Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Born to rule and not just in Pakistan

And here we have our own emerging lineages, as much from the left as the right
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This weekend, the inner circle of the Pakistan People's Party awaited their instructions from the grave. They gathered at the Bhutto residence in Naudero, Larkana to implement the wishes of their lost leader. Benazir's last will and testament decides who is to succeed her as leader of the PPP. Not very democratic, especially not for an avowed democrat who genuinely believed in democracy, but that is the way it is with political dynasties in the East. Democrats grab the hereditary cloaks pulled off the old aristocracies and wear them with pride. An absolute sense of entitlement, bequeathed power and inherited privilege ensure the continuation of the line.

And so it was that the PPP heirs were announced. Benazir's son, Bilawal, green, only 19, currently at Oxford, is the chosen one, aided and abetted by his father, Asif Ali Zardari, believed by millions to be corrupt. An ancien regime controls territory and the people's choices and voices. Benazir was a charismatic and inspirational leader who was barbarically assassinated, but never forget that her place and position were maintained through a feudal system. We were in Oxford at the same time. She was beautiful and right royal. She knew Pakistan would one day be hers.

Journalists reporting on her savage death comment on the Bhutto family, their many tragedies and extraordinary (sometimes deleterious) influence over Pakistan since before Independence. The hacks could have made comparisons with Western political clans. In the USA and UK, these families don't have soulless serfs doing their bidding but do have the same unquestioned prerogative and right (they believe) of succession. The Kennedys, Bush Seniors and Juniors, and now Clintons are obvious examples.

And here we have our own old and emerging lineages as, much from the left as the right. Watch Hull East this week as David Prescott attempts to grab the seat vacated by his dad, fisticuffs John, our gabbling, departed deputy prime minister. David lives in London and works in PR. This surge of political ambition only makes sense if the Prescotts believe the seat is part of the family pile. A member of the constituency party says : "Some members think it's nepotistic and a little bit brazen". Not half.

Not as brazen as the selection of 17-year-old Emily Benn, granddaughter of the national treasure, Tony Benn, who fills auditoriums across the land talking in that refreshingly honest way about neo-liberal, New Labour. Her mother is Nita Clark, once a trusted political advisor to Blair. Young Emily fizzes with much enthusiasm about work experience in 10 Downing Street when others of her age were skulking in their bedrooms. Good on her, you think. Then you think, she only got this access because of who she was. Undeniably. Her hero is Tony Blair, the war on Iraq was a fab idea, she still believes.

Her uncle Hilary was elected in 1999, an excellent MP, of that there can be no question. Yet he too supported the war, was once a loyal Blairite, the sort of person his dad despises. Tony Benn has never publicly criticised either of these kith and kin. Family power matters more than issues and principles.

Then there are media kinsfolk and acting scions, the great houses which give the nation a seemingly endless supply of stars. Many of them are indisputably talented and have the blood of their awesome ancestors coursing in their veins. Seeing Zoe Wanamaker playing a bewitching Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the National, you just knew the woman had sucked in acting with her milk.

It would be iniquitous to discriminate against the exceptionally able children of the successful. But they must be seen to compete fairly for any chances that come their way. That doesn't happen. The ease of entry and progress a name bestows sometimes on the undeserving is plainly wrong. Bilawal may not be suited for the future mapped out for him; Emily may not be for hers. Upcoming broadcasters and journalists with a known pedigree would get nowhere without the leg-up provided by nepotism. Nameless others may be vastly better choices.

A couple of years ago, a well-known broadcaster rang me to ask if I could arrange work experience at The Independent for his darling daughter. No, I said, because I didn't make such arrangements and because I believed strongly that children should use their initiative and make it on their own terms. He asked if I could meet her just to talk about the profession. The girl was dull. The girl's done well since, too well really. It works, the greasy system. Doesn't make it right. We are getting better scrutiny of public appointments in parliament. Unfair dynastic advantage, however, is never questioned, never interrogated, not in Pakistan and not here either. And it should be.