Andrea Leadsom, the Tory leadership candidate beloved of the people who brought you financial catastrophe and geopolitical Armageddon, has hit on why it is that she, and not chilly securocrat Theresa May, should be crowned the unelected Prime Minister of the UK. It is because Leadsom is a mother and May is not.
Leadsom, who began her every flaccid intervention in the final televised referendum debate – the one where the parties suddenly realised they should wheel out some women, and, ok-fine, one non-white guy – with ‘As a mother’, did yesterday concede in her front page interview with a paper of record wherein she developed the hell out of the theme she’d road-tested on national television, that she didn’t want this to be all “Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t”.
Bless The Times, though. They’ve unreeled all the rope the Dickensianly named candidate needs to hang herself (Leadsom invented hanging, you see. And also the Large Hadron Collider. All while acting as the Chief Investment Officer of Invesco Perpetual. OK, the assistant to him. Sorting out payroll. Same thing, really.) Interspersed with Leadsom’s damning quotes are snippets of May’s dignified sadness at her and her husband’s unwanted childlessness. And also a call, issued before Leadsom’s comments, that the campaign stay within the ‘acceptable’ limits of political debate.
I will draw an unusually capacious veil – a maternity wear issue, naturally – over what may now be imagined to comprise the acceptable limits of Britain’s national discussion.
Tonight, as the cover of tomorrow’s paper does the rounds of Twitter, Leadsom is getting her denial in early. She didn’t say any of that. Or maybe just some of it. Or maybe it was out of context. She must mean the bit where she said May might have nephews and nieces, but she, Leadsom, has children. And anyway, as Loathsome concern-trolled May, it must be ‘very sad’ for her not to have children. Sorry, Leadsom. Don’t know why that keeps happening.
(And hey, it’s not as if May is a friend to families, not to immigrant and asylum-seeking ones, anyway.)
The direct quotes have Leadsom arguing that having her own children gives her more of a stake in the future. And not just in the next one or two years, but the next ten, even. Astonished though many of us may be that someone who campaigned for Brexit was thinking even two weeks ahead, let alone beyond Christmas, let’s take the assertion on its merits.
Do parents have a bigger stake in a nation’s future?
No, they do not. They have a big stake in their own children’s future, in the vulgar-evolutionist sense of having made a big investment in same, but many of them seem to convert this single – well, on average 1.7 times – play into a strategic desire to set the rules of the game in their offspring’s favour.
Let’s look at education. Middle class parents in the UK agonise over education, intuitively accepting that it is both a positional and excludeable good. (Forgive me, economists, if I’ve mangled your terminology.) It’s not enough that your own child gets a decent education. It’s actually quite important that other people’s children don’t. Otherwise, what is the value of your child’s accent and, ahem, contacts. If you doubt the fact that everyone implicitly accepts this, think about the way people talk about why they send their children to private schools. ‘I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t’. ‘I feel awful about it but I don’t have a choice.’ ‘We just want to give her every chance we can.’
The ability to pay school fees is just one way pointy-elbowed parents stockpile social capital for their children. Who else but the agonised yet utterly self-interested middle classes will pay up to a fifty thousand pound premium on a London house within the catchment area of a highly-rated state school? (And what an idiotically unproductive way to direct that money.) Who else has the stability and white collar jobs to support five plus years of Mass-going – in south London you have to clock in and clock out of church so nobody cheats – in order to get your child into the church school? It costs money to go public, but it’s worth it.
The individual moral imperative of parents is to play the game, no matter how quare the pitch. If they don’t, they haven’t done the best for their kids. No one condemns anyone for doing the best for their own kids, even if everyone else’s kids suffer. Leadsom is not the only one keen to get the excuses and denials in early.
We all know education is broken, and in a way that magnifies advantage of those who already have it. And we probably know intellectually that education doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. But parents are too exhausted and frazzled by the effort of gaming the system to give a stuff about changing it.
Forgive me if it seems unkind to point out the bleeding obvious; but parents like Andrea Leadsom are the problem, not the solution, in a short-term, short-range, family first- political system focused on herding an ever smaller and more carefully tended flock to a place of higher economic safety.
No one criticises a parent for doing their best for their own child. We all mutter about austerity but fail to connect the dots; lower taxes for the affluent mean less services for those who need them most. That means someone else’s child. When you lose a child’s attention and confidence at the age of seven, it is likely gone for good, however you tweak the university admission system. But we don’t connect the dots, do we? Parents are too busy and exhausted holding down jobs and raising their own children to do much more than survive, and the rest of us praise them for their apparent martyrdom.
I could just as easily talk about environmental policy – if ever anything was future focused – where it’s clear that the key involved demographic is not the parenting bulge. Or we could talk about how #asamother was trotted out in the Brexit debate to talk over the views of actual young people who had a very different view about their future. We could keep on picking policy areas and defamiliarising them till the cows come home, because this stuff is so blindingly obvious it’s basically invisible. Having children does not give you a bigger stake in the future, just a narrower one.
So tell me this. Is it harassed parents who populate the local committees that do everything from beautifying public areas to keeping hospitals open? Is it parents who go canvassing door to door for whatever side or party they believe in? Is it the parents of schoolchildren who volunteer through the night to run winter shelters for the homeless? Or spend countless hours defending human rights, even though they know they will always lose? Of course not. And that’s just the wholly unremarkable tally my household contributes; my household of two people who apparently have less at stake in the future.
I don’t expect to see harassed parents doing any of this. They have an opt-out from directly supporting whole swathes of the civic society they draw on. And life, hopefully, is long. People contribute in different ways at different points. I don’t feel bad about any of this. I just wonder at the notion that those of us without children somehow have less stake.
I think we have more stake, or maybe just the same amount, but we don’t focus it laser-like on the carriers of our own genome. We’re not locked into some prisoner’s dilemma of non-cooperation with all others of our kind.
Who else looks at your children with perfectly impotent affection on the Tube, in the park, even – at a pinch – when they sit down beside us at the start of a long haul plane trip? Who has bat-like powers of noticing for the toddler peeling away from the group or the school outing’s dawdler at a road-crossing? Not the person with eyes only for their own child. No. The person who can tell a tired cry from a hungry one but is barred from offering any comfort.
And do you really think that becoming a parent gifts you more or better or higher compassion for your fellow man? Answer me this; who feels more, or at least the same amount of horror and visceral pain at the mistreatment of a child; the person who has one, or the person who has traded their health and well-being for the mere promise of one, and lost, and yet lives in a world where slapping, shouting, neglect and abuse are common?
Unchosen childlessness doesn’t get better with time. It goes underground. You find other ways to help, other ways to count, and you brace yourself for every new pain. You will always be apart. First you don’t have children. Then you don’t have grand-children. You’re the stub on the family tree. You’re a full member of only a purely abstract tribe.
Of course it is loathsome to suggest a person is better qualified to lead a country if they have children who (they hope) will survive them. But it’s not a remarkable view. We reflexively value parents more than non-parents, and we communicate this to the non-parents in dozens of different ways. That’s crummy, but it’s life.
But consider this. Enlightened disinterest is something we should treasure and cultivate when it comes to the totality of the nation’s children; caring for all of them, not just the ones we’re related to. We all have pretty much the same amount of love to give; some of us just have to spread it more widely.