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The politics of empathy: David Cameron and Ivanís death

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 2 March 2009

Politics, and modern politics at that, has as much to do with forged empathy (occasionally sympathy) as with anything else. Candidates lagging in the polls often dig around for which malady to feign, or what sentimental moment can be used to inspire a popular reaction. Cold, machine politics, suddenly becomes warm, basking in the sunlight of empathy. The leader ceases to become political automaton, transforming into the flesh and blood representative of the people.

The deployment of empathy, and its oft related twin - sympathy, in political circles stands to reason even if it often muddles it. Where ideas matter little, marred by tabloid effects and the twittered sound byte, the sentimental cast assumes relevance. Leaders may instil unjustified fears and stir the pot of prejudice; they may well do, as Abraham Lincoln urged, appeal to the better side of the human self. The British opposition leader and prime ministerial contender David Cameron should never be seen to have wished the sad end to his afflicted son. Six-year old Ivan had been suffering from the crippling effects of cerebral palsy and epilepsy. But his death on Wednesday cast a certain glow on the father aspirant, a feature that was unintended but not, at least for the public relations jackals, unwelcome.

The personal story does, of course, bathe the candidate in a certain holy water, a rinsing that often does away with imperfections and problems. The cynic might argue that death, preferably of the aspirant or the office holder (vide John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy), perfects the candidate, effacing bad memories and character records. The death of a personality can also be manipulated with spectacular political results - witness the role of Prime Minister Tony Blair and the delegation of Princess Diana, killed in a car accident in France, as the “People’s Princess”. She had, of course, been nothing of the sort, struggling for much of her life to even be her own Princess.


In a more recent example, Barack Obama treated the death of his grandmother during the US presidential race with ceremonial grace while playing to the stands. Obama, as with other American presidents of that same vein, touched, if every so gently, that personal nerve that makes the electorate take notice. A luckless John McCain could only watch. But other factors fed this political phenomenon, not least of all the man who made Obama more appealing in the first place: George W. Bush.

Cameron, in opening his private life to scrutiny after becoming leader of the Conservative Party, was treading that same path. A documentary for the BBC was made filming the entire family’s children, and featured Ivan prominently. Ivan became the softening touch - another twist in the tortured journey of that fiction called “compassionate conservatism”. Cameron, it was promised, would change the face of British Tory politics.

What is curious about Ivan’s death was the impact it had across the benches and the political landscape. Not in 15 years had the House of Commons cancelled prime minister’s questions, a session otherwise considered a sacred cow in the bruising sessions of parliamentary politics. It became a national event, with covering leads in major papers and news outlets.

Ivan became, as John F. Burns of the New York Times suggested, a “prism” through which the personal lives of David and his wife Samantha were evaluated. For Burns and other commentators, Ivan’s death had somehow jettisoned the image of the establishment “toff”, though how that did so was by no means clear. Presumably toffs are somehow humanised by the deaths of their young sons which, in England, is not the easiest case to make out. What of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has a child suffering from cystic fibrosis? That is hardly likely to make him more human and less the dour economic manager. But then again, Brown was never a toff.

Cameron’s glow may, in the end, dim and he will be left, along with his family, with the justified grief in losing a child. The fires of politics burn differently, and at different levels over time. Much of that heat favours Cameron, at least for the moment, but it will have to last at least into 2010.

More factors, including a stumbling, bumbling government now battling economic turmoil, will be needed to see him to victory. Whether Cameron continues to draw various precedents from the cupboard of empathy, surprises may well be in store for him. He still, in so many ways, reflects an upbringing, less of a deep, instrumental politician governed by instinct, than as a public relations man who cut his teeth in a government run by that least empathetic of all politicians: Margaret Thatcher.

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First published in Scoop on February 27, 2009.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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