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No, it is not a national tragedy

Posted by Helen Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We were not going to comment about the tragedy that has hit the Cameron family. The death of a child is always terrible and one can feel nothing but sympathy for David and Samantha Cameron at this time.

However, the death of six-year old Ivan is not a national tragedy. This needs to be said before the country is overwhelmed with the kind of sentimental schlock that paralyzes all public activity.

In 1916 the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith's son was killed at the Somme, a great blow to his father who was being attacked by all and sundry in the House of Commons and outside it for his perceived inability to conduct the war well. It would not have occurred to him or anyone else to suspend proceedings in the House even for an hour.

As Michael White reminds us in the Guardian, the House of Commons was not suspended on that terrible day in 1966 when well over 100 children were killed in Aberfan.

Other, perhaps less tragic, examples can be found throughout history. It has always been accepted that private and public life are separate and one does not and should not intrude on the other.

The idea of cancelling parliamentary proceedings because the six-year old son of the Leader of the Opposition has died is the sort of self-indulgent sentimentality that we, as a country, can ill afford.

It would have been understandable if David Cameron had found it impossible to attend and, indeed, according to this article in The Independent, the Conservative Party was, rightly, preparing to put William Hague in the lead. A few words of sympathy would have been in order and then it is business as usual - there are important issues around us that need to be dealt with.

Instead, Gordon Brown's office suggested the suspension of proceedings and the cancellation of PMQs. The Opposition ought to have refused and insisted on carrying on as usual. Indeed, it ought to have told the Prime Minister not to be such a self-indulgent ninny.

As The Independent points out, "The suspension of PMQs and normal Commons business usually only follows the death of a party leader or former premier."

The last time this happened was in 1994 after the death of John Smith, then the leader of the Labour Party. That is acceptable, in the sense that the death of a party leader or a fomer premier are parliamentary matters. The death of a child, tragic though that is for the parents, is not.

After all, we do not suspend parliamentary procedure every time one of our soldiers is killed and they, too, are somebody's sons and daughters. Furthermore, their death is in the service of this country. But, rightly, we do not think that parliamentary procedure is something with which we should play about with.

However, it seems that that is exactly what our MPs think - that Parliament and its procedures are their private games and a stage on which they can display their sensibilities for all the world to see.

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