Hugo Rifkind

The truth about being a politician’s child

It’s not that you’re more certain than anyone else. It’s that you find out early how many people disagree with you – and despise you for it

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

31 May 2014

9:00 AM

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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Show comments
  • CraigStrachan

    I always liked your dad, Hugo. I had a five minute conversation with him about Hong Kong, when he was Minister of State at the FCO and I was a spotty 15-year-old. (Tells you all you need to know about the type of teenager I was, and about your dad’s gracious foreberance).

    • cromwell

      And your teenage gullibility

  • cromwell

    The truth about being a politician’s child is you cant believe a word your father says.

    • rtj1211

      Actually, the truth is you learn early about the internal inconsistencies of those in senior positions in society.

      Pushing the Labour Party mantras whilst behaving like a Conservative. Equating seniority with controlling people, not knowing more than them. Failing to distinguish between what works for the majority and what works for one individual (your child). How the work environment changing makes the parent-child relationship change (when the boss, the father is empowering; when schmoozing in a sycophantic hierarchy, the father becomes a dictator at home).

      I learned all those things by the age of 14.

  • cromwell

    Malcolm Rifkind to Hugo Rifkind further proof of nepotism i high places.

    • rtj1211

      Doesn’t seem likely: being a journalist at the Times and the Speccie is hardly earth-shattering for the son of a Foreign Secretary. Sounds to me like he preferred a quieter, less pressured environment to his fathers and made suitable choices.

      • Cymrugel

        No, but its a well paid sinecure for someone who really doesn’t want to work too hard.

        I remember when Hugo Rifkind started out – he just popped up one day with a by-lined column in the Scotsman – and he has moved on progressively since then. It’s an unusual name so it was pretty obvious he was the son of the politician. It’s not rocket science.

        The man has no chops as a journalist andcame out of nowhere.
        This is only possible because of nepotism. If he did not have a cabinet minster for a father would anyone be interested in his opinions? He has basically built a career on his name and family connections.

        Most of the rest of the bloggers in the Spectator are journalists with years of experience who have built careers based on their skills and paying their dues. Not this guy though.

        Has he trained as a journalist? Spent any time working in local media? Learned his craft on regional newspapers? Worked for local radio or in magazines?

        Not bloody likely.

        Its just straight from the college rag and onto the opinion column.
        I suppose there might be an better example of nepotism but offhand I can’t think of one.

        Seems like a nice enough bloke, but do we really want out society to be run in this way in the 21st century?

        • Hugo Rifkind

          First, it was the Herald.

          Second, it was after three years of freelancing for the Evening Standard and The Times, in the latter case graduating to the stage where I was writing cover stories for the magazine. And that itself followed two years at a news website.

          Third, so?

          • Cymrugel

            OK fair do’s- the Herald.

            I stand corrected. Its just that the two blend in so much these days.

            The fact is nevertheless that it is unheard of for a virtually unknown journalist to get their own by-line in what purports to be a national paper on the strength of a couple of years of freelancing and blogging on a website.

            You’d have to have Swiftian levels of talent to merit such a meteoric rise, and no offence mate, but that’s not you.

            Yours is the most naked bit of nepotism in the media I have seen other than that of Dan Snow. OK the lad got a good degree from Oxford, but his coming out party was to present a whole series on British battlefields with dear old Dad.

            I was utterly gobsmacked.

            Taxpayers money being used to simply flourish the Son of Snow into his rightful place in the media – no need to work up to it; no need to train or cut his teeth – just straight in. This must surely be the BBC equivalent of buying ones son a commission.

            Makes you look like you worked your way up from the factory floor.

            All the same your career is based upon nepotism so naked I am amazed you have the brass neck to write a whinge like this.

            Be thankful and behave yourself lad.

          • Hugo Rifkind

            Five. Five years.

          • Cymrugel

            You are not going to be able to win this one Hugo. You are on very shaky ground.

            You can insist until you are blue in the face; its simply is not precedented for a journalist with your level of experience to arrive with their own by-lined column based upon the level of experience you have to show.

            Those who do are either celebrities of some sort who have their copy ghosted, or the halfwit children of existing celebrities writing bubble headed tripe in the tabloids simply because they are the child of some minor pop star or whatever.

            You, by contrast, are writing on fairly serious issues in the mainstream press. The trouble is that any time you write about anything touching upon the malaise that our national life and mode of government is currently sunk in your readers – and you- are obliged to try and ignore the elephant in the room; namely that your are a product of the very nepotism and social malaise that you are writing about.

            You know perfectly well, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, that you would not be in the position you now occupy if your father were not a former cabinet minister.

            Look at the people around you in the Spectator. Each of them, with the exception of the likes of the ridiculous Taki, who is basically a comedy turn writing “outrageous” copy, is a journalist with years of experience in the regional and national press.

            Either acknowledge the reality of your situation or simply avoid writing on topics where you are a man sitting in a glass house surrounded by stone throwers.

          • WorthSayingForever

            Cymrugal, its not what you know, it’s who you know.

          • Cymrugel

            I just find it bizarre that a columnist who has used family connections and nepotism to get on has the brass neck to write about serious issues. He is part of the problems he is writing about.

          • Mike Pg

            It’s strange that we should suffer for our parents perceived ‘misdemeanours’. Personally I think good for you if you managed to get published without the necessary credentials that Cymrugel believes you should have to be a journalist.

            Of course I will be seen as a no-hoper as I don’t support the views of others and am clearly sucking up to you, whereas I see myself as a person who has the freedom to say as he pleases. I may be wrong 🙂

            Maybe if you had be good fortune to be a nobody, from the street, with no qualifications and the chance to write an article or two everyone would be applauding…I wonder 🙂

            Instead, let’s curse you for being born and having a father who people can feel justified for disliking for being involved in politics.

            Anyway, I for one enjoyed what I read, only after did Icheck that you were who I thought you were 🙂

    • WorthSayingForever

      And Malcolm Rifkind is Leon Brittan’s cousin.

  • Andrew Smith

    I thought journalists were supposed to write about the world, not their autobiography. This happens a lot these days.

    • rtj1211

      The world is full of politicians’ children who might wish to be public figures right now. Jack Straw’s son, Euan Blair, Chelsea Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marine Le Pen, the RT journalist etc etc.

      If you want to try and understand those types, maybe a harmless fellow species member like Hugo Rifkind can illuminate a bit through personal experience?

  • Matthew 88

    This is interesting and honest piece. The ubiquitous – and somewhat self-congratulatory – cynicism of the public about politicians is well overdone. I would far rather people chose a better-deserved target such as preening alternative comedians

  • Cymrugel

    Oh God Hugo! The Horror! However do you cope?

    Private education, Oxbridge and then a stellar career pretty much from nothing; just popping upon one fine day with your own column in the Scotsman.

    How often does that happen do you think – a completely unknown journalist being given a by-line in a national newspaper, without any sign of anything they have written anywhere else?

    Then its off to London and another column in the Standard and then the Telegraph. Do you seriously suppose you would be where you are today if your papa wasn’t a tory cabinet minister?

    Cry me a river Rifkind, cry me a river.

    • Hugo Rifkind

      I’ve never had a column in the Scotsman, the Telegraph or the Standard. Possibly you’re confusing me with somebody else.

  • Helen

    The scrutiny of politicians has become ludicrous. Cameron has his holiday attire pored over, Milliband is laughed at for eating a bacon butty in public, imagine being the child of a well known politician. I think it would be hell. Why shouldn’t Hugo write about his experiences (ever so mildly), why does his privileged life mean that he can’t talk about this stuff?. Children go through all sorts of hardships regardless of their backgrounds.