The roaring row this week between the First Minister of Scotland and the Prime Minister looks set to become a proper female feud – up there with fashion designers, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel – who “accidentally” set Schiaparelli on fire by pushing her into a candle chandelier, in a moment of rivalrous madness. Nicola Sturgeon’s determination to force another Scottish referendum on independence and to her (before Brexit) timetable stoked a very public spat. Theresa May, in full school-marm mode, dismissed the motion immediately ‘We should be working together, not pulling apart. Now is not the time.’ Fuel to the fire that, Ms Sturgeon spat back accusing Mrs May of ‘untenable’ and ‘undemocratic’ behaviour and of ‘running scared’. Now at the end of the week you can’t help but wonder if they (and we) would be better off if they had a proper old catfight to sort their differences – you know a bit of hair pulling, scratching, slapping. Really how many more years are we going to face the same old row?
Two if Nicola has her way. She wants a ballot to be held between Autumn next year and the following spring.
And six if Theresa has her way. She says she would not begin talks on a referendum until the UK has had time to settle two years after Brexit. The formalities needed to organise another referendum could take another 18 months, meaning another Scottish vote on independence would be pushed far into the political mystical lands, to 2023.
Theresa would be wise to remember Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity stems from her yearning for Scotland’s independence. Nicola, like a 19 year-old, wants the shiny future (the one for which she has spent her teen years yearning). A future free from parents, from confinement (usually imagined), from rules (usually pretty lax). She wants her own space, her own time, her own mind. Deep down many Scots feel the same way.
For Theresa May, this needling to “be free” sounds like whining. So she treats it like an annoyance. She patronizes, “Politics. Is. Not. A. Game” and sermonizes; “We are four nations, but at heart we are one people.” And re-iterates again and again. “Now is not the time!”
To all of us in a family know; keeping everyone happily together takes immense effort. Empathy- giving, attention- giving, energy-draining effort. And if Theresa May really does care about the Union, she needs to do what everyone else does when dealing with irksome family members, make time for them, listen to them, support them; visit regularly (for a pot of Highland tea and a nicely jammy Victoria Sponge), send them little gifts, leave them feeling good about themselves. If she doesn’t she needs to remember that those with an antagonistic temperament, are likely to plot and seethe; comeuppance always on their mind.
And Nicola needs to lose the petulance and have a big honest heart-to-heart with herself – who does she really want the cut-the-strings independence for – for the good of herself or her country?
From feisty to the furious, history tells us – feuds don’t usually end well. The most obvious correlation here, of course, is the enduring irritation between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth, always aware she risked inflaming Scottish public opinion against her, was hyper-cautious in dealing with her cousin, delaying her execution time and again. And then she snapped (and it was off with Mary’s head).
In a literary world full of jealousy, opprobrium, denunciation, and put downs, it’s not surprising perhaps that there have been many well-known writerly feuds too. A notoriously lengthy courtcase followed when Mary McCarthy called richer and more successful Lillian Hellman “a dishonest writer”. Former best friends Jilly Cooper and Princess Michael of Kent have still never made up after falling out of over a book review (the headline labelled her a ‘Pushy Princess’) in 1986. A battle for paternal affection likely led to the potent competition between sisterly Dames Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt. Both prolific novel writers, they’ve have not spoken for decades.
It’s thought now that the intense rivalry between Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, probably spurred each to become better designers. Let’s hope Sturgeon and May’s antagonism does the same. So instead of spending time on perfecting their sparring repartee and dissing each other, they should change the nasty tone. People pleasing isn’t necessarily a bad feminine trait you know; make more effort to work together, find some common ground – you will benefit both your respective countries.
For more on famous female falling-outs:
A timely new series to look out for: Feud: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
How the career -long feud between screen legends Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) began on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). UK airing to be announced.
Lady Macbeth – based on the 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov’s – this is a long way from Shakespeare’s tale. This modern retelling has an ambitious woman at its centre. Frustrated, she becomes ruthless in her desire to break free of the constraints of her time.
See also Audrey Tatou in Coco Before Chanel, the upbringing it took to become an enduring fashion icon
Naomi Wolf – On Female Rivalry
Macbeth – When desire for queenly power borders on madness…and how an extreme bid for self-determination ripples to become a multi-tragedy.
Lady Macbeth wants power and recognition. But she’s a women out of her time. When her husband refuses the opportunity to kill the King, she does it herself, mocking him all the way to the bloodbath. Harnessing a terrifying force of female power, she prays to the gods to turn the milk from her breasts into poison to help her enact her horrifying deeds. She is manic (possibly suffering post-natal depression) and seemingly goes mad, spending her final days scrubbing the imaginary blood of the king off her hands.
Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. The bestselling biography of one of the most romantic and controversial figures in British history, by a best historian.
Elsa Schiaparelli, A Biography by Meryle Secres. Grand couturier, surrealist, social revolutionist and a top fashion designer of the 20th century. More famous than Coco Chanel at the time, Schiaparelli ‘s work has recently enjoyed a post-humous resurgence.
BBC R4, In Our Time: Mary, Queen of Scots
BBC R4, Front Row: Judi Dench on Lady Macbeth
NPR – ‘Schiaparelli’: The Shocking, Shadowed Life Of A Fashion Icon
Featured image: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis publicity portrait for the film What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, 1962.