Emma Cowing: Families pay price of political fallout
THERE IS a distinctive intimacy about text messages.
An e-mail can be ignored and a phone call silenced, yet text messages, with their accompanying chirpy “ping”, demand our immediate attention. Perhaps that is why so much of what is said over text these days is banal nonsense.
A quick glance at my most recent text messages reveals commiserations about the weekend’s rugby score and an in-depth discussion about the fate of a frozen fruit crumble. The Declaration of Arbroath they are not. But there are times, appropriate or not, when the little words that pop up on our mobile phones can be nothing short of devastating.
The text messages exchanged between disgraced former Cabinet secretary Chris Huhne and his then 18-year-old son, Peter, fall into the latter category. The texts, spanning a year or so, which were read to the court and published for the first time in full following Huhne’s guilty plea on Monday for perverting the course of justice, make for deeply uncomfortable reading. They throw a very bleak spotlight on a father-son relationship that is clearly at breaking point, and give the sort of insight into Huhne family politics.
A typical exchange between the pair goes something like this: Chris Huhne: “Peter, just to say, I’m thinking of you and I love you very much. It would be great to talk to you, Dad.”
Peter Huhne: “F*** off.”
Another, after Peter was accepted to St Peter’s College at Oxford to study languages, went like this: Chris Huhne: “Congratulations, I’m really proud of you, Dad.”
Chris Huhne: “Well I’m proud and I love you, Dad.”
Peter Huhne: “Leave me alone, you have no place in my life and no right to be proud. It’s irritating that you don’t seem to take the point. You are such an autistic piece of s***. Don’t contact me again, you make me feel sick.”
Most people, I would imagine, would feel somewhat queasy upon reading these texts. They reveal a deep anger and sadness on the part of a teenage son whose father has left his mother for another woman; an anger that is demonstrating itself through bad language, accusations and the sort of recalcitrance that is often part of the teenage condition. In a later text, he writes to his father: “We all know that you were driving and you put pressure on Mum. Accept it or face the consequences. You’ve told me that was the case. Or will this be another lie?” Ouch.
Chris Huhne, on the other hand, comes across as a father desperate to make peace with his angry son. Although he doesn’t apologise for any of his actions explicitly, he repeatedly tells his son that he loves him, and makes sure he knows that his father is proud of him, despite Peter’s continued rejections. The whole exchange is heartbreaking.
Some have criticised the decision to print these texts in full – perhaps rightly. Peter Huhne, now 20 years old, has found himself further dragged into a messy situation which had nothing to do with him in the first place, and scrutinised publicly because of things that he said within a very intimate and private environment. It is a miserable position for any young person to be put in, and unlikely to do his fragile relationship with his father any good.
But if these texts serve a greater purpose, it is to remind us that those who suffer the most as a result of a public scandal are often the ones whose names we don’t know. While the press may gleefully pick over the bones of a politician’s marital affair or financial irregularities, it is the family members who suffer the very real consequences, long after the Westminster village has moved on to the next juicy tale.
Yet we have a history of our politicians using their families for the seemingly greater good. There was the four-year-old Cordelia Gummer, cajoled into eating a hamburger in front of the press by her agriculture minister father John at the height of the BSE crisis; and David Mellor lining up his entire family at the garden gate to smile sweetly for the cameras while internally digesting the news that he had been having an affair with a young actress.
Huhne’s texts to his son reveal a cautionary tale for every politician considering bending the rules. Families must not only bear the consequences of your actions, but suffer them under the sort of public scrutiny that is likely to do nothing but damage to your relationship. It hardly seems worth it.
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