I remember when I was about fourteen we had a female prime minister in this country for the first time. At that moment politics for me went from being about men in raincoats to women who speak a language I understand. With Margaret Thatcher as PM, I could see how politics could work for everybody – until then that point was not clear to me at all. Obviously, I was young and looking for a female leader, but whether it was the Queen being the Queen or Princess Anne winning a medal in the Olympics there were very few women you could look to and that’s where inequity and putting women forward as role models are hugely important. I am not a dyed in wool Thatcherite though. But I think she modernised Britain in a way people don’t realise and took us into a modern age.
I come from the mining valleys of South Wales. I went to university aged 18 at a time when not a lot of women were doing so – there were a lot of girls in my class who were very capable individuals who weren’t encouraged to do that. And at the London School of Economics where I studied there were very few girls like me, I was one of a minority of women from a comprehensive school. Things have changed now, but for me, the sense of inequity and a real passion about inequity was born at that point. After university, I went into advertising and marketing and overwhelmingly my bosses and clients were women and I think all of them helped show me that there is a huge opportunity out there. My parents also believed in hard work and in my ability to achieve and that sort of set out my personal journey – that you can go as far as your personal ambition wants you to go. I think what connects that to Belarus Free Theatre (BFT) is that as an organisation it has a true belief in tenacity, hard work and equality and these are things that I can really empathise with. Of course, though, the challenges I have faced in my life are nothing like the challenges that people in BFT faced and still face. And for other people, it can be hard to have self-confidence if there is no family support or the wherewithal to be able to do what others can – therefore there is an obligation to try and change things for everybody, not just those that have had the huge privilege of being given confidence through their family support networks. After my time as Culture Secretary, I was talking to David Lan about how I wanted to do more in the area of culture and theatre particularly and he said BFT would be the right fit. He was absolutely right of course because he is a wonderful human being.
My focus on equality issues has been very domestic and very much about how we can get women in the UK to have the role in society they should have and remove inequalities for people. But my involvement with BFT forced me to think about these things and other issues on a global stage – the shocking thing about that is that the problems and inequalities that come out of Belarus are the same the world over in differing degrees. So it has forced me to look internationally, but also have a stronger relationship with my local arts companies here in my constituency. In fact, I have been talking to Proteus, my local producing theatre in Basingstoke, about how we can use their expertise to communicate with young children about moving out of the lockdown period and give them the courage and confidence to be able to do that. I have also understood how the arts can be used to tackle issues successfully in a way that is relevant for a particular group and I have also been lucky through my job to be able to bring some of the messages that BFT wants to land into parliament. It is difficult to do that, parliament is a very busy place, but we have had events where we have talked about the importance of the arts in delivering those sorts of messages and it is something that I have found very fulfilling.
Maria Miller has been the MP for Basingstoke since 2005. She was Minister for Disabled People from 2010- 2012 and served in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and was Minister for Women and Equalities from 2012-2014. Miller was Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee from 2015-2020.