Post-BREXIT, the political landscape in the UK is extremely uncertain. In the long term there’s every chance that Peter Hitchens may finally experience the catharsis of witnessing the death of the ‘Blairite’, London-centric, Conservative and Labour Parties as the establishment struggles to cope with the electorate’s rebellion in the referendum.
In the short-term, and for the likely duration of the negotiations for the UK’s exit from the EU, the premiership will be retained by the liberal wing of the Conservative Party as Theresa May succeeds David Cameron.
The complete failure of major Leave figures to competently challenge for the leadership of the Tories was initially surprising – Boris having been anointed as probable successor to Cameron quite some time ago – but once Gove was left as the most prominent Leaver I didn’t doubt that May would end up winning the leadership. While Gove is respected as a capable man, he isn’t known for charisma and remains slightly ‘toxic’ following his stint as Education Secretary.
While the rumours of ‘back-stabbing’ between Johnson and Gove, to add to the fractious relationship with Farage throughout the campaign, will doubtless result in some very readable books over the next year or so it’s the controversy which erupted between the two female candidates which I found most intriguing.
May will become The United Kingdom’s 2nd female prime-minister. While Margaret Thatcher had two children when when she assumed office at the age of 54, May is 59 and childless.
Having been asked about the influence of motherhood upon her political career – if she felt “like a mom in politics” – Leadsom answered in the affirmative:
“Yes. I am sure Theresa will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible, but genuinely I feel that being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake,” she responded.
“She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children who are going to have children who will directly be a part of what happens next.”
A fairly straightforward and understandable answer – the usual bromides one expects. However, the reaction to Leadsom’s statement was one of fury as she was condemned by both Conservative colleagues and many in the media. While May had briefly spoken about her lack of family life in a manner which suggested her childlessness was not a lifestyle choice, it’s pretty clear that a great deal of the reaction against Leadsom was rooted more in the – largely female – insecurity over not becoming a parent.
Jan Moir in the Daily Mail provides the most explicit example of this:
Why I deplore smug Andrea’s childless woman jibe at Theresa
What Leadsom means is that unless you are a mother like her — she has three children — you cannot possibly care about the future because you have no personal investment in it.
The tacit suggestion is that May and others in the same no-baby boat are somehow second-class citizens, lacking the full experience of what it means to be a human being.
I mean, just look at you, you crone. Your eggs have not hatched, your hormones have withered, the gates to the Kingdom Of Mum will for ever be slammed shut in your face. Do you recycle, do you care, should you even be allowed to vote, you miserable husk of a woman?
These paragraphs are particularly striking. Of course it’s possible to care for the future or to feel some investment in it despite not having reproduced. However, this doesn’t change the fact that having reproduced – having children and forming a family – obviously, undeniably, does render one inherently more invested in the future of their country and people. If you do not have children and are of an age where it is no longer possible to have children then you simply do not have anywhere near as much skin in the game as those who do.
The bitterness, anxiety and insecurity, of Moir’s last paragraph displays quite an amusing lack of self awareness while also showing Moir herself, subconsciously, feels that her spinster status does indeed render her a type of ‘2nd class citizen’.
The statement where she worries that being childless renders one ‘lacking the full experience of what it means to be a human being’ is also worth considering – because this is precisely what remaining childless does to you. I myself am childless despite being of an age where – in any generation other than the Xers and Millenials – I would have been expected to have several children already. I am keenly aware of the fact that my lack of family absolutely does leave me lacking ‘the full experience of what it means to be a human being’; as becoming a parent is (normally) the final and confirmatory step towards achieving full adulthood.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, or what type of fabulous career and interesting experiences you’ve had, if you have never had children you are to some extent simply an aged boy or girl.
When I first decided to write this post I’d intended to look into any precedent of ‘childlessness’ amongst British Prime Ministers. The famously childless Angela ‘Mutti’ Merkel was also on my mind while the occasional bit of browsing through the Alt-Right left me considering the ‘dysgenic’ angle for society at large.
To my delight, I found that Moir had already referenced both and in amusingly ironic fashion:
More seriously, it is maddening to be considered unworthy and perhaps even selfish simply because one has not delivered the world of a child. One wonders what childless Angela Merkel, the most powerful politician in Europe, feels about that. Something unprintable, I hope.
Or even May herself who will, if she wins, be the first prime minister since Edward Heath not to be a parent.
Speaking of which, while it is bad enough for the 20 per cent of British adult women who are childless, such discriminatory thinking affects childless men, too.
So her attempt to prove that childlessness is no barrier to competent governance or empathy for future generations rests upon the examples of:
- Primarily responsible for the migrant chaos in Germany and Europe which led directly to Leave victory EU Referendum, consequent Brexit crisis, as well as the surging of the ‘far-right’ across Europe.
- Facing constant calls to step down within her own country.
- A 4-year prime minister whose greatest political acts were leading the UK into the ECC via a famously dishonest referendum held when the country was (with some thanks to him) at it’s lowest ebb.*
- Completely failing to negotiate successfully with militant unions which resulted in the already moribund British economy resorting to ‘3-Day Weeks’.
- Oversaw the complete disintegration of civil order and political process in Northern Ireland – leaving it a bloody hellhole for decades.
- A famously self centred and vain man widely regarded as a failure and even ‘quisling’ by many in his own party.
I can’t say Moir’s paragons of political spinsterhood and bachelerhood do much to convince me of the benefits of childless leaders.
Anyway, as Moir has pointed out, May has one predecessor who served as prime-minister despite not having produced offspring who would inherit the country his policies helped mould. Looking at all who held this office in the 100 years prior to May starting with H.H. Asquith (who squeeks in due to his term ending in 1916) we find:
|Prime Minister||No. Children|
|Theresa May (2016-)||0|
|David Cameron (2010-2016)||4|
|Gordon Brown (2007-2010)||3|
|Tony Blair (1997-2007)||4|
|John Major (1990-1997)||2|
|Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990)||2|
|Jim Callaghan (1976-1979)||3|
|Harold Wilson (1974-1976)||2|
|Ted Heath (1970-1974)||0|
|Harold Wilson (1964-1970)||2|
|Alec Douglas Home (1963-1964)||4|
|Harold MacMillan (1957-1963)||4|
|Anthony Eden (1955-1957)||2|
|Winston Churchill (1951-1955)||5|
|Clement Attlee (1945-1951)||4|
|Winston Churchill (1940-1945)||5|
|Neville Chamberlain (1937-1940)||2|
|Stanley Baldwin (1935-1937)||6|
|Ramsay MacDonald (1929-1935)||6|
|Stanley Baldwin (1924-1929)||6|
|Ramsay MacDonald (1924)||6|
|Stanley Baldwin (1923-1924)||6|
|Bonar Law (1922-1923)||6|
|David Lloyd-George (1916-1922)||4|
|H.H. Asquith (1908-1916)||10|
All childless Prime-Ministers are coloured red. Individuals who served more than 1 term are italicised in all their subsequent entries.
As we can see there have only been 2 childless PMs in the last 100 years – the previously mentioned Heath and now May.
So at the two extremes we have the impressively fertile father of 10 H.H. Asquith, born during the Victorian Age and becoming Prime-Minister at it’s apogee, and the childless Theresa May, born in post-war Britain in the year when the Suez Crisis confirmed the nation’s irrevecable loss of ‘Superpower’ status and going through childhood and early adolescence in the 60s.
One obviously can’t draw too many conclusions from a simple comparison of 2 individuals but they do stand as fairly representative of their generations and the eras into which they were born. The British, and wider Western, decline in fertility can also be seen when one considers the families of all Prime-Ministers serving from 1916-2016. From Asquith (born 1852) to Clement Attlee (b. 1883) we have men born and reaching adulthood during the Victorian Era and height of British power and averaging 5.375 children.
Eden, MacMillan and Douglas-Home were all born just either side of 1900 (1894-1903) with the first 2 serving in WWI but Douglas-Home being too young for WWI, too old for WWII. They experienced childhood and early-adolescence/early-adulthood with the British Empire at it’s height before witnessing and participating in the Great War. They average 3.3 children.
Wilson, Heath and Callaghan were born between 1912-1916 with the latter two serving in WWII. They average 1.67 children or, if one excludes Heath as an outlier, 2.5 children.
Thatcher rather stands alone as she, being born 1925, is fairly younger than her predecessors while being noticeably older than her successor (John Major) who was born 1943. Thatcher had 2 children.
Major also stands alone due to the 18 year age gap between himself and Thatcher and also the 10 year gap with his successor, Tony Blair. He had 2 children.
However, from Blair onwards we again see successive PMs who are comfortably part of the same generation. Blair (b. 1953), Brown (b. 1951), both had their most formative years during the 60s – as did May (b. 1956) – while David Cameron (b. 1966) grew up during the strife and economic downturn of the 70s and early 80s. Blair and Brown averaged 3.5 children while Cameron has 4.
Looking at the TFR for England and Wales as processed by Jessica Chamberlain at the ONS:
The PMs (starting with Thatcher b. 1925) who reached reproductive age from WWII onwards have tended to have either as many children as expected by contemporary national TFR – with Blair, Brown, Cameron – considerably more than the national average. May, along with confirmed bachelor Ted Heath, does seem to be an outlier amongst PMs. I suspect it’s her gender and membership of the 60s Coming of Age Baby-Boomer generation that has left any reference to her childlessness such a sore point for female journalists of that generation.
While I don’t think having a family makes you an inherently superior person or more competent as a potential political leader, the claim that having children – probably – renders you more considerate of the impact you may have beyond your own lifetime seems patently obvious and shouldn’t be remotely controversial.
Regardless of the international crisis she inherits as PM, the odds of Theresa May lasting do not look good. Kevin Theakston at LSE has analyzed the time in office and nature of departure of all ‘takeover PMs’ (those who did not come to office via an election) from 1916 onwards and finds they tend to serve a comparatively brief term as PM while having a 50/50 chance of being defeated at the ballot box or resigning from office.
With luck, May’s lack of any genetic or family legacy will help motivate her to ensure a strong political legacy and a reasonable deal for the UK post-EU.
*The referendum on EEC membership was actually under Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1975. The decision to join had been taken by Heath’s Conservative administration in 1973.