Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
At a dinner on Wednesday night, after two hours of talking about education and careers, one of the guests happily pointed out what a nice Brexit-free evening we had had. He was right.
So this will be a Brexit-free column! Instead, I want to talk about another momentous event we marked in Parliament last week – the hundredth anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People’s Act, which led to all men and women aged over 30 being able to vote.
1918 also sees the centenary of women being able to stand for Parliament. A hundred years later, 489 women have been elected, since then, to serve in our House of Commons. Some have been bigger national figures than others, but all have blazed a trail in their own way.
As Conservatives, we should be proud that it is our party that can take the honours for the only two female Prime Ministers so far, and the first female MP to take her seat. And it was a Conservative Home Secretary who drove the 1918 legislation through the House of Commons.
Our first Conservative female MP, Nancy Astor, was famous for developing and then wearing a sort of ‘uniform’ so she didn’t stand out too much in the Commons amidst the sea of male MPs. She wore a black suit with a white shirt and a black hat.
Keen observers of Darkest Hour will have noticed an actress playing Astor on the benches behind the Cabinet in one of the scenes, wearing her customary outfit. Otherwise the Commons in the film looks, accurately for 1940, very male.
Fortunately, today’s female MPs don’t feel so constrained and, even since 2010, I can see how having more women in Westminster has changed the tone and nature of our debates. Leading the Treasury Select Committee to examine and support the Treasury’s Women in Finance charter is producing some really interesting evidence and debate – and leading the committee to engage with a wholly different group of people. City bosses did not expect to be grilled on their gender pay gap and diversity in appointments until recently: they now know this will be a topic raised in their evidence sessions. As the first female Chair of the Committee, and as a Conservative, I am proud to be making this happen.
There has been much discussion recently of what it means to be a Conservative. As a broad church political party, of course, different people are attracted for different reasons, but it is usually accepted that, as Conservatives, we conserve what works and work out how to address the things which need changing, but in a non-radical and non-ideological way.
Votes for women, the Tamworth manifesto and same-sex marriage all followed this path. I think the time has now come, as Daniel Finkelstein argued last week, for us to lead the way on votes for 16 and 17 year olds. That is why I am backing a Private Members’ Bill tabled by Labour MP, Peter Kyle.
By accepting that 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland could vote on their future during the 2014 referendum on independence, I’m afraid that the Conservative party undermined the arguments for not extending the franchise further. It is undoubtedly the case that many of today’s 18 and 19 year olds who couldn’t vote in June 2016 are furious that their futures have been decided by those aged over 70.
Embracing votes at 16 would demonstrate to the next generation that the Conservative Party has something to offer them. Anything we do on tuition fees, however necessary, will only look like we are playing catch up with Corbyn. Just as the Conservatives both delivered on and then fulfilled Votes for Women, it is time for us to take the next pragmatic leap forward and get on with Votes at 16.