I write from Spain where I am holed up for a couple of months. From this vantage point, the political tribulations of the UK seem curiously distant. Prime minister Gordon Brown’s tussle with backbenchers over the 10p tax rate made the pages of the Spanish media, which speculated on the impact it would have on council elections. The annual pain of such a political litmus test is viewed with interest in a country where municipal elections at regional and local level occur on a different cycle.
The UK’s political landscape also looks strangely male and old fashioned from here. The big news is that socialist prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, or Zappy as he is sometimes affectionately called, has made world headlines in his second term of office by appointing a cabinet where the majority of the ministers are female. Compare this to the Brown regime, where only six out of 23 posts are held by women.
Zappy has long proclaimed his feminist credentials and has already made significant inroads into tackling issues such as domestic violence. His previous administration also legalised gay marriage (giving lesbian and gay people significantly more rights than the British civil partnership legislation), simplified divorce procedures, and has passed laws increasing female representation in political parties and company boardrooms.
But now he’s gone further and appointed nine women into key roles. “I feel very proud that there are more women ministers than men,” he has said. His deputy is a woman and he has also appointed the youngest minister in Spanish history, 31-year-old Bibiana Aído, as head of his new equality ministry.
Any suggestion that this is mere tokenism has been blown away by the appointment of former housing minister Carme Chacón as defence minister. It may have been front page news in the UK that prince William made a surprise visit to Afghanistan recently, but it has made world headlines that Ms Chacón, seven months pregnant and wearing fashionable maternity clothes, inspected Spain’s troops in the region complete with bump out front and gynaecologist in the background.
Asked if she was tired after the 10-hour flight from Madrid, she simply said that “the election campaign was harder, and longer”.
Conservative elements in the Spanish media, military and establishment are at pains to say that her gender, or impending child, are not the issue, but that her lack of military experience is what concerns them. Speculation abounds about whether she will take all of her statutory 16 weeks maternity leave when the baby is born in June.
Others have been blunter in their response. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has suggested that Mr Zapatero’s government is “too pink”. He has predicted that Mr Zapatero will have trouble leading his cabinet now and that he doesn’t anticipate the same situation in Italy because “it isn’t easy to find women who are qualified”.
This has deeply offended people in Spain, where even the female president of Madrid’s regional government, from the opposing Popular Party, has praised the appointments as one of the best things Mr Zapatero has done.
How different would the British political landscape be if the same thing happened over here? Despite the rhetoric of equal rights, Britain languishes at 16th in the European league for its percentage of women MPs (only a fifth of the Commons). The profile in local government is little better just under 30% of councillors are women, and the proportion at the highest level is small.
Perhaps a different approach might also change attitudes in parts of the British media. The Independent, in its coverage of Ms Chacón’s visit to Afghanistan, dubbed her Spain’s “mum” minister. Would a man ever be described in the same way? I look forward to reading their coverage of London’s “dad” mayor.