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When is it fair to criticise a politician’s family?

Politicians don't choose their parents – which makes it difficult to decide whether they are culpable for their deeds.

By Henry Zeffman Henry Zeffman

It may be better remembered now for his baffling decision to hurl a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book across the despatch box at George Osborne, but there was a line in John McDonnell’s response to the autumn statement last November that has some relevance to the Labour Party’s behaviour over the coming days. The shadow chancellor said: “When the chancellor and the prime minister were first elected to their current positions, they were attacked for being ‘posh boys’. I disagreed with that strongly. People do not choose the class that they are born into, or the wealth that they inherit.”

The question of the prime minister’s background, and the background to his wealth, is more relevant today than it has been at any point since May 2010. After the Panama Papers were released yesterday, domestic attention quickly turned to the revelation – old though it may be – that David Cameron’s father, who died in 2010, used offshore firms in Panama and Geneva to avoid paying tax in the UK.

Jeremy Corbyn probably crossed his shadow chancellor’s line today. Though he didn’t mention Ian Cameron by name, the Labour leader said at the launch of Labour’s local elections campaign in Harlow that “it’s not a private matter if tax has not been paid” and called for “an independent investigation”.

The prime minister has since responded to the controversy by stating that he has “no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds”. Of course, this non-denial denial leaves open the possibility that his mother, or other members of family, do still hold interests in offshore companies, and that he may stand to benefit from the proceeds at some point in the future.

But before we get too bogged down in the intricacies of the extended Cameron family’s tax affairs, we need to ask whether we should care. When, if ever, does a politician’s family become fair game?

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Let’s start with parents. You don’t choose your parents, as McDonnell noted in November. In Cameron’s case, it’s not only his father who has provoked an embarrassing political row. His mother, Mary, signed a petition in February protesting against cuts to children’s services in Oxfordshire.

Plenty on the left took that as jubilant evidence of their rectitude: even the prime minister’s own mother doesn’t support his cuts. Many of the same people will now be eliding Cameron’s views and actions with those of his father.

Perhaps the most striking parallel is with the case of Ralph Miliband. In October 2013, the Daily Mail ran a thunderous comment piece by Geoffrey Levy, describing the father of the then Leader of the Opposition as “The man who hated Britain”. The polemic provoked a furious response from Miliband junior, who said “I’m not willing to let my father’s good name be besmirched and undermined in the way that the Daily Mail are doing”, and drew condemnation cross the political spectrum.

What Ed Miliband objected to was the substance of the article. He said that it was “perfectly legitimate for the Daily Mail to talk about my father’s politics”, but questioned their conclusion that his father hated the country that took him in as a refugee.

To many, though, what was unforgivably gauche was not the Daily Mail’s interpretation of the admittedly complex link between Marxism and patriotism, but the mere fact of an article denouncing a politician’s dead father. On that score, coverage of Ian Cameron’s tax arrangements might not be fair game. He died just months after his son became prime minister, and is not around to defend himself, which leaves it to the prime minister to perform a delicate dance between (understandably) not wanting to renounce his father, with whom he reportedly had a close relationship, and attempting to conclusively distance himself from any tax avoidance. There is no evidence that David Cameron ever had any knowledge of his father’s tax arrangements, before or after he became prime minister – he simply has to answer these questions because he became prime minister. 

One counter-argument is that the PM’s father’s wealth is inseparable from his position as prime minister. Ian Cameron used tax havens for several decades, meaning that money that would otherwise have ended up in the Exchequer funding public services instead paid for young David’s school fees, without which he likely wouldn’t prime minister today.

But if you subscribe to that argument, then you probably have to see the Daily Mail’s 2013 attack on Ralph Miliband as fair game, even if you disagree with its hostility. Just as Cameron’s material inheritance undoubtedly smoothed his path into politics, Ed Miliband certainly benefitted from his youthful exposure through his father to many of the leading academics and thinkers on the left – a kind of intellectual inheritance.  

If it’s difficult to work out how we should treat politicians’ parents, their siblings – who they also do not choose – are thornier still. You don’t have to delve too deep into the murkier corners of Twitter to find Labour supporters so consumed by hatred of the Conservative Party that they will use George Osborne’s brother and John Whittingdale’s half-brother – the former was struck off the medical register after conducting an affair with a vulnerable patient, the latter committed a string of sex offences on young boys – as sticks to beat them with. Still, it’s unlikely they consider Jeremy Corbyn to be culpable for his brother’s questionable views on Israel and on climate change.

Whatever your perspective on the connection between a politican’s thoughts and deeds and their family’s, consistency is vital. If you find yourself convulsed by rage at Ian Cameron’s tax affairs but abhorred the Daily Mail‘s approach to Ralph Miliband, you might want to reflect on whether anything other than blind partisanship explains the difference.