Are politicians who cry openly ever being sincere?by Thomas Dixon / October 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
The art of political weeping is becoming a fixture of British politics. Just last week on BBC’s Question Time a woman who had voted for David Cameron’s Conservative Party in the General Election in May, Michelle Dorrell, wept angrily while denouncing the government’s broken promise not to cut tax credits. This emotional moment was seized on by Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as proof that the government’s claim to peddle a more compassionate brand of conservatism was pure spin. “It is not the Party of the British worker, but it is the problem for the British worker,” he said.
This comes just a few weeks after the Prime Minister initially misjudged the public mood over the Syrian refugee crisis. Then it was the picture of the drowned three-year-old Aylan Kurdi that was the focus of debate. Cameron’s critics testified to their own emotional responses. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon was among those who described being reduced to tears by the picture.
The power of political tears is evident throughout history—as far back as the English Civil War (1642–1651), tears were used to embellish and enhance rhetoric. Oliver Cromwell, who led the rebellion against the monarchy and signed King Charles I’s death warrant, for all his puritanical drive and ruthless leadership, was notorious for his emotional displays. A pamphlet advocating the assassination of Cromwell appeared in 1657, entitled Killing No Murder. Its anonymous author described the Lord Protector’s tears as an insincere pretence of piety and zeal, saying they showed Cromwell was endowed with “spungy eyes and a supple conscience.”
Displays of public emotion were increasingly common in the 18th century—the great age of sensibility as typified by the bestselling novel The Man of Feeling, which featured an extraordinarily lachrymose hero. One of the most memorable exchanges of this period occurred in the House of Commons in May 1791, when the prominent Whig politicians Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke were involved in a debate about the merits of the recent French Revolution. Newspapers reported that Fox, stung by harsh criticisms from Burke, “suddenly burst into tears” as he spoke of his sadness at being attacked in this way by his friend of 25-years-standing. Fox’s tears were a gift for cartoonists. The leading satirist Isaac Cruikshank’s image of the scene showed him weeping so copiously that a boy with a bucket, who was also in tears, was needed to mop up the spillage. Several newspapers carried a satirical piece in response, entitled “How to cry!’, purportedly by a junior minister seeking advice on how best to deploy parliamentary sobs as a technique for pushing through legislation.
While Fox and Burke were the product of an overtly sentimental age, it is clear this touchy feely trend continued into the 20th century. The two leaders traditionally depicted as the most fearless and tearless of this era, namely Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, also indulged in bouts of political crying. Churchill wept frequently, both in private and in public. His eyes often misted over when touring bombed-out areas of London at the height of the Blitz. And he was also a sucker for weepy movies, crying repeatedly at his favourite films such as That Hamilton Woman (1941), which depicted the descent of Nelson’s mistress into poverty and alcoholism.
The real pioneer of political tears in the 20th century, though, was Margaret Thatcher—the so-called “Iron Lady.” Despite the popular perception of Thatcher as heartless and ultra-masculine—the 1980s satirical television puppet show Spitting Image portrayed her as power-mad, dressed in a suit and tie, smoking a Churchillian cigar, eating her steak raw, and terrorising her feeble cabinet colleagues, alongside whom she stood to urinate in the gents’ toilet. This apparent ultra-masculinity led the Labour backbencher Leo Abse, in his extraordinary Freudian psycho-biography of Thatcher, published in 1989, to describe her as a “phallic woman.”
Such accusations persist to this day. In Hilary Mantel’s short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014), the narrator describes Thatcher as a pitiless vampire who “lives on the fumes of whisky and the iron in the blood of her prey.” “I thought there’s not a tear in her”, the narrator reflects, “Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea.” The historical evidence suggests otherwise.
Thatcher spoke to journalists about her tears on several occasions, from her election as Conservative leader in 1975 onwards, including during the Falklands War of 1982. In the aftermath of that conflict, Thatcher became the first Prime Minister to appear on the cover of a glossy women’s magazine, Woman’s Own. Inside, an interview explored Mrs Thatcher’s feelings during the recent war. The interviewer noted of the Prime Minister that, “For long periods of our conversation her eyes were misted over.” Other accounts confirm that she had been frequently tearful during that conflict. Then in 1985, Thatcher became the first Prime Minister to weep during a television interview, when she spoke to Miriam Stoppard for a series called Woman to Woman, and was moved to tears by the story of the end of her father’s political career in Grantham. In both these cases the tears were aimed at a female audience and presumably designed to soften Thatcher’s image.
It was Thatcher who did most to usher in a more personal and emotional kind of politics in this country. In almost all recent cases, when politicians have chosen to reveal their emotional sides, it has been with reference to matters relating to their personal and family lives—as Thatcher did when crying over her father’s story and as both David Cameron and Gordon Brown did when welling up with tears during the 2010 election campaign, recalling the deaths of their own children.
What was unusual about the tears shed recently over the refugee crisis and the cutting of tax credits, by contrast, was that these were more truly political tears. If political leaders were to start shedding tears as expressions of their political, rather than their merely personal feelings then we really would be entering a new emotional era—one where tears revealed public passion rather than private sentiment. Whether or not this would be a desirable development, it would represent a profound change in the political climate.
Thomas Dixon will discuss his new book Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears on Friday 23rd October as part of the Inside Out Festival. The panel includes Prospect’s Serena Kutchinsky. Register here