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General Election 2017: Why Theresa May's 'Only Child' Tag Is A Lazy Slur And, Worse, A Distraction From An Important Personality Discussion

11/06/2017 18:59 BST | Updated 12/06/2017 10:11 BST
Toby Melville / Reuters

Political pundits are all having a field day exploring Theresa May's motivation in calling an election when she didn't have to, green-lighting a campaign built around a personality nobody believed her to have and, as was evident by the early hours of Friday morning, scoring a spectacular own goal.

This week, hot on the heels of the PM's humiliation, the reason for her failure was, apparently, quite obvious nay inevitable. I lost count of the number of times I saw Theresa May's name prefixed by "only child" - a transparent shorthand for 'socially awkward', 'unable to form and keep friendships within Parliament', 'unwilling to relate to the individuals making up the electorate'. One Times commentator helpfully noticed how, on the stump in her constituency, Theresa May's "only-child reserve played as disdain".

A week earlier, even when her success had seemed assured, one Tory source had delighted in joining her personality deconstruction, digging deep into his psychiatry manual to tell The Times: "The first thing to say is that Theresa is an only child."

Really? Not that she's only the second female Prime Minister? That she had been the longest serving Home Secretary of modern times? The FIRST thing?

Well, I have three major problems with this - and, yes, Official Disclaimer Alert: I am an only child.

The first is that these critics - presumably all of them having made the wise decision to furnish themselves with siblings - are clearly judging Theresa May for something over which she has never had any choice. If her one-time Tory rival Andrea Leadsom quite rightly got slammed for claiming her richer, maternal wisdom over the childless Theresa May, why are these commentators now allowed to get away with such a similarly lazy slur when it comes to her sibling-free state?

The second is, it leaves me wondering: Is this what these same observers think of every only child they come across? And would they be able to recognise us if they didn't know? One person's "too reserved" is another person's "independent". One person's "doesn't know how to fill the silence" is another person's "comfortable in their own skin". How reliable is any individual's description of another? These unreliable throwaway comments say as much about those casting such words around as the objects of their scrutiny.

I strongly reject the idea that being an only child is an obvious qualifier for being some kind of social cripple, for living out an anxiety-filled existence where every adult social encounter is a continuation of the school playground without a sibling to cling to. I can promise you that I seldom feel awkward in social situations, and if I do, it won't be because of my "only-child reserve". When I'm selfish, it's because I'm feeling selfish, not because I never had to share my toys. How many stories have I heard that start with, "My sister/brother never thinks of anyone but themselves"? Meanwhile, we only children may not be able to phone up siblings to help fill the room for a party, but, from my own experience, I can count on my man-made family for bottomless support in times good and bad, and I treasure it just like everyone else.

The final problem with this throwaway attempted slur is that it becomes a deflection for those real, actual people problems, if there are any, behind the door of Number 10. I have no idea whether Theresa May is as "robotic", "cold" and "humourless" as her fresh bunch of critics would have us believe, or whether she purely prioritises policy over personality.

This is clearly a discussion worth having. Theresa May is the (current) leader of our nation in an increasingly complicated age, when our success and prosperity will utterly depend on our politicians' canniness at deepening ties both in Europe and further afield. The ability to form and maintain close relationships has never been so critical to our survival. But let's have that discussion without resorting to this playground insult. I find it intensely unhelpful and, in this as in so many areas of my life, I may be "only" but I know for a fact I'm not alone.