This well-known saying is commonly called “The Chinese Curse” and represents the worst the speaker could wish on his enemy. There is no doubt that, when we look back on some of the most challenging and fascinating periods of history, it is often with a degree of relief that we did not have to live through them ourselves. It’s a quotation that has come back to me often recently as we seek to make sense of political, social and cultural turmoil, so I decided to investigate it more closely. I discovered that there appears to be very little evidence linking it to ancient China, but rather more linking it to the Chamberlain family prominent in politics in the first half of the twentieth century. You can read more about the genesis of the quote here, but what wryly amused me was that it seems that it was a politician who first brought it into English usage.

The last two years have seen political shocks unprecedented in recent memory. Trump won a Presidential victory in the USA, Britain voted to leave the European Union, a second British election in two years delivered a result that few – and certainly not the ruling party – expected, and in France a party that was only formed in April 2016 delivered a President and national assembly that looks set to revolutionise politics in that country. The results of these democratic choices will echo down the decades, if not the centuries. Against this background we have witnessed acts of terror aimed at dividing our beautiful vibrant and multicultural community. So where is my hope for the future in these interesting times in which we find ourselves?

Engaging a new generation

The jury is still out, to some degree, on whether a new generation of young voters was the primary cause of the unexpected result of the UK election, but certainly people were told that if they used their vote, it would make a difference, and it did. This sent a hugely important message to the girls at The Abbey: their participation in our democracy is essential to shaping our future. They took part enthusiastically in our pre-election debate, and were extremely well-informed as they skilfully defended parties and policies that they might not personally have endorsed.

The election also showed the power of campaigning and standing up for your beliefs with passion and determination. At our recent alumnae event, held in the Houses of Parliament, our host Lord Boateng praised our former pupils on demonstrating just those qualities in the wide range of careers that they have undertaken since leaving the halls of The Abbey. It was wonderful to catch up with so many familiar faces in such an iconic venue; we do not yet have any parliamentarians among our alumnae, as far as I know, but I very much hope that this new generation may see some of our girls making a difference to their communities through political representation.

Balancing the political a-gender

The latest British election returned the most diverse parliament in history, with women making up 208 of the 650 MPs and increases made in the number of ethnic minority, LGBT and disabled MPs. In France, Macron’s ‘En Marche’ has 223 female MPs out of 577. For me, this is a powerfully positive development recognising the essential contribution that women make to public life – not just a few at the top, but at grassroots level. It is my hope that it will normalise the perception of women in powerful positions.

The importance of personal values

From the earliest days in our Nursery, we aim to foster strong personal values in our girls. Open-mindedness, tolerance and friendship are cornerstones, but also important is the confidence to stand up for your beliefs and the ability to understand that it is possible to disagree with someone without compromising respect for them. This is at the heart of the “more in common” initiative launched in memory of MP Jo Cox, a woman whose personal integrity and values are an inspiration to us all. In Jo’s case, out of immense tragedy has come a great force for unity as we remember the words from her maiden parliamentary speech that we have “more in common than that which divides us”. It is my hope that the young women we have the privilege to teach here at The Abbey will take their own personal values into our world of interesting times and know that they can change it for the better.

And so a post about politics has turned into a post about hope, therefore let me end with words from another politician – Canadian Jack Layton: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

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Footnote: enormous thanks to our Global Politics and Languages departments who have been so proactive in organising lectures and debates to help us make sense of our rapidly changing world.

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