Laurie Penny: Why should we pretend to be delighted by Kate Middelton's pregnancy?

I don't know the Duke or Duchess of Cambridge, but I do know too many couples who can't afford to have children.

When the occupation of the uterus of the Duchess of Cambridge was officially announced, the Prime Minister declared himself "delighted". I’ll bet he was. The news couldn’t have come at a better time. Coverage of the Glorious Impregnation of the Magical Vagina of Monarchial Succession has knocked our woeful economy conveniently off the front pages, and distracted attention from the omnishambles that was once the British fourth estate in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. Now we’re in for months of name speculation and bump-watching. It’s as if the House of Windsor were just another soap opera, rather than an institution that continues to confiscate full democratic enfranchisement from seventy million other humans living on this rainy little island. Never mind, though. Babies are cute, and we have to wish the Royal Couple well. Or else. 

Even the most hardened republicans, those world-weary activists and opinionators who still get the guillotine gleam in their eyes after a few beers, even they feel obliged - before declaring the Monarchy a rotten anti-democratic monster squatting with intent over British civil society - to announce how happy they are for the Royal parents-to-be. That’s what we’re all meant to say: how very, very happy we are for the prince and his pretty princess, so young and so in love, and now with a baby on the way. I’m going to go out on a limb here and count myself one of many thousands who didn’t feel any particular surge of joy at the news. I’ve never met these two people, and probably never will. Like most of us, I only know what they’re supposed to represent, which is power, and the ways in which power and privilege justify themselves to the rest of us with schmaltz and parades and a buggerload of bunting.

When I think of William and Kate and how happy we’re supposed to be for them, I can’t help but think of another young couple I know, around the same age as the Royals, and living only a few miles away, on the other side of the river - friends of mine whose fairytale wedding I attended earlier this year. It really was a fairytale, in its own ordinary way. They met when they were just teenagers, on an internet chat forum a decade ago. They fell in love, crossed the country to be together, but were both too young and messed-up to make it work, fell apart, lost touch. Then, ten years later, they rediscovered each other through mutual friends, and it was as if all those years melted away: they moved in together, got engaged. This summer I watched them have their first dance in the room above the local pub with all their friends, with him bent at a strange loving angle to reach her mouth for a kiss, because he’s a lanky sod and she’s under five feet tall. Now the two of them want to have a baby. But they can’t.

Not because of any physical complications. Because of circumstance. Because he’s on night shifts and she’s in full-time further education, and despite working so hard they’ve barely seen each other since their honeymoon, they can’t afford a flat big enough for the two of them and their cats, let alone for three. The welfare benefits they rely on to keep them in their home have been slashed. They don’t know when, if ever, they’re going to be able to afford to have children together. 

Then there’s another young couple I used to know, again just a few years younger than Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge. They met at college, fell in love, were planning to get married and have children, but one of them suffered from a painful physical disability that worsened the more she worked to build them a home together. Her partner watched her struggle to claim disability benefits, like millions of others, watched her self-esteem slowly eroded by the gruelling process of applying for sickness support under the new punitive welfare system, and failing, time and time again. She watched her slide into depression and despair. They could only afford one small room to share. There was no money left over for them to leave the house, not even for a pair of tickets to the cinema. Sometimes young love survives that sort of hardship, and sometimes it shrivels. They broke up, and barely speak anymore.

This is a story that’s being repeated, with different actors and the same terse, tragic theme, all over the country this year. These are the love stories you don’t see, the ones where poverty and hard city winters and the heart-hammering unfairness of life in modern Britain get in between a young girl and her prince or princess. Because the truth is that fairytales are harder and harder to find in this country. Do not be fooled by the flag-wagging and fist-pumping. We are becoming a colder, meaner place, and love, a force that is supposed to be more powerful even than class, is harder than ever to fight for.

Next year, about 750,000 babies will be born in the United Kingdom. At least two hundred and fifty thousand of them will be born into poverty.  They will grow up with no idea how they’re going to afford education, or housing, or any of the things even their parents took to some extent for granted. Those children, and their parents, will spend the next 20 years watching another infant grow up in unimaginable privilege and luxury in the pages of their daily papers.

The lesson is: know your place. The lesson is: know your class, and its limits, and who, ultimately, is in charge. In modern Britain, despite what you might read in the international press, fairytales are getting thin on the ground.

Kate: the Duchess of Cambridge. (Photo: Getty)

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.