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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