Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show this morning, Nick Clegg was asked once again which secondary school he would send his eldest child too. He quite rightly dismissed the question as a personal one – he and Miriam have strived to keep their children out of the public eye, so why should they change that now?
As I tweeted at the time:
Anybody who thinks it’s any of their business which school Clegg’s children go to is one of the problems with our political culture.
— Nick Thornsby (@NickThornsby) January 27, 2013
Some disagreed with that statement. The summary of the argument was that a politician’s choice of school for their children can inform our view of them; that inferences can be drawn. Ultimately, the argument is that politicians are not just public figures but public figures with power, and the choices they make – even if they relate to the intimacies of their family life – are relevant to the ways in which they exercise that power.
Not only do I think this is wrong, I think it is one of the things which corrodes the integrity and our politics.
Consider the following hypothetical. A senior politician and her non-politician husband are trying to decide which school to send their 11-year-old child to. The politician likes the local state school. Her husband is convinced that their child will get a better education at the local private school. They discuss it for months. They weigh up the pros and cons. The politician still thinks the state school is fine, but her husband’s conviction that private will be better convinces her to agree. Their child goes to the private school, and the fact of this is reported across the media.
What can anybody learn from this situation? Without the full details of the family discussion, surely the answer is nothing? In which case, the logical conclusion of the argument from those who think politicians’ choices of schools is their business is that they therefore have a right to know how that decision was reached. If an inference is going to be drawn, it has to be an informed one.
But would anyone argue that said senior politician has an obligation to sit down in a news studio and explain exactly how her and her husband reached their decision?
Surely not. We’d say it was a private family discussion and is none of our business.
But if we say that, we have to say that the choice of school is also none of our business.
The more we blur the distinction between the private, personal lives of our politicians and their public roles, the more we expect them to live on a higher moral plane to the rest of us, and the more inevitable we make our disappointment. And the more likely we make it that well-qualified individuals will think politics is an occupation for other people. For people whose family don’t mind their child’s choice of school being discussed in the national media.
* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.