UK Politics

Westminster's unhappy families

Jaques Happy Families cards Image copyright the World of Playing Cards

Do people still play Happy Families at Christmas? Well, I know we all try - it is the season of goodwill to all, even to relatives - but actually I've been thinking about the card game.

It was devised by John Jaques, a long-established British company which manufactures games and which, in 1851, commissioned John Tenniel to decide what they would look like. Mr Dip the Dyer and Mr Dose the Doctor were among the patriarchs painted by Tenniel, who later provided the illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Sadly there was no Mr and Mrs, and Master and Miss, Ballot, the politician and his family. One explanation may be that party politics does not always cross generations, that sons and daughters can end up in a different political family from their parents.

That thought came to mind after reading what Robert Courts, David Cameron's successor as MP for Witney, had to say about his family during his maiden speech in the House of Commons. He was following not in his father's steps but in those of his great-grandfather.

Albert Stubbs had been MP for Cambridgeshire for the five years following World War Two. He only won the seat by 44 votes: not surprising when you realise he was a member of the Labour Party in a county which was then solidly Conservative. Stubbs, a print worker and trade unionist, spent much of his time at Westminster fighting for the interests of agricultural workers.

Image copyright Carl Court/Getty Images
Image caption Conservative MP Robert Courts' great-grandfather sat as a Labour MP

Admitting his late ancestor would be "horrified" by his party label, Mr Courts told the Commons that he hoped to honour his memory by copying his work ethic. "He won his seat... by getting out on his motorcycle, riding around the villages of Cambridgeshire and signing up the workers to the union," he said.

Perhaps he's fortunate that great-grandad wasn't around to see young Robert as a Conservative, or he might have suffered the fate of Ernest Millington. A Westminster contemporary of Stubbs, he won a by-election just before the end of the war for Commonwealth, a radical party of the left. As a teenager in the early 1930s, Ernest had polished his platform performance at Speakers' Corner.

Years later, when I interviewed him for BBC Radio 4, he told me how his father, a former soldier and a working-class Tory, had heard his son speaking and was disgusted by it. Political difference wasn't the proximate cause, but Millington junior believed it contributed to his father throwing him out of the family home when he was just 16 years old.

Both men clashed with Churchill in the Commons. Millington told me he'd elbowed the Conservative leader out of the way in order to speak from the opposition despatch box as a party leader (albeit a parliamentary party of just one), while Robert Courts recounted how Churchill responded to an intervention from his great-grandfather by dismissing him as "ignorant".

Yet Churchill, too, would have struggled with a game of happy political families. Like his father Lord Randolph, a youthful chancellor of the exchequer whose brilliant career was cut short by resignation and then an early death, Winston was a Conservative; but his father would not have approved of his son "ratting" on the Tories by joining the Liberals in the early years of the 20th Century.

Image copyright Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Image caption Liberal PM David Lloyd George and his daughter Megan. She was a Liberal, then a Labour, MP

Indeed, he retained a sentimental attachment to the Liberal Party long after he'd returned - or "re-ratted" as he called it - to the Tory fold; in 1951, he offered Clement Davies, the Liberal leader, a cabinet job. By then, Davies was leading a parliamentary party that was a mere shadow of the one in which Churchill and David Lloyd George had made their names.

The latter, of course, never wavered, even if his definition of what it meant to be a Liberal appeared to veer both right and left over a long career. The same can't be said of his children. Megan was a Liberal MP for 22 years, lost her seat, and when she returned to the Commons a few years later it was for Labour, the party she remained in until she died, in 1966. In part, the explanation was that the Liberal Party of the 1950s was, to her way of thinking, a relatively conservative one.

If that's true, though, how can one explain the career of her brother, Gwilym? He'd first been elected as a Liberal in 1922. After World War Two, though, and the death of his father, he deserted the official Liberals, increasingly voted with the Conservatives, and eventually styled himself as a Liberal and Conservative MP (a parliamentary breed that only died out late in the 1960s).

Gwilym Lloyd George served in cabinet under Churchill and Anthony Eden. He's remembered now as the home secretary who, in 1955, refused to commute the death sentence of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged.

With some of these examples, you begin to wonder whether they'd be quite so politically promiscuous if the parent had been around to look them in the eye when they switched parties.

During his maiden speech last month, Robert Courts acknowledged the risk of causing a rift when he told MPs he'd be very careful what he said about Albert Stubbs because his grandmother - Stubbs' daughter - was following the speech on TV. "If I put a foot out of line I am going to get a very strongly worded letter," he explained.

Image caption Former Labour minister Mark Fisher's father served as a Conservative MP

There are more recent examples of succeeding generations switching party. Mark Fisher was an MP for 27 years until 2010.

Looking at his heritage - his father, Sir Nigel was MP for the quintessentially Tory suburban seat of Surbiton (home of Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life), his stepmother had been an Ulster Unionist MP, and his maternal grandfather was an earl - you might assume that he sat for the Conservatives.

In fact, he was a Labour MP in Stoke-on-Trent, briefly one of Tony Blair's ministers and thereafter something of a backbench rebel under New Labour.

Watch the proceedings of the House of Lords on TV, and you may one day spot a face that seems to have stepped out of the pages of 20th Century history. Balding and with a neat moustache, he's the spitting image of the man who, according to Churchill, had "much to be modest about" - Clement Attlee.

The 3rd Earl Attlee does indeed look like his grandfather, but their politics differs. A crossbencher for a few years, he joined the Conservative benches in 1997, making him in that year something of a political novelty. He became a junior minister in the government under David Cameron; so, like his grandfather, he served in a coalition administration which included parties other than his own.

I know this isn't a very festive subject, but my favourite example of potentially unhappy political families has to be the Baldwins. Stanley Baldwin was prime minister, on and off, from 1923 to 1937.

A Conservative, he helped both to give Labour its first taste of power and to persuade Ramsay MacDonald to form a national government in 1931, splitting Labour in the process.

Image copyright Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Image caption Austen Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill all had family connections with other parties

Churchill savaged him as the man who put country before party, failing to re-arm Britain in preparation for war, thus making it harder for his successor Neville Chamberlain to pursue any policy other than appeasement. Sir John Major, by contrast, sees Baldwin as a political hero, a truly One Nation Conservative.

Whatever your view of him, imagine what it felt like to stand at the despatch box as Conservative leader only to see, among those waving their order papers on the government benches opposite, the face of your son? That was Stanley's experience between 1929 and 1931 when Oliver Baldwin was Labour MP for Dudley, not far from his own Worcestershire political powerbase.

In fact, this relationship between father and son offers a lesson for all those political families who fear party difference could lead to a lasting rift. In Oliver Baldwin: A Life Of Dissent, the author Christopher Walker quotes from a letter he sent to his father just after the 1929 general election, which propelled Oliver into the Commons and Stanley out of Number 10.

"Wherever I have gone on my political rounds during the past six years I have never heard any of our supporters speak other than in a kindly way of your personal self…

"To you, who have generally been victorious, the results may disappoint you, but take it from one who, until the other day, has always been on the losing side, always in the minority and generally alone, that victory or defeat are both flatterers and as such are of no serious consequence."

At the close of a year in which politics has often divided people, between parties and within them, Oliver Baldwin's sentiment seems good advice for those hoping to play happy families for real this Christmas.

Related Topics

More on this story

Around the BBC