A television producer friend of mine used to amuse himself in the evenings by watching mawkish American TV serials – otherwise known as family entertainment –and spotting the characters who’d be dead by the end of the episode. He was almost invariably right. Those marked down by heartless scriptwriters to be “disappeared” were invariably the ones who were told in the opening minutes, “You have a long life ahead of you, son” or “it’s an aggressive disease – but we’ve caught it in time” … Dead!
It’s traditionally been much the same in politics. People say the opposite of what they mean. Whether it’s Berlin, Paris, London or Washington, when a party leader is forced in the middle of a row to emerge in public and utter the words, “Mr or Mrs X has my absolute confidence”, one thing is certain: come the next reshuffle … “Dead!” And when those forlorn creatures finally get the chop and stand before the banks of TV cameras to explain that sudden decision to resign from high office with immediate effect, they invariably use another of the great euphemisms of modern politics … “I’ve decided to stand down so that I can spend more time with my family …”
It’s a code everyone recognizes as conveying exactly the opposite of what it actually means: “I’ve been found out as incompetent/caught doing something wrong and although I hung on to my well-paid, high-profile job for as long as humanly possible, the boss finally stamped on my fingers and I had to go … though I’ll be back.” And, of course, the next media image we see is of a doting spouse – usually a wife – and three bemused-looking teenagers welcoming back into the fold the much-loved father they’ve barely seen – apart from Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings – for the past 30 years.
This is what’s known in media parlance as “the bosom of his family” – where the fallen hero/villain will spend all his time for the next few weeks or months if necessary, constantly on the telephone, plotting and scheming his return to public life … only as a reluctant concession, of course, to the demands of his constituents or party, for whom everything has apparently gone to hell in a handcart since his wholly unfair departure.
Perhaps the most memorable political resignation of the twentieth century was that of President Richard Nixon, who jumped in 1974 before he was pushed, when the Watergate scandal threatened to lead to his impeachment. Duly at his side for the “bosom of his family” photo-op were his long-suffering wife, Patricia, and his daughters, Tricia and Julie.
And, of course, the collapse of the financial system, which started in 2007 and the aftershocks from which are still being felt three years later, led to its own spate of resignations across the banking world – usually cushioned in these cases though by multi-million-euro “golden parachutes” sewn from taxpayers’/shareholders’ hard-earned money.
The best-known in Britain was Sir Fred Goodwin – known as “Fred The Shred” for his proclivity to make savings through redundancies – who resigned on October 11, 2008, as Chief Executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, which the same year announced the largest annual loss in UK corporate history.
While in Germany, one of the most high-profile casualties was Georg Funke, head of the troubled mortgage lender, Hypo Real Estate, who followed Sir Fred to the metaphorical gallows at around the same time – after Angela Merkel had to step in with a €50-billion bailout to prevent the collapse of the company. The thing that strikes me about all these resignations is that they’re nothing more than staging posts between the last highly-paid job that went totally pear-shaped and the next highly-paid job where, hopefully, things can only get better.
And as to spending more time with the family, nobody ever really means it. Everyone involved probably wonders how they’d ever manage for more than five minutes if they were thrown together seven days a week like most regular families. But perhaps now is the time to call a halt. Perhaps it’s time to step back and ask ourselves what family really means. We’ve been to the brink and back in terms of the framework that supports our society in the past few years, and it’s not over yet – so perhaps it’s time we really got a handle on what’s important to us, starting with those who are nearest and dearest.
As it happens, we cash-rich time-poor northern Europeans are not the most adept at knowing – or doing – what’s best for us.
It’s our Mediterranean friends – including our Spanish neighbours here on this beautiful island of Mallorca – who have some of the tightest family ties. They know the value of living, working and spending leisure time together. They know the importance of seeing different generations mingle and learn from each other everyday.
To take but one example, eating together is an unshakeable and invaluable family ritual that’s been lost in too many other countries.
Like the Spanish and the Portuguese, Italians too know the value of family, as do the Greeks. So while they may not have the most flourishing economies in the European Union at the moment – and let he who is without sin cast the first stone when it comes to overblown economies and personal debt! – they do have something else important when it comes to the way we live our lives at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century: real, solid family values.
So let’s make 2010 the year we decide to learn rather than lecture, and appreciate rather than denigrate. When it comes to it, none of us has left a particularly impressive legacy over the past few years. And when it comes to it too, we could all do with spending a bit more time with our families!