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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

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