Melanie McDonagh wrote in the Spectator on Saturday that she wanted Theresa May to be prime minister 'because she’s a vicar’s daughter’. The Mail made a similar point in its Gove-crushing endorsement a week earlier: ‘A vicar’s daughter, she is not a member of the privileged classes, but had to make her own way in the world.’ Publications in Germany and the United States have been quick to point out that this is something May has in common with Angela Merkel – while a few closer to home have wondered whether Gordon Brown, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, is the more relevant comparison.
I’m a vicar’s son. I hadn’t, before last week, realised my dad’s job had prepared me for high office. There were occasions during my childhood when I was conscious his vocation had some impact on my life choices: I wasn’t allowed to play for a Sunday morning football team, for example. But clearly I’ve been underestimating the hand I was dealt. The Mail’s suggestion seems to be that vicars’ children exemplify a kind of self-made anti-elitism, even though a sizeable majority of vicars are (still) white, middle-class, independently well-off men, my father included. Meanwhile, a commentary for the German television station NTV recognises in May the same soberly aloof morality that Merkel apparently inherited from her father. News to me: I guess the famous preachers’ children I’ve given more thought to, such as Lemmy, Kelis and Alice Cooper, must be the exception rather than the rule.
I do recognise May’s assertion that ‘public service has been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember’ because of her father’s job, and the idea that she was ‘on show’ for much of her childhood, but I daresay that also chimes with the experience of a lot of children without a priest in the family.
The 'vicar’s daughter' refrain slots comfortably into the Daily Mail’s worldview, which sees white, middle-class Christians who live anywhere but London as a persecuted majority rather than a hegemonic elite, and May's triumph as a normal-girl-done-good-against-the-odds story, as opposed to an unsurprising development that will do little to help the genuinely oppressed.
Playing the vicar’s daughter card will also calm the nerves of old-school Christian Tories alarmed that May voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2013 and aligned herself, however quietly, with the Remain campaign (58 per cent of Christians voted to leave the EU). She may be a moderniser, the implication goes, but she has a far more acceptable pedigree – or to look at it from another angle, lack of one – than Cameron, Osborne and Johnson.
But there's an important psychological dimension missing from such unquestioning celebration of the new prime minister’s upbringing. A rectory is a house charged, in my experience, with a good deal of friction and contradiction: your parents are unusually present, but it sometimes feels as if they’re performing a professional pastoral role rather than a parental one. The church community is a warm and loving one, but it’s also repressed and flecked with ugly prejudice. Christianity prioritises a life of the mind, imaginative and thoughtful, but within a limited frame of reference.
The Church of England also fosters a powerful attachment to what the atheist astronomer royal Martin Rees has called the ‘customs of my tribe’.