I doubted that anyone could be unmoved by reading, in yesterday’s Sunday Times, the extract from David Cameron’s book about his son, Ivan.
It had a dual power – simultaneously communicating the love, loss and heartbreak of a bereaved parent, while leaving the reader certain that the full scale of each emotion was in reality beyond the reckoning of those of us who are mercifully trying to understand it from a distance. We can all conceive of the awfulness of such a situation in our imagination, reelingly and sickeningly so with the aid of an honest and effective writer, but none of us can truly appreciate the truth of it. Even the recounting left me – and many other readers, judging from the comments below the extract – with a tear in my eye.
Perhaps the author of this morning’s Guardian editorial had not read the extract in question. I certainly hope that’s the case, because had they done so it would be all the more inexcusable to have written this passage (now deleted by the newspaper):
‘Mr Cameron has known pain and failure in his life but it has always been limited failure and privileged pain. The miseries of boarding school at seven are entirely real and for some people emotionally crippling but they come with an assurance that only important people can suffer that way. Even his experience of the NHS, which looked after his severely disabled son, has been that of the better functioning and better funded parts of the system. Had he been forced to wrestle with the understaffed and over-managed hospitals of much of England, or had he been trying to get the system to look after a dying parent rather than a dying child, he might have understood a little of the damage that his policies have done.’
Like Cameron’s account of his experience, this has a dual impact. The first is an almost physical revolt against how vile and unfeeling it is to diminish and dismiss his family’s loss as merely “privileged pain”.
Obviously there is no such thing. Pain is pain – privilege might spare one a pain in the first place, but it cannot dull a parent’s feeling at the suffering of their child, nor provide a route to bypass the agony of bereavement.
It’s in the implication that it can do such things that the second impact of those words can be found.
The anonymous leader writer does not lack empathy entirely – indeed, they appear to issue their cruel verdict as an illustration of their empathy for those they see as victims of Cameron’s policies. Rather, this is a targeted lack of empathy, inspired by a political choice.
Most obviously it’s a particularly obscene outgrowth of the politics of envy: literally dehumanising Cameron because of his “privilege”, as though money or power gave him a thicker skin, or excised the part of his soul which mourns his son.
But it isn’t just that. Presumably the writer doesn’t believe this of all people blessed with privilege – or they would feel the same about their many Guardian colleagues who are fortunate to be well-heeled, well-educated and prominent in public life. No, this isn’t simply about the rich – it’s about the rich and right-wing being a different, supposedly inhumane, breed.
In other words, political disagreement, as well as a fortunate background, made the former Prime Minister a valid target for such treatment. I doubt it was deliberate; rather it has become a baked-in cultural assumption in some quarters, an unthinking bigotry which starts off from principles that the holder believes makes them a nice person and carries them by logical extension to a really rather unpleasant place.
That error is not new. Years ago, when Cameron occasionally made public reference to the widely known fact of his bereavement – something he could hardly hide, even had he wanted to, which I doubt – some were sufficiently partisan as to suggest that he was somehow seeking political advantage. Such people did not used to write national newspaper leaders, but apparently the beliefs that underlie such behaviour are spreading.
In that sense, the sorry episode is emblematic of a vicious undercurrent of our times. Even the original tweet flagging the Guardian’s comments began ‘I’m no fan of David Cameron but…’. That ought not to need saying – empathy if it is anything is free of implications of political alliance. That it was said is less a reflection on the Tweeter than the mean-spirited environment into which she knew she was stepping.