To young Peter Rees-Mogg, it probably just seemed like a day out with his father. It was simply ‘How do you get six children back to London?’ as Mogg explained on his biweekly radio show several days later, expanding on why he had taken his eleven-year-old to the crucial meeting with the then Prime Minister at Chequers, leading to some jokes about whether Mogg Jr was about to be made Transport Secretary.
‘I normally take the four school children back, and my wife comes up in the morning with the two little ones, and there was no room for Peter in the car… He was very excited by it.’ Regardless, the sight of young Peter, sitting next to his father in the front seat, dressed almost identically in a little tweed blazer, was a rare moment in the day.
Well, not to Hannah Jane Parkinson who immediately fired off an article describing the eleven-year-old child sitting happily at his father’s side as ‘the one he styles to look like him’ and further described the child as ‘extremely weird.’ Horrifyingly, she wasn’t alone in such jibes.
Mumsnet, the community of loving parents who presumably understand the close bond between parent and child, are as equally understanding. ‘And then he turns up in Wales with a son who is wearing the same clothes as him’ shrieked one user, after photos emerged this summer of Rees-Mogg and his young son out on the campaign trail.
As the following posts descended into a volley of insults, bile, and nigh-on death threats, it was a nice reminder that these pillars of society might be dropping off their kids at your local school gates.
More recently, the Rees-Mogg children have hit the headlines again. This time, police had been forced to remove protesters away from the Mogg family home following Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament. Then, just last week, an outcry erupted that drew condemnation from all areas of the political spectrum.
A spiteful Guardian editorial, summarising David Cameron’s autobiography, callously described the tragic death of his six-year-old severely disabled son Ivan as ‘limited suffering and privileged pain.’ The remarks were met with an outpouring of criticism, including a heartfelt article from explorer and fellow bereaved parent Ben Fogle, leading to the withdrawing of the specific section of the article and an apology from the editor, Katharine Viner. And, just this Wednesday, Jo Swinson tearfully told the Commons how she had been forced to report to the police a threat which had been made to one of her children.
We have an odd relationship with the children of politicians in the UK. They’re not ubiquitous, as the children of US politicians seem to be, where it appears to be an accepted fact that they’ll appear at campaign rallies and, should they end up in the White House, be scrutinised by the world’s media.
Politicians’ children in the UK are afforded more privacy. When David and Samantha Cameron emerged from 10 Downing Street with their three children in 2016 to resign as Prime Minister, it was the first time the public had seen the faces of Cameron’s children since their father had taken power six years before.
Politicians are used to being mocked as it, unfortunately, comes with the territory. But, it seems to be in recent years that we’ve seen fit to extend that mocking to their children, often with a tinge of class resentment to serve as some self-pitying justification. ‘What’s so special about his precious daughter?’ one charming woman stated, referring to David Cameron’s then four-year-old daughter Nancy because he committed the egregious sin of not sending his child to the same school as her own.
Politicians’ children have, until recently, seemed to be off-limits. There have been occasions where an MPs decision to put their children in the public eye is commented on, as Ed Miliband was criticised for exposing his two young sons to the media repeatedly during the 2015 election campaign, to the point where his then five-year-old son Daniel seemed to become distressed protesting: “The only time you want me to look over there is because of the cameras!”
However, of late, something nastier has risen to the surface. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s children were shouted at and harassed by protesters outside of their family home, and while there was an outcry from pretty much all sides of the political debate, some online saw an opportunity.
‘Let’s not pretend Jacob Rees-Mogg’s voting record isn’t responsible for bringing misery to millions of working-class kids’ remarked one Twitter user. Jessica Simor, a QC who this year stood as a candidate for the European Parliament and was soundly rejected by the electorate, took the novel approach of blaming Rees-Mogg for his children being ambushed outside of their home.
Over Christmas, when Michael Gove’s teenage son was badly injured in a household accident, a person claiming to be a comedy author, found the idea of a child suffering life-threatening injuries hilarious by stating: ‘Yes, I can believe Michael Gove’s son is stupid enough to trip on a Christmas tree so hard he fell through a plate-glass window’.
Following the outpouring of fury directed at her, the same woman refused to back down. This at one point lead to the child’s mother, Sarah Vine, confronting her directly, only for the woman to tell her that she and Gove were to blame for the accident. This attitude rightfully provoked outrage from all sides as Labour MP Jess Phillips, a vocal critic of Gove’s, described it as ‘horrid’. But what didn’t gain quite so much outrage were other, quieter, yet snider comments.
Caroline Flint’s daughter, Hanna, has openly written about being interrogated by her teachers during her time at secondary school after her mother’s decision to vote for the Iraq War. Ed Miliband’s sons, while on a bus travelling home from Lords last summer with their father, had the rest of the passengers begin chanting at them. Ed Balls, while attending a football match with his teenage son, had a stranger march up to the pair and spit abuse in their faces before storming off.
Peter Bone was sent mocked-up images of his twelve-year-old son being executed. Julia Hartley-Brewer, while not a politician, has described an incident in which her then preteen daughter was told by a stranger “Aren’t you ashamed to be her daughter?” And Michael Gove’s children, while on holiday in New York three years ago, were openly told by a young British teacher, that they shouldn’t even exist, because their father “shouldn’t be allowed to have a family”.
But one incident that encapsulates this simmering bitterness, perhaps better than any other, is one that features an unnamed child and an unnamed politician. Isabel Hardman recounts in her book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, a primary-school-aged child of a politician attending school in the wake of the expenses crisis and being called up to the front of an assembly by the headteacher, who complimented him on his outfit. The headteacher then followed up with ‘Did your mother get those for you on her expenses?’
And there we have the crux of the problem. Yes, it was a reference to the expenses scandal. Yes, some politicians had taken advantage of the expenses system. But, the motivation behind the comment was more than that. It was a sad, small, pathetic fact that deep down, some individuals believe that these children are deserving of vitriol because of the family they were born into.
And there are several ways in which it is justified. We can tell ourselves that those children are just too silly and little to know that Mummy or Daddy is Satan incarnate and the moment they turn 18 they’ll flee from their home as if they were Corbyn seeing a Brexit fence to climb on. ‘What are the odds that at least one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s kid’s rebels and becomes a decent and productive member of society?’ was one Twitter users comment.
Then there were the responses to the innocent comments posted by Jane Merrick on the day of Cameron’s resignation, criticising the idea of booing the former Prime Minister in front of his children: ‘A bit of booing is less brutal than messing up the future for everyone else’s kids’ was one bitter response, implying that their satisfaction depended on seeing the Camerons’ children suffer in some small way. While another stated that ‘These people are called tories and the booing was intended to make them ashamed’.
Then if they don’t dramatically turn against their parents by marching out of the house holding a guillotine containing a cardboard model of their family’s heads, a whole different argument will emerge. They deserve it, and we should have been cruller to them when they were children because that’ll help them in the long run. The reason this sounds completely berserk is because it is.
Not everyone is as blatant as this, of course. A lot choose to express sympathy for a politician’s child but wrap and drape the words in sighing little whispers of whataboutery. “But, really, they have money, so can’t they just, I don’t know, put up with having abuse screamed at them once in a while?”
That’s the message underneath this. Oh, people can argue that they’re ‘telling the children the truth’, as the people behind the attack on Rees-Mogg’s children tried to claim, unsuccessfully, and that ‘children are fair game’. Or even that their argument is more important than the emotional wellbeing of young children.
But the truth is, deep down, they know these children are more privileged than themselves, and being hurtful towards those children makes them feel a little bit better. And if those children don’t like it, well, that’s their problem. “It’s the least they could do” seems to be the mindset. The least the rich do is sit and listen to our abuse without response, for the simple aim of making us feel the tiniest bit better about our own lives. After all, they have ‘privileged pain’.
It’s one thing to believe a grudge aimed at the politician is worth involving their children, despicable though that is. But, there’s a new sinister undercurrent to these kinds of comments, a feeling of entitlement to aim hatred at the children themselves. Eat The Rich is becoming Eat The Rich’s Kids, just to make ourselves feel a little bit better, and then act surprised when we don’t get the sympathy vote.
It’s not about class war. It’s not about needing to make a point. It’s not about the voice of the people. It’s about, purely and simply, envy and jealousy of a group of children, even if you admit it to no one but yourself. It’s the ugliest side of the Eat The Rich mentality, the idea that a six-year-old child who died a slow, painful death somehow suffered less because his parents happened to have money.
On the plus side, it’s a mentality that only permanently harms those who hold it. There’s nothing they can do to take away what those kids have and however many snide little jibes they manage on Twitter when they log off, nothing will take away from the fact that there’s nothing they can do to damage those children’s lives.
But the scary part is, it might be that they wouldn’t even try. After all, they see only ‘privileged pain.’