Politics: just for geeks?

The sad truth: we aren't cool.

Picture the scene, a group of people, lit only by the glow of the TV screen, sit around watching the stats come in. A flurry of excitement is caused by some numbers going up and down on a flashy graphic. This is politics in Britain today, people, and it's not cool.

Tiny turnouts and general apathy point to a society that doesn't care about politics. Those who do have an increasingly niche interest, concerned with the strange behaviour of a select group of middle class white people. In fact, at times British politics bears a striking similarity to Dungeons and Dragons; arcane traditions played out according to strict rules, many involving silly outfits. This isn't how it works in France, or Greece, where politics means the left converging on Bastille, or anti-austerity riots in the streets. The French left had a massive party on a Sunday (a school night!) when Hollande got into power last week. In Europe, politics is (or can be) cool. Why isn't it here?

I realised this in 2010. It had taken so long for anyone to make up their mind that year that even the ultimate geeks had torn themselves away from the TV/computer screen and into the real world. When action finally happened, and Cameron went to the Queen, I was in a pub. We actually asked for them to turn the TV over from football to endless shots from the BBC helicopter hovering over the Mall of cars going to and from Buckingham Palace. It took hours, and there was, obviously, nothing to see. By the time we left everyone else in the pub was fuming, and incredulous. Over the next few months, my friends' eyes started glazing over as I fumed over the latest scandal, or made witty comments about Nick Clegg's falling poll ratings.

Then last week I worked as a poll clerk at the local elections. It became clear, as I added up ballot papers and worked out turnouts in my break, that I was a committed election geek, but worse, no-one else cared, and worse still, no-one actually in politics gets that no-one cares. The 301 people who turned up to vote that day wouldn't have been able to pick the members of the shadow cabinet out of a line up. Things happen that politicians think will be the end of them (Jeremy Hunt, are you listening?) and nothing happens, because most people haven't even noticed. Let's face it, they are all (both sides) a bunch of middle aged, white be-suited men who can't get a stir of excitement out of their wives, let alone the public. Ed Miliband, bless him, doesn't look like he ever went out dancing in his entire life.

In the X-Factor of the London mayoral election, the public chose Boris because they liked the way he looked, the way he swore, the way he occasionally resembles Stephen Fry. Make no mistake, Boris, incredible as it might seem, is cool. In a misogynistic, posh sort of way. And worryingly in an uncool government, that's all he needs.

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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.