I have only just discovered Emily Thornberry, Labour MP for Islington South, by catching up on last week’s Question Time. What a terrible experience. Thornberry did not only show what we must hope is her worst side, but displayed the worst of modern British politics.
Answering a question about ‘problem families’, her fellow-panellist Peter Hitchens stated that ‘the reasons why we have so many problem families’ fundamentally comes down to ‘the destruction of the married family by the deliberate subsidising of fatherless families and an enormous welfare dependent class.’ He specifically did not blame individuals, let alone single-mothers, but stated that:
‘Until we get serious welfare reform aimed at bringing back the solid family life which people used to enjoy in this country and which used to be particularly good for the upbringing of children, then these problems will persist.’
To which Emily Thornberry replied:
‘I suppose that given that my family that I was brought up was fatherless, and I suppose the fact that my mother was on benefits and that we lived in a council estate means that we were one of the problem families that you talk about, Peter. But actually, do you know what, we had a solid family life and we did well and me and my brothers did well and my mum struggled, and how dare you say that women, that single parents that live on council estates are therefore by definition problem families? How dare you?’
Throughout this Ms Thornberry’s eyes narrowed with pretend disgust and her whole face assumed a thuggish, loutish gurn. It was not the face of somebody who was genuinely angry. It was the face of someone who wishes to be thought angry. Perhaps Ms Thornberry’s impression of moral outrage was so poor because it is not an emotion she has ever actually felt.
As it happens, Ms Thornberry is a well-off barrister, married to a well-off barrister and lives in Islington. Perhaps these facts cause her some problems in her search for a ‘woman of the people’ air. So her evidently pre-planned opening was to parade her privileged single-parent child status.
I say ‘privileged’ because that is clearly what it is. There used to be a time when to be the child of a single parent (unless a parent had been bereaved) might have been regarded as a negative asset. Thankfully that period has passed. People now generally try not to hold children responsible for the actions and decisions of their parents. But Ms Thornberry clearly hoped that we have all gone the other way, and that though there is no particular stigma attached to being the child of a single-parent there may be something extra to be gained from it. Perhaps she is right. Much of the studio audience seemed persuaded. There are a number of issues like this on which the social pendulum has swung slightly beyond what might be regarded as a level state. Though the country as a whole may not think like this, anybody on television who says ‘as a child of a single parent’, just like anybody who says ‘as a gay man’ or the like, is usually a person expecting to have a slightly disproportionate amount of attention given to their views.
It has always been my view that if there is no shame to be attached to a thing, then there should be no pride attached to it either. It just is. I am sorry that Thornberry grew up without a father. But if her views, morality or moral-standing are no worse off because of it then I do not see why they should be seen to be particularly better off because of it either.
Perhaps one should feel sorry for her for another reason. After all, it must be difficult for a thrusting figure like her to carve out a niche in today’s politics. On most major issues there is simply too little difference between the attitudes of the major parties for someone with such ambition to make a reputation. Perhaps she sees phony outrage on concocted stories as the only way. This week she summoned-up faked outrage over a pretended assault on single-mothers, but next it could be a pretended assault on the NHS, or immigrants, or nurses, or teachers. And this is what passes for politics.
The replacement of political debate by personal story-telling is not just debasing because facts and research should matter, but because it does absolutely no good to anyone other, possibly, than the person doing it. No other life is improved, education turned around or job found in the process. If anything, it simply encourages people to stay exactly where they are.
Finally, how unsurprising it was that when asked to recite a poem from heart, all the panel other than Mr Hitchens failed to manage it. A couple, including Ms Thornberry, attempted a nursery rhyme, while the Lib Dem tried to demonstrate that he was cool with pop culture. Among the virtues of poetry, literature and the arts, is that they take people out of themselves and open them up to experiences and ideas beyond our own necessarily limited experience. Having witnessed her earlier behaviour, who could have been surprised that Ms Thornberry would be among the individuals incapable of accomplishing such a task?