- 9 Jan 08, 05:30 PM
One of my favourite Christmas presents this year was an excellent, highly readable, biography of Arthur Balfour by the American academic RJQ Adams (Read The Times review here). Not only was Balfour Conservative Prime Minister from 1902-05, he was still in Cabinet more than 24 years after leaving Downing Street, and – little known fact this – Vice-President of Manchester United. He was also responsible for the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle!’, a reference to his promotions from the Tory leader Lord Salisbury, whom Balfour succeeded as PM, and just happened to be Balfour's uncle.
Hilary Clinton’s surprise success in New Hampshire, and Jeremy’s interesting exchanges with the 19-year old Bhutto heir yesterday (watch it here), got me thinking again how about importance families still are in modern politics, even in the democratic age. If Hilary Clinton reaches the White House, and goes on to complete a second term, then America will have been run by either Bushes or Clintons for the whole 28 year period from 1989 to 2017 (with Bush Senior also Vice-President from 1981 to 1989).
In Britain, Gordon Brown’s Cabinet has Hilary Benn, of course, the son, grandson and great-grandson of MPs, (and the father of one, too, in all probability, given that his daughter recently became a Labour candidate at the age of just 18). Then we have Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper; the Miliband brothers; and Douglas Alexander, the brother of Wendy, Labour’s new leader in Scotland. Indeed, a Cambridge academic David Runciman has recently argued in the London Review of Books that the Brown administration is a real “family affair” and reminds him of the era of the Pitts (Elder, Younger and various relations) in the late eighteenth century. (Runciman should know something about political genes. He himself comes from one of Britain’s most distinguished families, and is heir to the Runciman viscountcy - the first viscount sat in the cabinets of Asquith, Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin).
In some ways it’s obvious why family relationships should be so important in political careers – it’s in the blood, one meets important people at a very early age, one has the benefit of family advice, experience and wisdom, and there may be the odd bit of string-pulling too.
But there’s another factor, as well, I think, particularly in conservative societies like America and South Asia. Human beings seem to like dynastic government. Hence the prevalence of monarchies throughout history. Maybe there’s something psychologically comforting about being ruled by people who are related to each other. Perhaps we value genetic continuity.
It’s worth exploring. I’d love to do a TV or radio programme on it one day, but so far my bids have all been rejected.