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Politics is vicious, and decency can be a vanishing mirage. Writing on ‘Cameron Must Go’ Twitter hashtag, Jack Monroe, a food blogger and anti-poverty campaigner, said: “Because he uses stories about his dead son as misty-eyed rhetoric to legitimise selling our NHS to his friends”.
This is in reference to the Prime Minister’s late son Ivan Cameron, who died in 2009. Dr Sarah Wolloston (Con, Totnes) called the tweets “heartless” and “disgusting”. The whirlwind of outrage and piety began, and the resulting Twitter storm was highlighted by national media outlets.
This is not a new accusation. In 2011, Simon Carr of The Independent reported that Shadow Health Secretary John Healey (Lab, Wentworth and Dearne) told his colleagues “David Cameron had used the death of his disabled son to detoxify the Tory brand and to validate his party’s position on the NHS”. Joan McAlpine MSP gave a non-apology for repeating a similar assertion, initially made by a Political Scrapbook article. Putting aside any disgust from the accusation: is this true?
David Cameron has been influenced, as any parent would be, by the care – and tragic loss – of his child. As Australia’s ABC noted in 2009:
Mr Cameron’s experience of caring for Ivan has been seen as the driving force behind his promotion of “Compassionate Conservatism”, helping make the party electable again after a decade in the political wilderness.
References to the late Ivan may be oblique. For example, in a speech to Ealing Hosptial, David Cameron said:
That goes to show something I’ve known all along: that the NHS is the most important thing to Britain’s families.
Some of Mr Cameron’s speeches on the NHS do not allude to his son at all. Other references are more direct and elaborate. At the 2014 Conservative Party Conference, Mr Cameron said:
I am someone who has relied on the NHS – whose family knows more than most how important it is… who knows what it’s like to go to hospital night after night with a child in your arms… know that when you get there, you have people who will care for that child and love that child like their own. How dare they suggest I would ever put that at risk for other people’s children?
This is not being “misty-eyed”. Mr Cameron is responding to a particular criticism, which says he is callous about the NHS. It is incongruous to attack politicians for being ‘out of touch’, and then to condemn them when they draw from their own lives. The claim that Mr Cameron ‘legitimises’ NHS policies with “stories about his dead son” – rather than to explain why he believes the NHS is important – does not survive scrutiny.
Consequent assertions also perish. Ms Monroe stated that Samantha Cameron “should have a word with [the Prime Minister] about using him as political fodder”. According to ITV, Mrs Cameron agreed “very strongly and personally passionate” about the need to discuss the NHS and its direct impact of their family.
In a response to the Daily Mail, Ms Monroe said she doesn’t “regret pointing out that [David Cameron] closes down debate on NHS & disability”. It is incompatible to claim the Prime Minister ends debates on the NHS and disability policies, presumably in fear of besmirching the memory of his late son, when people easily repeat Ms Monroe’s accusation with such fervent glee. Furthermore, there are fevered discussions about the NHS, as well as the coalition government’s wider platform, on social media, in newspapers and on television.
We should be concerned about a political culture that seeks a pound of flesh so swiftly. There have been calls for Ms Monroe to be sacked by her employers, Sainsbury’s and The Guardian. There is always an advantage in knowing what people really think.
The lowest politics ascribes the lowest motives to its opponents. Through this lens, politics is a fantasy about good and evil, slaying dragons and extinguishing injustices. Real politics has shimmering fragments and grey nuances: people can be impassioned, but disagree; people can read the same words, but conjure distinct interpretations; people can have the same aims, but prefer differing means. Those supposedly seeing into the souls of others offer a looking glass into their own.