Getty
Show Hide image

Patrick had turned 19 – but his father was still keeping him from independence

“Don’t you understand he’s autistic?” Steve shouted down the phone. “I manage all his affairs, and I need medical information to put on his benefits forms.”

Patrick had completed mainstream schooling despite having mildly autistic traits. Now, after his A-levels, he seemed to have sunk into a pervasive depression. He presented as flat and apathetic; he told me he spent his days and nights shut in his room, surfing the internet. When I tried to find out what his hopes for the future were, all he could think of was travelling to Australia to see a girl he had met on social media. But he couldn’t even do that, because he didn’t have any money. And he didn’t believe he’d ever be able to get a job to allow him to earn any.

All this was puzzlingly at odds with the reasonably bright young man in front of me, who I thought could easily find employment. I tried some motivational interviewing and problem-solving, but nothing helped him break out of his torpor. He wondered if pills might be the answer. I prescribed an antidepressant, but it was no surprise when he returned to report that it had made little difference.

Before his next appointment, I got a call from his father, Steve. He wanted to know what was going on, and became belligerent when I explained that, because Patrick was 19, I couldn’t talk to him without his son’s consent. “Don’t you understand he’s autistic?” Steve shouted down the phone. “I manage all his affairs, and I need medical information to put on his benefits forms.”

When Patrick returned for follow-up, I asked whether he wanted me to speak to his dad. He shrugged, eyes downcast, and made no comment. I probed further, and gradually began to assemble the true picture.

Steve, unemployed, had survived for a number of years on an intricate array of benefits designed to help parents with disabled children. Now that Patrick had left full-time education, Steve was converting this to a package of allowances intended to support disabled adults and their carers. All the money went into Steve’s account; Patrick rarely saw a penny. If he asked for any money, the volatility of the reaction depended on how much his father had been drinking. Steve’s livelihood relied on having a disabled son. He had too much vested in this to allow Patrick to find his own way in the world.

There proved to be more. Patrick’s parents had divorced many years previously and his mother had subsequently died. The house that father and son occupied was jointly owned by Patrick’s mother’s estate and a maternal uncle. Her will specified that, once Patrick reached 21, the house was to be sold and he would inherit his share. At that stage, Steve could find himself with nowhere to live, and a son with independent means – but only if Patrick were allowed to assume control of his own affairs.

I’d learned enough. Patrick was subject to an unhealthy degree of control from his father. His depression reflected his disempowerment: he was unable to see how to break free. With his consent, I arranged to talk to Steve. It was a prickly consultation. Steve had a firmly held set of beliefs – Patrick was incapable of living independently (he couldn’t even make toast for himself!) – that justified his role in managing his son’s life. All my suggestions as to how to help Patrick acquire skills and independence were met with aggressive scorn.

Fortunately, the notion that some adults can be as vulnerable as children to abuse is now well established. Patrick agreed to a confidential referral to the safeguarding team. There followed a series of meetings to define his goals: to assume independence while, if at all possible, preserving his relationship with his one surviving parent. Over the ensuing year, the safeguarding team worked patiently to support Patrick in extricating himself from the enmeshment. Despite resistance on Steve’s part, they managed to retain his co-operation.

The crunch point was always going to be the house sale, but sadly Steve’s alcoholism caught up with him before then. Patrick is now free, and is making his own way in the world, albeit as the orphan he had never wished to be.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

Getty.
Show Hide image

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.