Mark Field is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee and MP for the Cities of London and Westminster.
How strange is the perennial difficulty with seeing the wood for the trees. Too often we live through momentous times without realising it.
I am almost embarrassed to recall the trivial thread of memories I retain of 1989, my first full year in the workplace as a 24 year old trainee solicitor. The momentous, pan-European events of that year – alongside 1848 and 1914 – rank as the three most profoundly revolutionary in Western history of the past two centuries. But for me – well, it was just another part of my 20-something existence.
Similarly, we are accustomed to looking back in awe at the 1960s as the defining era of radical social change. The majority of people in public life today became adults after this transformation took effect. As a result, almost all are entirely comfortable with post-sixties social norms. However, the truth is that the Blair era (mid-90s to mid-Noughties) heralded a series of wide-ranging social reforms and change too, in respect of which even the 40-something leading figures in UK public life find themselves firmly behind the curve.
Last month, the Westminster Village was abuzz with gossip about Lord Rennard’s conduct – and there was a further bout of soul-searching as yet another member of the bright female 2010 intake announced her intention to throw in the towel on parliamentary life.
These two issues were connected by the failure to recognise the changes that have taken place in the world beyond the hallowed corridors of Parliament. Whether over matters of gender equality, sexual orientation, race relations and acceptable conduct within the workplace, today’s world is markedly different from that of even ten or 15 years ago.
To many in their twenties, the idea that you can – or should – either dislike or be suspicious of someone because of their skin colour, sexuality or nationality is entirely alien.
My late father served in the Armed Forces and, as a result, I became accustomed at home to hearing immigrants being referred to in terms which were not intrinsically unkind, but which virtually all young people would now regard as totally unacceptable. I suspect my middle class, home counties Tory-voting household experience is one shared by many of my colleagues, which is why many members of our Party, even now, tend to regard as special pleading or political correctness allegations of racial prejudice – and why our attempts at political diversification have felt more like tokenism than a genuine embrace of change.
Any Briton under the age of 40, particularly those who grew up or now live in our hyper-diverse capital city, have come of age in an era of rapid globalisation, expansion of the European Union and loose immigration control. As a result, many travel widely, are more global in their outlook, and inhabit social circles that comprise of different ethnicities and nationalities. Not only is there commonly less fear of difference but friends’ and colleagues’ cultural, linguistic and visual variety is more often warmly embraced, fostering a far greater degree of understanding. It should also come as no surprise that this age demographic is, to date at least, the least susceptible to voting UKIP.
Similarly, as legislation on gay marriage was debated in parliament, the difference in attitude amongst the constituents of different ages who corresponded with me was striking. For the majority of those in their twenties and thirties, gay marriage seemed a natural conclusion to the social change they had lived through with the advent of civil partnerships. Many older correspondents, however, deemed the legislation a profound perversion of established and accepted social and biological norms – sentiment reflected by the many Conservative MPs baffled by the Prime Minister’s desire to spend parliamentary time and political capital on the issue.
Turning to gender, when I started work 25 years ago, it was the custom for trainees to share offices with law firm partners. The banter which was common currency in the workplace between male colleagues about the looks of female staff would nowadays lay any professional services firm open to costly litigation suits and lasting reputational damage.
Changes to general social attitudes have been striking too, particularly when it comes to rules governing private space. As MPs voted earlier this month on a smoking ban in cars carrying children, I was surprised that a clear majority of Tory MPs voted in favour – something which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago when such a ban would have been viewed as an intolerable encroachment upon individual freedom.
Those defending Lord Rennard and the notoriously unresponsive administration within Parliament have failed to realise that the world outside has changed beyond recognition in its day-to-day understanding of a properly managed workplace relationship. Regular appraisals, counselling and interactive human resource function, supportive recognition of family responsibilities, compassionate leave and so on – all this can seem a world apart from the day-to-day experience of our legislators, so small wonder that many parliamentarians appear to be all at sea in the modern world of post-Blair social reform.
We may not appreciate it, but we are genuinely living through a momentous era in the development of workplace and social mores. I fear this is yet another part of life where millions of Britons feel that the political class “just don’t get it”.