Artillery Row

A minister for men?

A pointless non-job for the boys

There’s a recurring idea being bandied about, most prominently by comedian Geoff Northcott, that Britain needs a Minister for Men. 

The evidence usually presented for this is that there are issues which disproportionately affect men and boys, which require specific government attention:

  • 74 per cent of all suicides
  • 85 per cent of rough sleepers
  • 72 per cent of murder victims
  • 96 per cent of the prison population

These are serious social problems, and addressing them is a noble goal that I’m glad someone is trying to achieve, and it’s important to be clear that I am not dismissing the scale or importance of them at all. But a Minister for Men has the potential to be one of the stupidest, most ineffective ways to affect that change, and it was born almost entirely out of the need right wing talking heads had to have something to retort with when faced with identity politics.

It’s also unclear what a Minister for Men would actually do

It’s also unclear what a Minister for Men would actually do. All the issues listed above are covered by the portfolio of an existing Minister; would male prisoners and school kids become the remit of the Minister for Men exclusively? Or would the Minister for Men have a watching brief across all the most pressing issues facing men, in a similar way that the Treasury have a watching brief over every policy that involves money? 

If it’s the former, then you are effectively creating a government that interacts with different genders differently, which would be one of the most significant and radical social changes this country has ever seen. And where would it end? There are specific problems facing every single group in society. Are we to have a Minister for all of them, and different rules and programmes to alleviate the specific issues they face? If not, what is the cutoff point?

If it’s the latter, then not only will the Minister for Men be one of the busiest people in government, but they would hold a cross-departmental brief with no actual power to affect change whatsoever. The issues facing men are more systemic than can be solved by asking colleagues nicely in departmental meetings and across the Cabinet table — presuming the MfM is even invited. This is essentially the role the Minister for Women holds; it would be hard to argue that the existence of that post has measurably improved outcomes for women. A Minister for Men would be a similarly token position — as Seb Milbank pointed out, “a powerless minister with a highly specific brief is just a lobbyist paid by the state.”

But a Minister for Men would also fail because the issues men face are entrenched social problems. And the scale of those problems is shocking. 74% of all suicides, 85% of rough sleepers, 72% of murder victims and 96% of the prison population are all men. But broadly, all of these figures have remained static for decades, because they are more influenced by social breakdown than government policy; the male suicide rate has remained largely steady for 20 years, as has the proportion of men murdered for the last ten, and men have made up the vast bulk of the prison population since 1900

These all have complex socio-economic drivers including a lack of social networks, poverty, education and parental roles during upbringing. Unless a Minister for Men is going to given control over the upstream causes of these issues – welfare and housing for rough sleepers for instance, or education for prisoners — they are likely to have a marginal effect at best.

A Minister for Men is borne of a need, one that arises because of the growth of identity politics. The substance of this politics is an unapologetic attempt to advance the interests of your social group at the expense of other social groups; it is therefore based on grievance, and on acquiring status by displaying grievance. For want of a better term it creates a hierarchy of grievance, the results of which are that the bigger your grievance, the louder your voice. Men — particularly white, straight men – therefore have little currency to trade on, and it is very, very difficult to argue for them against grievance-based identity politics.

In fact, it’s nearly impossible for them to dismiss concerns when presented with evidence of problems that exclusively or disproportionately affect others — unless they’re prepared to come across as the most mean, uncaring b*stard to ever tread God’s green grass. The idea of a Minister for Men is more clever comeback than pragmatic policy; it allows men to engage in identity politics by revealing that they too are part of a disaffected group, forcing them off the debate defence. It’s much, much easier to sidestep an argument by saying you should be talking about men too than rejecting the idea of identity politics out of hand entirely. 

But identity politics is a game we should refuse to play. Something has to be done about the issues men face. They have always made up the bulk of the prison population, but there are increasing numbers of men in prison every year. The rate of suicides may have remained stable, but families still lose hundreds of brothers, sons and fathers every year, and one is still too many.

But a Minister for Men is an easy solution to a complex problem, and a case of the logical fallacy of “Something must be done, this is something, ergo this must be done” playing out. If we want these problems addressed – and we should – then the answer is not to engage with identity politics at all. 

The more effective answer is the most complex one possible. That is to drive these issues up the political agenda, identify policies that will work and make them central to the direction of government. That is politics at its least attractive, and most effective. 

Just because a Minister for Men is something does not mean it should be done. Men deserve real action, not a Men’s Mental Health Service.

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