The powerful are not immune to tragedy but it
seems empathy is often a one-way street.
At the funeral of Gordon Brown’s infant
daughter a photograph of Jennifer, taken at one hour old, printed
on the order of service, was handed to the crowds outside the
church. It was as if the public had become the Browns’ extended
Since the birth of Jennifer, the media has
been much taken by the transformation in Gordon Brown’s image. The
man of steel, mellowed by the delights of parenthood, became the
chancellor who simply couldn’t stop smiling.
For decades, feminists have argued that “The
personal is political” but, mostly, those in power have acted as if
they were removed from families or tragedy or misfortune – except
when caught in a sexual scandal.
Recently, however, among The Establishment,
the family has become visible in a directly personal way: Diana’s
death; Euan Blair’s night out; Jack Straw’s son’s involvement with
drugs; Claire Short’s reunion with the child she placed for
Now, comes the news that Prince Harry, a
member of the most famous single parent family in the land, likes
his drink and smokes the odd joint. In The Guardian, Jonathan
Freedland argues that we want ministers and royalty to be “regular
people” but with “super human strength”.
Instead, he says, we should accept that they
are “frail, imperfect human beings”. They are, in spite of the
trappings of power, merely mortal – “one of us”.
But this misses the point. We know exactly how
frail and imperfect the powerful are. It’s their dissembling to
conceal the fact that alienates. The real problem is that – too
often – they are unwilling to acknowledge how frail and imperfect
we, the electorate, are. That we too are susceptible to fate and
circumstance. Except that, social policy, the social policy they
have constructed, too often provides a grossly insufficient
Will Gordon Brown’s tragic hospital experience
of childhood illness, in the fullness of time, make him think again
about the push to encourage the majority of single parents out to
work – in spite of the much higher than average incidence of
Empathy between the governed and those who
govern is, of course, essential – but surely the point is to
narrow the gap between the lives of the rulers and the ruled, not
confirm that the powerful live on a different planet.