Now is the time to see how the Slack Parenting approach has paid off. Photo: Getty
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I never wept with pride when I held my newborns. But I’m thrilled they still want to see me

That my children actually want to see me, after years of my not even remotely bursting into tears of pride whenever I contemplated them, is one of the nicest surprises that this existence has granted to me.

An email from M--- at the Independent on Sunday. M--- used to be my editor on that paper until I got a phone call from the Actual Editor, John Mullin, telling me he had “gone over the figures” and decided that, after ten years of living high on the hog as its radio critic, I had driven the paper to the very edge of bankruptcy and only replacing me with the guy who brought round the sandwiches was going to restore its AAA credit rating. (Now that the paper is owned by a billionaire, I suppose these days the sandwiches are brought round on silver salvers by liveried flunkies, and that even the flunkies have flunkies to actually hand the sandwiches over. That’s what it’s like, right, when you’re owned by a billionaire?)

But I digress. I always liked M--- and never tainted him by association with the Mullin regime. What he wants is for me to do something for them for Father’s Day about my children. For many years I wrote a column for another paper called Slack Dad, in which I offered anti-parenting advice for its family pages, the idea being that there were quite enough writers offering idealised advice to be getting on with, and that there was surely room for the kind of person who did not, upon holding his newborn infant, burst into tears and declare this the proudest day of his life.

Note: I am being gender-specific here. Men who are proud of having done little more than ejaculated into someone nine months beforehand, and have had zero influence so far on the resulting baby, have a funny idea of what pride means. And for what it’s worth, my time in the delivery room during Mrs Lezard’s first labour was spent just out of reach of her nails – which had been beginning to dig into my thigh painfully – reading the cricket reports from Australia and wondering if I could get away with calling the child Darren if it was a boy. (Footnote for non-sporty people: there was a bowler in the England team called Darren Gough, who was one of the few players that supporters weren’t in some way ashamed of.)

Since then I have had time to see how the Slack Parenting approach has paid off. The experiment is nearing its close – or rather, the close of its first stage, when the children reach majority. They are evenly spaced in age – 13, 17 and 19 – which may give the impression that some kind of master plan was at work, but as far as I’m concerned, they are all acts of God.

As it is, the children have been featuring more, rather than less, in my life recently. One of the things about depression, or the low-level version of it that I have, which might as well be called “melancholy”, is that you don’t go out and see anyone any more. But you can’t, thank goodness, get out of seeing your children. So it turns out that they’re the people I’ve been seeing the most of ever since the B went off to Sweden.

The youngest didn’t want to go on a holiday with the others so elected to stay with me in the Hovel. It was great, and I learned that Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan is an even better film than I remember it being. The middle one pops in every week after classes round the corner and gives me sage advice on the unwisdom of using this column to settle scores or nurse grudges. And the eldest just turns up when she feels like it, because at least she knows when she comes here she’ll have someone to sit up chatting with until 2am with a glass of wine or two to help the conversation. My, how tall the middle child is!

So, that my children actually want to see me, after years of my not even remotely bursting into tears of pride whenever I contemplated them, is one of the nicest surprises that this existence has granted to me. It also represents a salve to the bitterness of the past few years. There are many cruelties involved in divorce, or separation, or whatever you want to call it or define it as: and the cruellest is seeing your children only every two weeks.

It is a matter of deep grief and pain, to the point where I forcibly shrug the thought away the second it occurs to me, that the youngest is coming to an age when he will have been alive longer with me as a distant parent than as someone living in the same home as him.

Then again, it is maybe this lack of continual presence that has contrived to present me, to their minds, as a desirable occasional alternative to the official family home. Perhaps; but at what a price.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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