Why Brooks Newmark is a twit, but not a knit-wit

Happier times for Brooks. Cabinet Office, CC BY-NC

Two topics now compete for the opening paragraph in MP Brooks Newmark’s political obituary. One is of course his hubris in thinking that a 26-year old woman – be she Tory or not – would be interested in photos of his genitalia. The other, though, are his thoughts, as the short-lived minister for civil society, about charities and knitting.

There doesn’t really seem much to add to the former, apart perhaps from lamenting the sheer dimwittedness of some of those who aspire to govern us. While it involves no sex and not a hint of paisley pyjama, the knitting incident is actually far more interesting.

A few short weeks before his sexting gaffe, Newmark was attacked in the mass and social media for his comments about how charities in the UK should operate. The Independent reported: “Government minister tells charities to ‘stick to their knitting’ and stay out of politics.”

It went on: “Brooks Newmark’s comment was variously described as ‘incredibly insulting’, ‘sexist’ and ‘dismissive’”. Response to that episode can’t have helped the public reception of his more recent slip-up, which, if understandable, might be a little unfair. He was labelled a sexist even before we learned of his involvement with a fictional young woman.

As guilty as the hapless Newmark has been of foolishness, the former charities minister deserves a measure of charity himself. The resigning MP is not getting an excess of favourable media coverage, so we can try to clear him of at least one accusation.

I can’t speak more generally, but, regarding his knitting misadventure, I believe the accusations of sexism against Newmark were ignorant and/or wilful, and almost certainly unjustified. There were several irritating flaws in the way in which the incident was reported – particularly the implications that the offending phrase was his and that it was made in a conference speech, neither of which were literally true.

The originator of the knitting remark in this context was actually Gwythian Prins, a professor at the University of Buckingham and the London School of Economics, who also deploys his expertise in defence and energy issues as a Charity Commission board member.

He dropped it into an interview explaining the commission’s future priorities more than a year ago:

We will also take a view about charities keeping their campaigning within their charitable objects and purposes. The weather has changed on this front. The public expects charities to stick to their knitting, to use an old-fashioned phrase.

At a Cabinet Office conference on social action, Newmark – who, as we now know, speaks and even sends Twitter pics without first engaging his brain – was asked whether he sympathised with Prins’s view. He did: “The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others,” came his reply.

In the current political climate, no matter what Brooks thought he was saying, it’s incredible he didn’t see that he was waving a queen-size scarlet sheet at the third sector’s always-touchy bull. He tried almost immediately to clarify that he was referring to the need for charities to steer clear of party politics but the provocative “knitting” word had already gone viral.

UK Fundraising set up the hashtag #knitgate and The Guardian’s Michelle Hanson wrote a column: “Why Brooks Newmark is a knit-wit”, explaining how knitting is a fashionable craft these days and that women in charities do other things as well. Wilfully or not, Newmark’s remark was treated literally, and therefore as not just contentious, but demeaning, sexist and even ageist.

I hold no brief for Newmark, but I’m 100% certain that no such connotation was in his mind. My certainty is based on two pieces of evidence. First, there’s the frequency with which his critics misquoted Newmark. He said: “stick to their knitting”, not, as many reported “stick to knitting”. In omitting this one word, the media created a world of difference between Newmark’s words and the old-fashioned phrase quoted by Prins.

Second, if you check Newmark’s biography, you’ll see that he returned to his US birthplace in the early 1980s and studied for a Harvard Business School MBA. At that time, far and away the trendiest business management manual would have been Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies.

The book identified eight platitudinous-sounding “basics of management excellence”. These included such gems as “a bias for action” and “productivity through people” but also, crucially, “stick to the knitting”. It means: keeps your business model clear and simple, stick to your core competencies and your core business. Unattractive jargon, yes, even cliché – but neither sexist nor ageist.