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On Tuesday morning something quite incredible happened. I picked up a copy of the Daily Mail, read the headline and, for the first time ever, I thought: ”That’s me.” It was, I have to say, akin to that moment in The Shining when you realise Jack Nicholson’s character has truly lost it.
Anyway, the lead splash proclaimed that we are now a nation of part-timers. Out of 200,000 jobs created last year, only 3% were full time. Of course in the eyes of the Daily Mail this was seen as a bad thing with no room for any positive spin whatsoever but I suddenly realised that, yes, I guess I am a part-timer in the eyes of society and therefore, presumably, I have something in common with their readers. Maybe this was some sort of turning point in my life and I will suddenly stop watching Channel Four and start blaming the increasing number of potholes in our roads on our supposedly lax immigration laws.
But then I reached page 14 of the same paper and read a column by Max Hastings. Its headline screamed: ‘Running the country is a full time job – you can’t do it between nappy changes’ so naturally it caught my eye. If Max Hastings was suggesting someone like me could never be prime minister, I wanted to know why.
Well I imagine you can already guess the gist of the article. It was sparked by Nick Clegg sending a memo to all at Whitehall saying that anyone who wants him to read departmental paperwork must get it into his red dispatch box (a posh Daily Mail way of saying ‘in-tray) before this closes at 15.00. The assumption by Mr Hastings being that it is so Nick Clegg can go home, make some tea and toast and settle down to watch the Zingzillas with his young family. How dare he – he should be running the country.
It’s not just Nick Clegg. David Cameron comes under fire for taking paternity leave after the birth of his child last summer. I mean, what is this world coming to? Politicians, says Mr Hastings, are ”engaged in a running contest for a Best Dad prize”, taking pride in rescheduling meetings around the school run and rushing home to read their children bedtime stories.
To summarise the rest of the piece, Tony Blair started it, Maggie Thatcher would never have stood for it and Churchill never bothered with his children at all. So we need someone like Churchill in charge (or was that an 80s sitcom?)
Oh, where to begin. Well first of all might not Nick Clegg have sent the memo about the 15.00 cut-off to stop his staff from, how shall I put this, faffing about. Much more can be achieved by giving people set hours to do things rather than the 14 hour days in Thatcher’s era where much of Whitehall no doubt spent hours convening around the water cooler (or the 80s equivalent thereof) for a gossip. Clearly were there to be an emergency like a war in a Middle Eastern country or riots in the more unsavoury areas of the home counties over the rising fuel prices, Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron would get someone else to put on the chicken nuggets and Alphabites for their children so they could attend to the country’s needs.
Mr Hastings talks of all good leaders, whether of a country or a business, having to accept that to make it to the top, there are prices to pay and sacrifices to make: in other words, forget having a family life or seeing very much of your children. He says he wants to be governed by someone who lives the business of the state day and night, and not a star parent. This is his prerogative as a voter but as a journalist I am not sure he is considering the bigger picture. We are a democracy and anyone should be able to run for office and have the ambition to become prime minister. There are already too many barriers in the way. You need money definitely and to have had a university education usually. Some have bypassed these quite encouragingly but after all that, to then be saying well, we don’t want you to have much of a family life thank you very much, is going too far. Mr Hastings cites the example of Norman Fowler resigning in 1990 to spend more time with his family being his only memorable contribution to national life. A Westcountry MP recently gave in his notice for similar reasons. I say what a shame. The nation loses it when people like this call it a day. I’m not saying being an MP or PM should be a part time job but this isn’t the Churchill era any more or even the 80s. This is the 2010s and our leaders should have the right not to have to neglect their families. We need these people in power precisely because they know what it is like to have kids and all the demands and pressures and problems this brings. Ultimately aren’t we all trying to make our country a better place for our children? I’m not a big fan of Messrs Cameron or Clegg but I am in no doubt they are constantly thinking how to achieve this, even when they are at home reading the Gruffalo. Their children inspire them rather than hinder.
I could go on. I haven’t even started on the implication of Mr Hastings’ column on mums. Presumably you can’t lead at all if you’re a mum. Then there’s the utilitarian argument. Why should the children of leaders have to suffer for the sake of the nation? By now I was well and truly ready to fling the paper across the floor. Then I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I wasn’t becoming like a typical Daily Mail reader at all.
Normal service had been resumed. Phew.