A couple of years into my time as a political journalist, I was stumped by a question on live radio following the Conservative Party Conference.
It was Wednesday 1 October 2014, and David Cameron had just given his leader’s speech to Tory delegates in Birmingham.
There was a passage in the speech that I hadn’t thought would figure in my snippet of punditry for BBC Radio London that afternoon:
From Labour last week, we heard the same old rubbish about the Conservatives and the NHS.
Spreading complete and utter lies.
I just think: how dare you.
It was the Labour Party who gave us the scandal at Mid Staffs…
…elderly people begging for water and dying of neglect.
And for me, this is personal.
I am someone who has relied on the NHS – whose family knows more than most how important it is…
…who knows what it’s like to go to hospital night after night with a child in your arms…
…knowing that when you get there, you have people who will care for that child and love that child like their own.
How dare they suggest I would ever put that at risk for other people’s children?…
…how dare they frighten those who are relying on the NHS right now?
It might be the only thing that gets a cheer at their Party conference but it is frankly pathetic.
The radio host asked me something along the lines of whether the prime minister was using the death of his son, Ivan, who died in 2009 at the age of six, for political gain.
I can’t find the original recording, but I remember feeling stunned by the callousness of the insinuation – I think I babbled something inarticulate about why people shouldn’t be so “cynical”, before talking about how the NHS’s budget was stretched.
Yet I needn’t have been so shocked by the question. The immediate reactions to Cameron’s speech that year from some corners of the internet were filled with accusations that he was trying to exploit his loss, or attempting to distract from the health service’s struggles with his own story in order to attack the Labour Party. He started it! seemed to be the reasoning of left-wing keyboard warriors that day. He said it in a speech!
I’d seen these takes unfold in real-time on my phone while watching the speech live that day. But there was something unsettling about a professional radio presenter, on our public broadcaster, bringing what was essentially the belittlement of a bereavement into mainstream debate.
An extreme version of this sentiment appeared in today’s Guardian leader. The paper apologised and swiftly edited a piece that originally criticised Cameron of only having suffered “privileged pain” over the death of his son. This is the passage that was removed:
I’m no fan of David Cameron but to describe him as only experiencing “privileged pain” when he had a profoundly disabled child who died aged six is a terrible thing to say https://t.co/tYZ1Nnsq4H pic.twitter.com/UBOL5wL79l
— Anita Singh (@anitathetweeter) September 15, 2019
“The original version of an editorial posted online yesterday fell far short of our standards,” a spokesperson for the paper has commented. “It was changed significantly within two hours, and we apologise completely.”
This is what happens when public discourse about privilege eschews logic, and is allowed to flourish. Rhetorically smashing the establishment has changed from a sure-fire applause line for Labour politicians about the Eton chumocracy into something all politicians – from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson – now deploy, redefining “the elite” to suit their purposes.
Punching up has turned into punching anyone you disagree with, and it’s everywhere – normalising online poison that is bound to spill over into mainstream formats like the Guardian’s editorial pages.
I remember the Press Association’s chief political photographer, Stefan Rousseau, telling me that he had struggled to take pictures of the Camerons at Ivan’s funeral in 2009. As a longstanding photographer of British prime ministers, he was the only member of the media asked to attend.
“I stood in the graveyard, actually among some stones, waiting for them to arrive with Ivan’s coffin, but the moment they arrived, it was awful,” he told me in 2013. “It was worse than I expected. I actually didn’t take any pictures for a while. They said I could take pictures when they came out of the car, but I just couldn’t do it.”
Until our political attitudes become human again, twisted ideas like that of “privileged pain” will keep being waved through into the new normal.