The latter were supposed to monitor him on his release from a secure hospital after he killed for a second time, but it emerged at his murder trial last week that he managed to conceal his relationship with Ms Best from them.

Something has gone very wrong here, and it goes to the heart of how the criminal justice system regards domestic abuse. The phrase covers a huge range of behaviour, from verbal threats to physical violence, and it’s still too easy for over-worked police officers to under-estimate the level of risk in individual cases. In some instances, this happens even when they have access to information about a man’s history which isn’t known to his latest victim, leaving her unaware of how much danger she is in.

‘I tell my officers to think about their job as homicide prevention,’ a senior police officer in charge of domestic abuse cases told me a couple of years ago. But that attitude is taking too long to filter down to the level of everyday policing, where the days of talking about violence in the home as ‘just a domestic’ cast a long shadow.

Since 2014, police have been able to apply for a domestic violence prevention order (DVPO), which means a man accused of violence against a partner can be excluded from the home and contact with the victim for up to 28 days. But DVPOs are not being widely used and neither is Clare’s law, which allows women to ask the police if a new partner has a history of domestic abuse. Even abusive men are smart enough to be on their best behaviour at the beginning of a relationship, and women feel guilty about asking questions about a man who hasn’t given any reason for suspicion.

That’s why we urgently need a domestic violence offenders’ register, along the lines of the one that already exists for sex offenders. A new law would give the police a legal duty to keep track of convicted abusers like Theodore Johnson, investigate whether they have formed new relationships and warn the women concerned. If Ms Best had known about Johnson’s terrible past when she met him in the 1990s, she might still be alive today.

What these dreadful cases show is that we are still not treating domestic abuse with the seriousness it deserves. Existing laws aren’t working or aren’t being used, and that’s because of a problem with underlying attitudes. No one, including police officers, can know for certain which women are at risk of being killed by current or former partners. But the risk is there, and it should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds when women seek protection from abusive men.


The body in the lift shaft

Sunday Times, 7 January 2018


Eva Dolan made her name with a series of crime novels set in a police hate-crimes unit in Peterborough. Now she has come up with a terrific stand-alone novel, This Is How It Ends (Raven £12.99), in which she turns her attention to the secretive world of environmental activists and the cops who spy on them.


The story is set in and around a block of flats on the bank of the Thames in central London that has been the focus of a fight between the tenants and developers. Most of the tenants have now left, but a handful are holding out. One of them, Molly, a veteran activist, is suspected by the police of being involved in violent protests in the 1980s.


She has recently made friends with a young blogger called Ella, a rising star in the green movement. In a fast-moving series of events, Ella is attacked in one of the empty flats late at night and a body turns up in a lift shaft. Dolan doesn’t sugarcoat anything in this haunting novel about friendship, suspicion and betrayal.


Cara Hunter’s Close to Home (Penguin £7.99) is set on a new housing estate in Oxford, on the “wrong” side of the canal, a far cry from the mellow stone and green quads of the university. An eight-year-old girl, Daisy Mason, is missing after a barbecue and suspicion falls on her parents, an unsympathetic couple who turn on each other as the forensic evidence seems to point to murder. Like Dolan, Hunter has a keen sense of contemporary mores, providing a running commentary on the case from posts on social media. The most compelling thing about the novel is its portrait of a self-absorbed mother whose inability to love her children leads to a breathtaking denouement.


The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor (M Joseph £12.99) is also about troubling events in childhood, this time recalled from the standpoint of 30 years later. The novel’s slightly creepy narrator, now a teacher at a local school, is sent a package containing a crude drawing of a stick figure. It brings back memories of a game he used to play as a 12-year-old, when he used similar figures to send messages to other members of his little gang. But this childish game was played out against the murder of a local girl, and the anonymous sender seems to be suggesting that the killer is still at large. Tudor writes well about adolescent boys and this is a striking debut, even if she overdoes the gruesome details at times.


In a departure from her well-received detective series, the Irish writer Jo Spain has written a clever novel about the murder of a disgraced banker. The Confession (Quercus £12.99) opens with a man walking into the banker’s isolated home and attacking him savagely in front of his wife. The assailant claims he has no idea what prompted the crime, an assertion that Spain undermines in a series of flashbacks, gradually exposing a chilling history of dysfunctional families.


Oliver Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder, translated by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose £16.99), is the first of his award-winning Black Forest novels to appear in English. It has an arresting opening image: a Buddhist monk with a head injury strides across the snowy landscape of the border country between Germany and France.

Bottini’s Inspector Louise Boni is a familiar figure in contemporary crime fiction, a middle-aged cop with a drink problem. But her attempt to befriend the monk plunges her into a surprising and genuinely shocking case involving child trafficking.


A month in prison for each woman John Worboys sexually assaulted: how is this justice?

Daily Telegraph, Friday 5 January 2018

Most sexual predators get away with their crimes. The notorious serial rapist John Worboys was very nearly one of them, remaining free to drug and assault women in his black London cab for more than a decade. More than a hundred women have told the police that Worboys attacked them, but only 12 of those cases ever came to court.

Now, in a move that has caused widespread outrage, it has been revealed that 60-year-old Worboys will be released from prison later this month. It is a slap in the face for his victims who learned about the decision, in at least two cases, via news bulletins.

But it is worse than that, sending a message to women everywhere that the criminal justice system is still failing in its approach to even the most egregious sexual predators. Worboys is from east London and in a matter of weeks he will be free to live in the same city as his victims, most of whom never had the satisfaction of seeing him held to account for his violence against them.

When the former cabbie was convicted of 19 offences in 2009, his crimes were deemed so heinous that he was given an indeterminate sentence, with a minimum tariff of eight years. Many of us believe he belongs in that small category of offenders who pose such a danger to women that he should never be released. Yet he is being let out after serving just under ten years – less than a year for each of the 12 women he was convicted of attacking.

The police believe that Worboys’s convictions, like those of other convicted rapists, represent only a fraction of his crimes. If the women who came forward after his arrest are included in his catalogue of offences, he will have served roughly a month for each victim by the time he leaves jail.

Some of his victims have said they are ‘absolutely sick and disgusted and shocked to the core’ by news of his impending release. A number of MPs, including the chair of the home affairs select committee, Yvette Cooper, have demanded to know how the Parole Board came to its decision. ‘There are many serious questions why this dangerous man has been given parole after serving such a short sentence for his attacks against women’, she said.

As a black cab driver, Worboys was in a position of trust, which he abused in a series of carefully planned attacks. He even prepared props in advance, including a bag of what appeared to be cash, to bolster his story that he had had a big win on the lottery or in a casino. When a woman got into his cab, he would invite her to have a glass of champagne spiked with a combination of prescription and over-the counter-drugs. His victims were so incapacitated that he was then able to rape and sexually assault them.

This is the modus operandi of a very dangerous man, who showed no remorse or sympathy for his victims. He was helped by the failings of the Metropolitan Police, whose botched investigation into the Worboys case was later criticised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Some of his victims did report him, long before he was finally charged, but officers decided to believe Worboys on the grounds that a black-cab driver ‘would not commit such an offence’. They failed to search his home for evidence and made no attempt to corroborate the women’s accounts, leaving Worboys at large to target more victims.

The shortcomings identified by the IPCC report in 2010 exposed ‘systemic’ problems in rape investigations. Little did his victims know that they would be let down again, eight years later, by the Parole Board’s astonishing decision to recommend Worboys’s release. It will have taken into account only his actual convictions, rather than allegations which were not tested in court, but that raises two urgent questions.

Why does the board believe that a man who attacked 12 women with such a degree of calculation is no longer a risk to the public? And why was a decision taken not to bring further charges against Worboys, based on the huge number of allegations made after his arrest and conviction?

The criminal justice system is often accused of systemic failings in the way it deals with violence against women. Earlier this week Theodore Johnson, 64, pleaded guilty to murdering his former partner who was unaware, when she met him, that he had already served short sentences for killing his wife and another partner.

Now one of the country’s worst serial rapists is to be set free after serving an absurdly lenient prison sentence. Can we really believe that this country’s legal system is doing its job of protecting women from patently dangerous men?

We need a domestic violence offenders’ register. Theodore Johnson is proof


When Angela Best met Johnson, she didn’t know he’d killed two previous partners. New legal powers could help to save women’s lives

The Guardian, Wednesday 3 January 2018

Why aren’t women being warned before they form relationships with dangerous men? Earlier this week, there was widespread shock when Theodore Johnson, 64, pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to the murder of his former partner, Angela Best. Best had no idea, when she first met Johnson, that he already had convictions for killing his wife and another partner. If ever there was an argument for a domestic violence offenders’ register, Johnson is it.

Many will wonder why he received such a light prison sentence (three years) when he was convicted of killing his wife, Yvonne Johnson, in Wolverhampton in 1981. He was convicted of manslaughter a second time in 1993 after he strangled his partner, Yvonne Bennett, at their home in north London. Two years later, after his release from a psychiatric unit, Johnson met Best and began a relationship with her in another area of London.

His short sentences are clearly a cause for concern. But the really important question highlighted by the case is why the criminal justice system fails to warn future partners about the record of convicted abusers. Here we have a man, with a documented history of lethal violence towards women, who was able to move from one area of the country to another, leaving knowledge of his crimes behind him. Best had no idea of his record until she found letters revealing that he had killed a previous partner.

This is a common pattern among extreme abusers, who deliberately move to a new area where they (and their crimes) are unknown. Best’s children described him as abusive and controlling, something that makes it all the more difficult for a woman to leave. Research confirms that women are most at risk of death or serious injury in the months after they leave an abusive man.

Best finally left Johnson in the autumn of 2016. In December, he asked her to meet him at his flat, where he attacked her with a claw hammer and strangled her with a cord in what appears to have been a copy of his second lethal attack. Hours later, Johnson threw himself under a train at Cheshunt railway station in Hertfordshire, losing both his arms.

A register for men like Johnson would go much further than Clare’s law, which allows women to ask the police whether a man has a history of abuse. Even abusive men know enough to be on their best behaviour at the beginning of a relationship, and many women feel uncomfortable about going behind the back of someone they have no reason to suspect.

A register would add a “right to know” to the current “right to ask”. Like convicted sex offenders, men convicted of domestic violence would have to inform the police of their current address, making it much harder for them to drop off the radar. Crucially, they would also have to tell the police if they have formed new relationships. Officers would then have a duty to warn the women concerned about the offenders’ criminal record.

The police support new legal powers on these lines and so does the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Critics say it would take up a great deal of police time at a moment when forces are already stretched, but that is an argument (which Khan and other police commissioners have already made) for ensuring they have the resources they need.

The other argument against a register, which was also made against Clare’s law, is that it offers no protection against men who have managed to avoid convictions. But officers already try to avoid creating a false sense of security, pointing out that the absence of a criminal record should not be taken as a clean bill of health. Those who do get a result, even if it is unwelcome, have a piece of knowledge that could save them from death or serious injury.

It is impossible to know what Best would have done if the police had been obliged to tell her, when she first met Johnson in 1995, that he was a convicted double killer. What is undeniable is that if she had been warned about his terrible history, she would have had choices – and she might still be alive now.

Britain’s Game of Thrones

New York Review of Books,

Saturday 2 December, 2017

It is the curse of the Windsor men: they can’t resist marrying women who are more interesting than themselves. The news this week that Queen Elizabeth’s grandson, Prince Harry, is engaged to an American actress has not exactly rocked the UK. But those traditional balcony photos—men in military uniform, women in weird hats—are going to look very different in future.

Back in the 1980s, Harry’s father, Prince Charles, was aghast when his shy bride, Lady Diana Spencer, transformed herself into the first global superstar. Meghan Markle isn’t that, not yet at least, but it’s clear that she has star quality. Unlike his elder brother Prince William, who made a safe choice when he married Kate Middleton, Harry has gone full Hollywood.

The engagement was announced at a moment when the United Kingdom is angry and divided, still suffering from the self-inflicted wounds of last year’s referendum on EU membership. Who cares if a minor member of the royal family has finally decided, at the age of thirty-three, to give up a mildly rambunctious bachelor lifestyle? By now, most Britons have forgotten the naked photos of Harry taken at a party in Las Vegas and the Nazi uniform he ill-advisedly once wore to a costume party. True, Harry’s great-great-uncle David married an American divorcée who, according to an FBI report, had an affair with Hitler’s foreign minister, but that is nothing more than coincidence. Great-great-uncle David—better known as King Edward VIII—is another example of a Windsor man who married interestingly.

All this matters for a simple reason, which is that the British royal family remains in place by consent. That can be withdrawn as well as given: plenty of European countries have got rid of their monarchies or scaled them down on the Dutch model of bicycle-pedaling quasi-commoners. You wouldn’t know this from the British media’s servile reaction to Harry’s engagement, which wiped everything else off the map. The corgis “took to her straight away,” declared the usually conservative Daily Telegraph, which will have baffled anyone unfamiliar with the upper-class habit of channeling the ancient wisdom of dogs.

Ordinary people are not so sure: a YouGov poll suggests that about half the British public is indifferent to the royal engagement, a figure that rises to 62 percent among male respondents. The poll also confirmed earlier findings suggesting that the younger royals are more popular than Prince Charles and his second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. The Prince of Wales has never really recovered from the avalanche of bad publicity he received after Princess Diana’s death in Paris in 1997; over the summer of 2017, as the twentieth anniversary of the fatal car crash approached, his ratings plummeted again.

For decades, the public was not allowed to know the extent of the prince’s attempted interference in government policy, something that changed a couple of years ago with the release of the famous “black spider memos”—a small selection of his letters, so named because handwritten in ink, that showed Charles lobbying ministers on a wide range of subjects, from agriculture to education. He urged the health minister, for instance, to provide homeopathy, regarded by most doctors as a crank remedy, on the National Health Service. In another, he asked for public money to train teachers who would follow his deeply conservative ideas about the teaching of English and history.

In August this year, YouGov asked people which members of the royal family have made a positive contribution to the monarchy, a vague formulation that nevertheless offers some measure of whom they like and whom they don’t. Just over a third thought that Charles was doing a good job, down from 60 percent four years ago. This is most likely a reaction to an accumulation of episodes, from the 2002 revelation that he’d threatened to leave the country (and spend the rest of his life skiing) if fox-hunting was banned, to the moment when he was caught on mic a few years ago describing the BBC’s royal correspondent as an “awful man.”

There is no mechanism to prevent this angry, thin-skinned man from ascending the throne, but he cannot force his subjects to feel affection for him or treat him with the deference he thinks he deserves. Behind the scenes, anxiety has been growing for years about the prospect of his becoming king, even to the point of wondering whether the institution can survive the coronation of Charles III. As long ago as 2010, the historian and former newspaper editor Sir Max Hastings wrote a startling essay for The Daily Mail that argued that “this increasingly eccentric royal could imperil the monarchy.”

The YouGov poll in August pointed to one of several possible flashpoints, with only 14 percent of respondents saying they wanted Camilla to be Queen. Memories of the public anger that followed Diana’s death, culminating in her brother’s remarkably hostile funeral oration, remain raw in royal circles. It has been a long time since members of the royal family were booed in public—as happened to George VI in 1940 when he and his consort visited bombed-out parts of the East End of London—but the royal family’s popularity can never be taken for granted.

A republican movement has been growing, steadily but surely, in the UK. The emotional outpouring after Diana’s death did real damage to the royals, prompting the most searing criticism the Queen had experienced during her forty-five years on the throne for her frozen, unfeeling response to her subjects’ grief. She had already experienced what she famously called her “annus horribilis” five years earlier, prompted by her children’s failing marriages and a fire at Windsor Castle, and after 1997 the family kept a low profile for a while—even though the attacks on the Palace had been factional, not republican, in character. Charles eventually succeeded in overcoming public resistance to his marriage to his former mistress, but he remains a hostage to the Diana effect.

Kate Middleton has gone out of her way to avoid comparisons with the mother-in-law she never met, but that isn’t what the public seems to want. The women in their twenties and thirties I meet speak dismissively of Kate, complaining that she is dull, dresses like a woman twice her age and lacks ambition. But this same group warms to Markle, viewing her as the epitome of a modern woman: confident, outgoing and with a successful career, even if it is a legal drama called Suits that few British people have seen. Her being mixed-race has also been welcomed as evidence that the country has changed for the better, with a poll showing that nearly 70 percent approve of the idea that a royal might marry someone of a different ethnicity. But Harry is fifth in line to the throne and his marriage has little constitutional significance. The fact remains that, if everything goes to plan, the country will have white men as heads of state for most, if not all, of this century.

The Daily Telegraph described Markle as “a Hollywood princess,” a latter-day Grace Kelly in the making. Her prominence is the logical continuation of a process begun by Diana, whose lasting legacy was to turn the British royals from distant figureheads into worldwide celebrities. Charles doesn’t like it much, viewing himself as a weighty thinker, busily trying to solve the world’s problems and getting no thanks for it. It isn’t clear whether he or anyone in the family is ready for the change in royal family dynamics when a Hollywood star joins the line-up. In an interview recorded by the BBC to mark his engagement, Harry’s bulb seemed already to have dimmed in comparison to his fiancée’s mega-watt glow. She leaned forward, she laughed, she interrupted him, improving on the anecdotes he had begun to tell in his flat English accent. Without even trying, Markle may find herself upstaging her new relatives in ways that are bound to ruffle feathers in a family obsessed with status and protocol. Prince Philip once complained to the Queen that, unlike Charles, he had never received an Australian knighthood; it was an oversight his wife hastened to remedy.

The royal family are not The Royle Familya BBC sitcom about an unemployed family living in the north of England, but the addition of Markle to the cast moves them deeper into the territory of popular entertainment. The princes’ candid TV documentary this summer about losing their mother suggested a media savviness on the part of the younger Windsors that recalled Diana’s astute use of the intimate interview in her famous 1995 Panorama confessional. But the more we come to view the royals as a branch of the entertainment industry, the more cracks start to appear in what the writer Tom Nairn called “the enchanted glass” of monarchy.

The Queen and Charles were among the first major figures to face questions following publication of the Paradise Papers, which revealed that they (or their advisers) had avoided tax liabilities by parking their wealth offshore at a time when many working families in Britain must rely on foodbanks. Seventeen of the Queen’s relatives are supported by British taxpayers, despite years of austerity and cutbacks in public spending, and they don’t do much in return. In August, the Press Association calculated that Harry and William had each worked just forty-six days so far this year, although many royal engagements last only an hour, plus travelling time.

The royal finances are opaque, deliberately so, allowing Buckingham Palace to claim that last year the family cost every British citizen about sixty-five pence (less than a dollar). That sum derives from the Sovereign Grant, the Treasury’s direct payment to the Queen that was fixed at £42.8 million in the financial year 2016–2017. But the figure excludes the huge cost of royal security. The campaign group Republic, which wants to replace the monarch with an elected and accountable head of state, estimates that the real cost of the institution is around £345 million, about eight times more than the official figure.

In an era of unbridled populism, however, personalities matter more than arguments. The current heir to the throne was jealous of his first wife, resenting the attention she got during public engagements; now he will have to accommodate a glamorous daughter-in-law trailing photographers and camera crews wherever she goes. Charles hasn’t spent years planning his coronation only to discover that the only question on anyone’s lips is “What will Meghan wear?”


You’re wrong, Angela Lansbury – making yourself less ‘attractive’ doesn’t protect women against rape

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 28 November 2017

Women have got used to not having allies, even among their own sex. Each time a well-known man faces credible accusations of sexual assault, from multiple witnesses, someone is bound to come along and ask whether they weren’t a little bit to blame for what happened. Tragically, that someone is quite often another woman.

Enter, stage right, the veteran actress Angela Lansbury. After weeks in which a stream of women have made allegations, including rape, against the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Lansbury has waded into the furore with a series of breath-takingly ignorant and ill-informed remarks. (Weinstein has expressed remorse for his behaviour but denies allegations of non-consensual sex.)

‘There are two sides to this coin. We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive,’ Lansbury told the Radio Times. ‘And unfortunately it has backfired on us – and this is where we are today.’

Taking a direct dive into the age-old practice of victim-blaming, Lansbury continued: ‘We must sometimes take blame, women. I really do think that. Although it’s awful to say we can’t make ourselves look as attractive as possible without being knocked down and raped.’

It is indeed awful to say that. It is also one of the most persistent myths about rape. Dame Angela may believe that women of her age – she is 92 – are no longer of interest to male sexual predators, but she is wrong.

Babies as young as six months have been raped, and so have elderly women who thought they were safe in their beds at the time of the attack. Were they targeted because of what they were wearing? Of course not.

No wonder campaigners against rape are outraged. ‘It is a deeply unhelpful myth that rape and other forms of sexual violence are caused or “provoked” by women’s sexuality or “attractiveness”’, declared a statement from Rape Crisis England and Wales.

Lansbury went on to say that the fault doesn’t lie with individual victims but she seems to have no inkling of why her views are so damaging. She doesn’t understand that they leave women with a lingering sense of guilt as outsiders – people who have no idea of the ordeal they went through – imply they could have avoided the attack.

Serial rapists are motivated by a desire to control and humiliate their victims, not to mention a deep-seated hatred of women. Victims describe the pleasure their attackers took in insulting them, and in forcing them to perform acts they found humiliating. It is ludicrous – and dangerous – to lead women to think they can avoid being raped by looking a bit less attractive, whatever that means.

No doubt people will say in Lansbury’s defence that her views reflect the age she grew up in – but that doesn’t excuse her saying it today, when we know so much more about sexual predators and how they operate.

When she says she didn’t suffer sexual harassment as a young actress in Hollywood in the 1940s, I can’t help thinking she was fortunate – and it doesn’t mean other young women weren’t coerced into performing sex acts against their will. A recent book about a notorious murder in Los Angeles, Piu Eatwell’s Black Dahlia, Red Rose, paints a horrific picture of sexual exploitation of would-be actresses in the 1940s – events that went far beyond the infamous ‘casting couch’.

Even if Lansbury was unaware of the dark side of Hollywood in her youth, the fact that she is recycling rape myths seven decades later is inexcusable. It also explains why so many women who have been sexually harassed or raped don’t come forward at the time. They fear they won’t be believed – or that even if they are, someone will pop up and suggest they were in some degree responsible for the violence against them.

It cannot be said too often: rapists are responsible for their own behaviour. Rape myths undermine that idea, tainting the criminal justice system and making it harder to get convictions. That is why we live in a world where the vast majority of rapists get away with it.

Lansbury has just finished work on a Disney film but this isn’t Mary Poppins Returns. As a public figure, she has a responsibility not to wade into debates she clearly knows nothing about. That’s especially the case when the most likely effect of her careless remarks is to make life harder for victims of horrendous sexual violence.