It was a Friday morning in 1992, Britain had just had an election, and I was on an ice rink. No special reason. You’re in Edinburgh, you’re a posh teenager, it’s the Christmas or Easter holidays, weekday mornings you go to the ice rink. It was a thing. Maybe it still is.
I was only quite recently posh at the time, having moved schools, and I was — in both a figurative general sense and literal ice-skating sense — still finding my feet. My new boarding-school life was pretty good, though. The way you went ice-skating in the holidays was a bit weird, granted, but you could smoke Marlboro at the side and it was a chance to meet girls. Even better, they were girls’-school girls, who had nobody to compare you against. Always my favourite.
Both my parents had been out at the count the night before, with my mother watching my father unexpectedly not crashing out of government. Possibly I’d been at a friend’s house, but I don’t recall. Either way, I was early to the rink and listlessly skated around by myself until I spotted a guy who was a friend of a friend. I remember it clearly. He was wearing a Barbour.
‘Quite a night!’ he said, or words to that effect.
‘Yes,’ I said, warily.
‘I didn’t think we’d win!’ he said cheerfully, and skated off.
We. I’ve never forgotten it. I was 15. My father had been a Conservative politician since I was minus three, and never before had somebody of my own age said the word ‘we’ to me and meant the Tories. Why would they? Being Conservative, as far as I knew, was this odd thing that only my family did, much like the way we were Jewish. When other people raised the issue, which they did often, it was invariably to point out that they or their families were something else.
This was Scotland in the 1990s. I mean, no wonder, right? My mother, who worked for the NHS, used to get the same. ‘I don’t agree with your politics, but…’ was how people apparently used to start every conversation. When I was in the car with my dad, people would quite often flick V-signs or shout things at traffic lights. He’d smile and wave. We’d be stopped on the street, too, even by people who weren’t wholly sure who he was. ‘You’re that guy…’ they’d say. ‘I do the weather,’ he’d say. ‘Oh yeah,’ they’d say.
I’m not whining. Or if I am, I really don’t mean to be. This stuff wasn’t torture. It didn’t remotely negate an otherwise quite glorious adolescence, replete with the sorts of advantages I’m sure you’ll be itching to tell me about in the comments. But it was there. Quite often, I get the sense that people have an entirely erroneous conception of what life is like in a political family. You do not, as appears to be commonly understood, grow up in an atmosphere of certainty and entitlement. Instead you grow up wary and a little nervy; prematurely aware both that not everybody thinks as you do, and of the seemingly bottomless willingness of other-wise pleasant humans to blithely consider people they don’t really know to be absolute scum. In Alan Hollinghurst’s otherwise wonderful The Line of Beauty, the one thing that never rang true to me was the rather cultish loyalty of Gerald Fedden’s family. In real life, at least in my experience, politicians neither get this nor expect it. Or at least no more than anybody else does.
Politicians’ families are the bit of their lives you don’t often see. Which is how it should be. Blair splayed his out for public consumption, and surely regrets it now. Cameron did the same for a while, but seems to have thought better of it. Gordon Brown leaving Downing Street with his two boys was a beautiful moment, precisely because the world had never seen them before. In an interview with Nigel Farage’s wife, Kirsten, after last week’s election, I was reminded that the Ukip leader has four children between the ages of eight and 27. With a surname like that, I do not envy them their life today, nor for the next five years. I wonder how long it takes new people to ask. Nick Clegg’s oldest will be pushing 12 about now. Same.
Addressing a charity lunch a week or so ago, Sarah Vine, the wife of Michael Gove, told her audience that she had considered sending her small children to Italy so as to spare them the ordeal of being told by other children in the playground that nobody liked their dad. Her comments, unsurprisingly, were reported in pretty much every newspaper. Nothing else happened, though. Fleet Street has an army of columnists, many of whom exist to link the personal to the political and will often do so with the most tenuous of hooks. Not one of them dived into this. Nobody asked about it on Question Time. There was no Twitter storm. Nothing.
Obviously, politicians should not be able to hide behind those silent and bewildered children in their homes. Those in the front line know the deal, from Clegg to Gove to Farage. Some political kids end up nuts or in public life, others end up both, or neither. Probably, on average, it’s a boon. But I worry about the way that public sentiment seems to have no technique for connecting with Vine’s revelation; to condemn it or explain it or excuse it or do anything other than simply pretend it just didn’t happen. Back when I was a gossip diarist, I had a sticker on my monitor which read ‘remember people are people’. Politics is pretty ugly right now. I think it might be time to get another one.
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Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
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