Politicians must do more to guard their children’s mental health, says historian

<span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Prominent politicians must do more to protect the mental wellbeing of their children, according to a leading historian whose research has revealed the enormous pressures faced by those with parents in the government.

Prof Elizabeth Hurren, the chair in modern history at the University of Leicester, found a troubling pattern of mental health and wellbeing problems in children of politicians, which were often linked to their parents’ work and the relentless attention that comes with public life.

“Political children need their private spaces, but few get that chance in a social media era of faster news headlines and online clickbait,” Hurren said. “Politicians are aware of the problem, but they are reluctant to discuss it.”

Due to be presented at the British Science festival in Leicester on Tuesday, Hurren’s work draws on memoirs, media coverage and interviews with grown-up children of politicians to describe the mental health problems many struggle with. Despite evident privileges, some children develop complex emotional issues after being thrust into the public eye during their parents’ rollercoaster careers and afterwards when private family stories are recounted in memoirs.

Hurren’s research for the British Academy comes as the new prime minister, Liz Truss, and her cabinet – who collectively parent at least 47 children – take on the formidable tasks of steering the country through an economic crisis, rebuilding the NHS and navigating a world reshaped by war in Ukraine.

According to Hurren, Truss’s decision to keep her daughters, Frances, 16, and Liberty, 13, out of the public eye, and not have them photographed in front of No 10, suggest she has thought hard about their privacy. “She is protecting their mental wellbeing,” Hurren said. “Liz Truss seems to understand this fact of political life better than many of her parliamentary colleagues who have been in denial or preferred to downplay the cost of public office for the politician’s child.”

Trouble can start long before children are drawn into the limelight. Carol Thatcher was sent to a private girls’ school after her twin brother, Mark, went off to boarding school. In Hurren’s report, Carol says she was sent away because her mother Margaret’s attitude was “there wasn’t much point in running a household for one child”.

Thatcher’s success left Carol feeling that she could never make the grade, the report adds. Quoted in the study, she says: “Nobody will ever know me for being anything other than Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, so at the end of the day whatever I did was never good enough.”

Many children are turned into silent actors, Hurren found, called upon for family photoshoots, or to make political points, such as when John Gummer, the Conservative agriculture minister, fed his four-year-old daughter Cordelia a beef burger during the BSE crisis. “The children know how to smile for the camera but they are expected to remain silent actors on the public stage,” she writes.

The teenage years are often the most fraught, Hurren says. Politicians’ children can get flak at school, particularly if their parents put forward unpopular policies, or become embroiled in scandals such as affairs or legal wrongdoing. There are other risks too at that age: Euan Blair was 16 when he was arrested in Leicester Square for being “drunk and incapable”, while William Straw, the son of the former home secretary, Jack Straw, was 17 when he was cautioned for selling cannabis after a nasty tabloid sting.

With social media, a single photo can make the news, Hurren says. “The news feed is fast and once a story is out there it creates a narrative around you. You don’t want that when you’re a teenager because it’s so hard to shake off,” she adds.

The difficulties children face are not always clear to their politician parents. In 2017, Blair told the Mirror that he once commented to his children that “it wasn’t that bad” for them, to which they replied: “No, you don’t realise, we used to get a lot of stick.”

Some of the most serious problems arise when politicians spill private family stories in lucrative memoirs soon after they leave office, Hurren says. Since the 1970s, political memoirs have become more candid and revealing, with politicians raking over family problems and discussing their children’s mishaps, failures and even medical conditions. Combined with politicians posting personal information on social media, children now faced a “double whammy,” she said.

“There is a legacy to being a politician’s child and it sometimes doesn’t come out until adulthood when they try to build emotional relationships. They have learned to be so inscrutable and not comment that they’ve not worked out how they feel,” Hurren says.

“We need to find solutions to the problems these children are facing, because those generic lessons could help new politicians as they enter parliament.”