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Editor's Blog 22 July 2008: Traction and drag queens

A fairly cosmopolitan friend (Cambridge graduate, former actress, former restauranteur, farmer’s wife, PhD and theatre director) once revealed a surprisingly vehement prejudice. She told me “I hate drag queens, I find it completely insulting as a woman and I don’t see it as funny, flattering or insightful.”

I could see her point. While I think we all perform our identities to some degree, modelling our performances on parents, peers and idols, what struck me at the time was the lack of a well-known comparable male phenomenon. Sure, it existed in the boy players of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre; and in Pope Joan; and in the occasional female cross-dresser who identified as male to go off to war as a soldier or even as a doctor – but culturally, I used to think there was no real equivalent.

Politics – what a drag
The equivalent, not in gender terms but in political terms, is evident in our previous prime minister Tony Blair and in his (and current PM Gordon Brown’s) heir presumptive David Cameron.

What could this brace of caucasian public-school Oxbridge graduate rock-loving family man leaders of main political parties possibly have in common?

Borrowed ideological clothes, from the 'other side'. Whether they wear them for sincere reasons remains to be seen in Cameron’s case.

To paraphrase the uncomfortably rock and roll Johnny Rotten, Tony Blair surely did “mean it, man” with his post-Diana pain-feeling Thatcherism. A lovely Blair anecdote: the case for PCT commissioning is being put to Blair in a health seminar at 10 Downing Street. It is going down increasingly badly. Blair looks enquiringly at then-Health Secretary Alan Milburn, who says “don’t worry. It’s just GP fundholding writ large”. And all is well.

No, as Charles Clarke’s toxic KPMG ‘discussion’ pamphlet showed, the New Labour government’s intellectual progenitors appear set on making straight the path (you’d like that allusion, Tony) to bring in health insurance and turn the NHS residualist. It’s the right thing to do, you know, and not at all because they want the best for themselves and their families … as long as their families can afford the premiums.

Meanwhile, we have the most wholeheartedly NHS-committed leader of the Conservative Party in well over a generation in David Cameron, and in Andrew Lansley a health spokesman who can get down into impressive micro-levels of policy detail – despite the odd bit of bizarre arithmetics .

But of course, their policy is that the NHS needs to be run by an independent board … the appointment process for which board is yet to be made clear, but the possibility of political undertones and overtones should not be tossed aside lightly.

And traction?
The first time I heard about traction as a young adult (after a brief childhood fascination with traction engines) was when it was suggested as a treatment for my father’s back problem.

It proved ineffective, but stuck him in a hospital bed for a good long time, which has often struck me as some kind of metaphorical something (but don’t worry – it wasn’t an NHS bed – his work gave him private health insurance).

More recently, ‘traction’ has become a new buzz-word among prominent policy commentators. It’s a really good word actually, implying as it does both grip and pressure to move.

To judge by opinion polls, the political drag queens – Blair and Cameron – appear to have popular traction. Gordon Brown has precisely none of Tony Blair’s ‘jazz hands’ showbiz style.

But we are at an uncertain point. Our love of political drag queens, who can distract us with a cry of ‘jazz hands!’ and a lovely shimmy and soft-shoe, has been forged in a decade and a half of economic expansion. How are we going to like their act as the economy is shrinking?

Wikipedia tells me that “traction refers to the friction between a drive member and the surface it moves upon, where the friction is used to provide motion.”

Traction – even big clunking traction – may prove to be not without its distinctive charms.