Parents and politics

The resignation of Ruth Kelly from the Cabinet to spend more time with her family brought back thoughts I’d been having after the selection of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidental candidate. I got involved in a discussion then about whether it was a good idea for a parent with a baby who had special needs to be running for vice president. It was only afterwards that realised that I hadn’t been terribly consistent, trying to make unreasonably fine distinctions about what was and wasn’t good practice (e.g. the difference between Sarah Palin’s circumstances and those of David Cameron, who also has a child with disabilities).

I wondered after the discussion whether I was just being unconsciously sexist about the role of mothers (and I can’t ignore the possibility of that). Some commentators on feminist blogs raised a similar issue: wouldn’t feminists have reacted more positively to a liberal female politician with the same family circumstances as Palin? It was thinking about this that led me to see the wider problem here. What neither liberals nor conservatives can admit is that being a prominent politician harms one’s children.

More specifically, being a politician seems to me the white-collar profession that intrinsically has most negative impact on one’s children. (I’m restricting this to white-collar jobs, because some other jobs are sufficiently hazardous to the parent’s health as to make them more negative). Why is this? Being a politician involves very long hours (I once heard Peter Lilley, my MP, reckoning that his constituency work required 80 hours a week) and irregular hours (with sudden crises). It normally also involves a high level of travel away from home. It combines this with unusually high visibility for the children. Even if they are not exploited by the parent for photo-opportunities and the like, they are still likely to be discussed by the media and have their personal details and problems reported (drinking or drug-taking, unmarried pregnancy, difficulties at school, appearance etc).

No other jobs combine this visibility of the child with such an antisocial workload for the parent (with the possible exception of high-profile religious leaders). There is little public interest in the children of corporate high-flyers, and while the children of celebrities do fascinate the media, such celebrities normally have far more control over their own workload.

As against these negatives, the children of politicians get relatively few positives. For all the moaning about the incompetence of politicians, almost all of them would be able to earn at least a decent middle-class income outside politics, while some would find better-paid jobs than politics offers. Politicians’ families would therefore not suffer any significant financial hardship if they took up an alternative career. Politicians’ children may find personal inspiration from their parents’ activities, but it’s very hard to see this as so much greater than for other parental jobs as to make up for the negative aspects. There are obviously degrees of harm involved to the children, depending on their age, the personal circumstances, and the effort taken by the politician to mitigate it, but the reality remains that the effect is always going to be negative. Unless we want to restrict the political class to the childless and those with adult children, politician’s children are going to suffer as a result of our electoral choices.

If the public were honest, we would have to accept this. What we are doing is making a choice that the good of the many (who benefit from the politician’s policies) outweighs the good of that politician’s children. But because we cannot admit that we are prepared to sacrifice the well-being of those children, we have to try and pretend that those politicians to whose politics we are sympathetic aren’t harming or imperilling their children. Which is why conservatives applaud Sarah Palin for running even when they normally think that a mother’s place is in the home: the thought that her anti-abortion views may be positive for millions of ‘innocent babies’ allows them to accept her neglecting her maternal role. The more liberal among us, however, can see nothing positive in her policies that could outweigh the difficulties she is causing her family. Similarly, liberals who feel an Obama presidency would benefit the US (and the world) are prepared to ignore any negative impact this would have on his children (which includes the real possibility of his assassination). We can’t really have an honest debate on politicians and their families until we’re prepared to face the truth about our own attitudes, which I suspect will be a long time coming.

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