Why I will never be a Conservative

September 17, 2008

I sup­pose there are two peri­ods of my father’s life. Before unem­ploy­ment. And after­wards.

My fath­er was a tim­ber sales­man. He was a con­fid­ent and pop­u­lar com­munity act­iv­ist. He set up a scout troop — brought people togeth­er and organ­ised things. And then the boat­yards aban­doned their mar­ine ply­wood for fibre­glass and the repro­duc­tion fur­niture makers went bust.

Unem­ploy­ment arrived whilst I was still at school.

Dad, who could tell you the story of an oak — its driest sum­mers, hard­est win­ters — from the grain of its sawn boards, was out of work.

When work dis­ap­peared, so too did the child’s image of a fath­er, and the father’s image of him­self. Con­fid­ence, like the com­munity, kept a respect­ful dis­tance or crept quietly away.

I loathed myself for pity­ing him and his self-loath­ing, a cock­tail of dis­gust that we both swal­lowed to relieve the unhap­pi­ness of our hours togeth­er.

When I finally arrived at uni­ver­sity my room­mate and I both had fath­ers who were out of work. We figured it was an Oxbridge con­spir­acy, push­ing us to the mar­gins, until the pair of us real­ised that my name began with an ‘M’, and my roommate’s with a ‘P’. There were no ‘N’s in col­lege. It was only the alpha­bet con­spir­ing against us.

My roommate’s fath­er killed him­self, after being black­lis­ted as a trade uni­on organ­iser. In a coin­cid­ence as piteous as it was dra­mat­ic, the very night I heard, my fath­er left me a mes­sage. He had a job.

It wasn’t much of a job. It meant leav­ing home and liv­ing in a cara­van which he kept heated by smoking yet more of the cigar­ettes that even­tu­ally killed him. (But first — please note — smoking took his legs; his heart; and his lungs.) Still, it was work, not wel­fare.

That was the 1980s. Big hair. Bad pop music. The era of Mar­garet Thatch­er. AIDS.

A little fam­ily misery was not the spark from which the flame of stu­dent revolu­tion would be lit.

When I went to work at CBS News and ITN, I got to meet some of the Con­ser­vat­ive cab­in­et min­is­ters who had presided over the eco­nomy and passed the laws which des­troyed my child’s fath­er.

They were char­ac­ters. Jolly and enter­tain­ing. Before the tape rolled some dis­arm­ingly admit­ted weak­nesses to you that on cam­era they denied. That was the game. Oth­ers com­bined sen­ti­ment­al­ity with hubris.

Hav­ing put away child­ish things, I knew that none of them had done any­thing to harm my fath­er. Nor had the bosses who’d laid him off, or the cus­tom­ers who’d been unable to buy.

But that’s not the title of this post.

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