Daily Archives: May 24, 2008

Cherie Blair’s Autobiography and the Dumbing Down of Politics – Column 24.5.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 24.5.08

THERE’S A QUOTE, towards the end of Cherie Blair’s new autobiography Speaking For Myself, that really says it all.  On 27 June last year, the Blairs were supposed to leave Downing Street in an atmosphere of dignity and grace; they said farewell to the staff, left presents for Gordon Brown’s children, and smiled politely for the cameras.  But Cherie just couldn’t resist that famous last quip at the photographers.  “We won’t miss you!” she yelled, in that faint Liverpool twang, as she and Tony climbed into their car; and was scowled at by her irate spouse, until he shrugged his shoulders, took her hand, and grinned – because, as she puts it, “he loves me; and I am the abrasiveness off which he can spark.”

Well, Barbara Cartland eat your heart out, or twirl elegantly in your grave; for the spirit of the romantic novelette clearly lives on.  Personally, I have never been one of those who got much pleasure from trashing the looks, style and morals of Cherie Blair, a woman who always seemed doomed to a bad press from the moment she decided that far from playing the traditional Downing Street wife, she intended to continue with her own high-powered career as a barrister.  Cherie Blair was a mouthy, high-achieving Labour woman from the wrong side of the Liverpool tracks.  She was a feminist, without apology.  She was strangely obsessed with securing the financial position of her family, even when, to most people, they seemed pretty damned rich.  And she was a busy working mother on the wrong side of 40, who had no chance of conforming to the conventional idea of how a trophy wife should look.

So it’s small wonder that from the moment of her husband’s election in 1997, every detail of her conduct and appearance – from her property deals to the width of her mouth – came under relentless and often vicious public scrutiny.  And I defy any woman not to sympathise with the strain, in mid-life, of finding yourself suddenly photographed and mocked from every angle, every time you step outside your door.

If I was never particularly concerned, though, about whether Cherie Blair could do dignity, discretion, or a dozen other boring “womanly” virtues of the simpering-but-silent type, there is one thing about her book which truly bothers me; and that is its militant, determined shallowness, its utter lack of intellectual or political depth.  Oddly, it’s possible to read the entire 400-page thing – for it’s quite a racy read, what with all the pregnancies and family crises – and then to find yourself wondering what Cherie Booth, Q.C., would really  say, if she came to write a book about the Blair years.   Earlier this week, Tony Blair’s erstwhile Cabinet colleague Peter Hain was to be heard on the Today programme, launching a paper on the challenge of rebuilding the Labour Party in Wales, in an age when the old communities that once supported it are gone.  It’s not a very good paper; it makes many classic New Labour mistakes about the supposed distinction between “core” voters and “aspirational” ones.  But in the barren intellectual landscape of British centre-left politics today, it glows like a small, ragged cactus; not impressive, but vaguely alive.

And it’s that feeling of political and intellectual life – of robust analysis, and serious theorising about what went wrong and what went right – that is so crushingly absent from Cherie Blair’s autobiography.  This is a book by one of the cleverest women of her generation, a brilliant barrister and potential politician who fought her way up to become a leader of her profession, and the respected friend of statesmen.  Yet here, she gives us only what she and her publisher presumably think the public wants; a racily-written, utterly superficial celebrity memoir of love and marriage, babies and bar exams, lipstick, clothes, and domestic crises.

Of course, the personal is political, for myself, for Cherie Blair, and for every thinking woman of our generation.  But this is the tittle-tattle of personal life drained of its underlying political significance; and, in that sense, this book speaks volumes about what has gone wrong with a spin-driven political system which patronises and bamboozles ordinary voters at every turn, which seeks to seduce them with charm and personal “openness” rather than with evidence and debate, and which avoids serious political argument like the plague.  Peter Hain’s analysis may be flawed, in other words; but at least it still takes the form of an analysis, to be refined and argued over.  Cherie Blair, though, has parked her brain, dumbed herself down, and abandoned analysis for the kind of gossip and image-based discourse that now fills the pages of celebrity magazines, marginalising the very idea of political belief, and reducing politics to just another reality show, in which people “might as well” vote Tory, because David Cameron “seems like a nice bloke”.

It’s fortunate for Cherie Blair, of course, that no-one was thinking in quite such patronising terms back in Liverpool in the 1960’s, when she – as a hard-up kid from the backstreets – was being given the intellectual and political tools to make something substantial of her life.  But now she, and many like her, have subtly pulled the ladder up behind them.  And they have done so not  by “destroying state education”, as the Tories so often and foolishly argue.  They have done it, rather, by learning to defer to the black art of spin and image-making that treats the people like fools; and that finally robs them, through non-books like this, both of the information they need to make intelligent decisions, and of the analytical understanding that enables people truly to know the world, and to change it.