It's right to call out Ivanka Trump's nepotism – but don't forget about the Red Princes of Labour

Keeping what is meant to be a democratic process 'in the family' is at odds with how the system is meant to work, undermining any notion that it is fair

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The Independent Online

Like a pair of Norfolk cousins, nepotism and politics have always had a close relationship. Ever since Caligula tried to make his horse a consul of Rome, politicians the world over have, for some reason, emulated the approach, appointing wives, favoured nephews, bastard children or friends to positions of power and great wealth, with varying degrees of success. In 1534 Pope Paul III made his 14-year-old grandson a cardinal. John F Kennedy made his brother Bobby Attorney General, saying it would be “good experience” for him before he became a practicing lawyer. Perhaps most scandalously, Bill Clinton once put his inexperienced wife in charge of a landmark healthcare bill that went disastrously wrong. What became of her, I’m not sure.

That it is so common, though, does not mean that it doesn’t cause resentment. There can be little doubt that the incestuous element of modern politics has contributed to the political elite losing touch, whilst fostering desire from below for change. Keeping what is meant to be a democratic process “in the family” is at odds with how the system is meant to work, undermining any notion that it is fair.

Nothing embodies the charge of populism, or degagisme as Peter Wilby called it in the New Statesman, than the contempt felt by the many towards the nepotism of the few.

This makes it all the more deflating that Donald Trump, Drainer of Swamps, Destroyer of Worlds, has proven to be just as keen to engage in it as any other politician. This week, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel pulled no punches when criticising the role President Trump’s daughter Ivanka has carved out for herself in the administration, suggesting such a practice would be “unimaginable” in his government. It is no secret in Washington that the real power behind the throne lies with Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, as Steve Bannon discovered to his cost in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.

It’s easy to look to Trump and mock, decry, and scorn. He’s an obvious target. One hears significantly less about the rise of Justin Trudeau, say, because, by and large, his politics are palatable. Grace Mugabe, wife of Robert, will almost certainly become leader in Zimbabwe when her husband dies. Yet we ignore this cycle of corruption because, honestly, we aren’t interested in upsetting the applecart.

The United Kingdom is, if anything, a far worse example of nepotism and political patronage sowing seeds of discontent than the US. Brexit was a mammoth cry against corruption, both at home and in the EU. The coming election shows no sign of addressing that.

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The refrain that politicians in this country are almost indistinguishable from each other is one of the oldest. History is littered with the names of political dynasties, from Pitt to Churchill. The phrase “Bob’s your uncle” comes from Prime Minister Robert Cecil’s appointment of his nephew Arthur Balfour as Secretary for Ireland in 1887. More recently, Hillary Benn followed his father into the House of Commons, though Tony based his political career on fighting entitlement. Stephen Kinnock is still and MP, whilst Jack Straw and Lord Prescott’s boys have both tried to emulate their fathers. There was even talk of Jeremy Corbyn’s son being given a safe seat. That this elevation of the “Red Princes”, as they are known, happens in the Labour Party is but another nail in the coffin of their credibility.

The party system in Britain also helps cement ties. Where there are not enough family members, it ensures, by and large, that the “right sort” rise to the top. It makes this election troubling: it is wrong to suggest that the people will decide the makeup of parliament, as party machines have already selected candidates to stand in constituencies they are certain to win. Theresa May’s majority will be more of a pre-ordained closed shop than any parliamentary majority in decades; ironic, as the reason given for calling the election was to secure a mandate for Brexit, a revolt against elitism.

Whatever our political persuasion, we should all be left aghast by the brazenness of Donald Trump’s appointments. Ivanka Trump’s confirmation as a special advisor beggars belief, but in Britain, familial and party political patronage has allowed the system to rot for far longer. It’s in everyone’s interests to see it stopped. 

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