The Phaethon Phenomenon

Tony Blair’s success in winning over the Labour faithful at their party conference in Bournemouth yesterday prompted me to go back to The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman.

It was a Christmas gift from my son last year (okay, so I chose it) and is a good analysis of why someone might want to become a politician. Would you have got up on stage in front of hundreds of people, with millions more watching at home, knowing you could be completely humiliated?

Paxman quotes the work of Lucille Iremonger, a historian married to a Conservative MP, who was commissioned to write a book on the home lives of British Prime Ministers. As she researched the subject one common trait that began to emerge was the number of PMs who were illegitimate or had lost one or both parents at an early stage in their lives.

An example of the former is Ramsay MacDonald whose mother one day took him for a long walk. High on a hilltop she pointed to a distant ploughman at work in the valley. “Ramsay – yon’s your feyther,” she told the boy.

And Of the latter, Lord North, PM at the time of American Independence, lost his mother when he was two years old.

Bringing things up to date, TB lost his mother as a young man and his father had a serious stroke at the age of forty. Even Bill Clinton almost fits the bill – his biological father had five wives and numerous illegitimate children and died in a car crash three months before the future president was born.

As Paxman says, amateur psychology is “an easy and dangerous thing,” but if you look at the 51 PMs from Robert Walpole to Tony Blair, 28 of them were the children of MPs (nurtrure v. nature), but 24 had lost their fathers before they reached the age of 21. Now you could say that was then and this now and people died younger in the past. However, as part of her research checked the 1921 census which was designed to assess how many children were orhpaned or or made fatherless by WWI. The result was just 1%.

Iremonger named her study ‘The Fiery Chariot‘ from the Phaethon myth. He was the son of Helios who lost control of the god’s chariot and threatened to destroy the earth until Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt. I suppose it echoes Enoch Powell’s wise words, that “all political careers ultimately end in failure.” His certainly did!

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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