Labour Leader Clement Attlee with his wife Violet who was a secret Conservative voter (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Political Families Fall Out

Has the dysfunctional family replaced the dynastic one in politics?

Artillery Row

Currently topping the Sunday Times bestseller list is Mary Trump’s hatchet job book attacking her Uncle Donald: ‘Too Much & Never Enough: How My Family Created The World’s Most Dangerous Man’, which prompts the question: has the dysfunctional family replaced the dynastic one in politics?

Dynasties such as the Kennedys and the Bushes dedicated to family advancement despite personal differences, have previously characterised politics, not only in the US, but around the world. Here in Britain the Churchills and the Benns are two recent examples of families which have sent their scions into Parliament across three generations, while the Cecils produced both the two leading statesmen of the Elizabethan era, and two Prime Ministers (Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour) at the dawn of the 20th century.

In India, the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty similarly provided three successive Prime Ministers from three generations, and in North Korea, in a unique instance of a Marxist monarchy, a third Kim has followed his father and grandfather into supreme power.

But what happens when squabbles and differences inside families spill over into the political realm? Such examples, though rarer than the nepotistic norm, are much more interesting. Broadly speaking, it is far more usual for us to follow the paths of our parents and siblings. Growing up in families, we are likely to absorb and repeat their values and opinions in our own lives, and it takes both courage and a strong independence of mind – and often a certain rebellious nature – to think for ourselves and go our own way.

Perhaps the most striking instance of such a division in Britain comes in the lives of Stanley Baldwin, Tory Prime Minister for much of the era between the two world wars, and his eldest son Oliver. A rebel cuckoo in the conventional cocoon of his wealthy family nest, with his homosexuality making him an outsider from the outset, Oliver survived Eton, the trenches of WW1, and imprisonment as a suspected spy in both Bolshevik Russia and Turkey, to become Labour MP for Dudley in 1929, facing his father across the green benches.

Women have often been more prominent than men in rejecting the patriarchal politics of their men

Father and son managed to preserve a warm personal relationship despite their political differences. Oliver lost his seat in 1931, but after WW2 service in the Intelligence Corps he returned to the Commons as Labour MP for Paisley. He became the 2nd Earl Baldwin on his father’s death, and was appointed Governor of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. Here he outraged conservative opinion by openly living with his gay partner, and by flouting racial divides, and was recalled after a couple of years. But he retained his affection for the islands and was buried on Antigua when he died in 1958.

Political differences also split another family of the same era, the Attlee’s. Clement Attlee, Prime Minister of the Labour Government elected in 1945, was, like Stanley Baldwin, made an Earl on retirement, but when his son Martin inherited the title in 1967 he took his seat in the Lords as a Conservative. The 1945 election is surely unique in being the only contest in which the wives of the two main contenders for power – Attlee and Churchill – were covert supporters of other parties. Mrs Violet Attlee was a secret Tory, while Clementine Churchill was a lifelong Liberal – the party Winston had belonged to when they married.

Women have often been more prominent than men in kicking over the traces and rejecting the patriarchal politics of their fathers and husbands. Alina Fernandez, one of eleven children of Cuba’s Communist dictator Fidel Castro, fled the socialist paradise in 1993, and successfully sought asylum in the hated USA, where she has since become a staunch anti-communist activist. Her cousin Mariela Espín, daughter of Fidel’s brother and successor Raúl Castro, leads Cuba’s Sex Education Agency where she battles for LBGT rights against the regime’s homophobic traditions.

Pierrette Le Pen, first wife of Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France’s ‘far right’ National Front, and mother of the Front’s current leader Marine Le Pen, divorced her husband in 1987 as she disapproved of his views. In a witty response to his jibe that she could find work as a chambermaid, at the age of fifty she posed nearly nude in a skimpy maid’s costume for Playboy magazine. Marine and her two sisters took their father’s side in the row, though Marine has since disavowed her dad’s extremism and expelled him from the party.

Edda Mussolini, eldest and favourite child of Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, was always a thorn in her papa’s side. A wild and uncontrollable child, when she finally wed a young diplomat, Count Galeazzo Ciano, and he became Italy’s Foreign Minister, she took her husband’s side even after he voted to depose her dad in 1943. After the Duce approved Ciano’s execution, Edda never saw or spoke to her father again, had an affair with a Communist, and is the only one of Mussolini’s legitimate children not buried in the family vault in his birthplace Predappio. Her son Fabrizio pithily summed up the family’s problems in the title of his 1991 memoir: “When Grandpa Had Papa Shot”.

If British family political disagreements are unlikely to reach the lethal level of the Mussolini family spats, or that of North Korea, where the current ruler ‘dear respected comrade’ Kim Jong-Un is believed to have ordered the assassination of his exiled dissident elder brother Kim Jong-Num in 2017 with nerve gas, such splits can still be painful. Our own dear leader, Boris Johnson, broke ranks with the rest of his pro-EU family when he came out for Brexit in 2016, though the breach now seems to have healed. Sometimes blood really is thicker than water.

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