Mrs Blair’s confessional incontinence
In Downing Street she invoked the ‘right to privacy’ to keep the press at bay. Now she’s vomiting up details about her life as a mum and PM’s wife.
In the self-aggrandising world of British politics indiscretion has never been more routine. We’ve had Lord Levy, former Labour fundraiser and chief suspect in the 2006 cash for honours scandal, ‘lift the lid’ on life in Downing Street in A Question of Honour. Hot and heavy on his heels came the former deputy leader, John Prescott, whose My Story: Pulling no Punches revealed a man utterly incapable of keeping his bile to himself. And just this week extracts from Cherie Blair’s Speaking for Myself, published today, have been serialised in The Times (London) and the Sun.
Originally intended for publication in October, but pushed forward for some unstated reason, Cherie’s revelations have been as unabashed as they are suspiciously timed. In one gloriously self-conscious extract we learn that the Blairs’ fourth son Leo was conceived while Tony and Cherie were staying at Queen Elizabeth II’s Scottish retreat, Balmoral Castle, in 1999. Having been disturbed the previous year by the Royal underlings’ predilection for unpacking absolutely everything, including shy Cherie’s ‘unmentionables’, the following year she decided that rather than smuggle a ‘pack of three’ past the corgis, she’d leave the contraception at home. Unfortunately she hadn’t reckoned on the Scottish summer. ‘As usual up there it had been bitterly cold, and what with one thing and another…’ (1). Yes, she and Tony had sex. Just what we needed to know.
If mentioning ‘unmentionables’ is anachronistically euphemistic, Cherie suffers no such qualms when talking about the birth of their eldest son, Euan. ‘My first born appeared at about 11.30, after an epidural and a high-forceps delivery. So much for natural childbirth. As birth experiences go, it was utterly ghastly, including a third-degree tear because they yanked him out… There was blood all over the place.’ Tony was useless throughout, apparently, saying he felt queasy, although not queasy enough to decline a publicity shot for his constituency Sedgefield’s local paper within hours of the birth. ‘My last thoughts as I went to sleep that night were of my husband: I hate this man’, says Cherie (2).
In fact, if the extracts are to be believed, her husband does not come across very well at all. In 2002, upon hearing Cherie had miscarried, Tony’s immediate reaction, like many a God-fearing gentleman, was to give Alastair Campbell a ring. ‘I couldn’t believe it. There I was, bleeding, and they were talking about what was going to be the line to the press.’ (3)
But ‘A Womb of One’s Own’ this is not. There is plenty of sycophantic inanity too in Cherie’s book, from how nice the queen is, to anecdotal evidence about George W Bush’s disarmingly charming lack of sophistication or glitz. Whereas the Clintons would entertain the Blairs with live performances from Stevie Wonder and Elton John, Bush’s tack when first they met was to suggest watching a DVD ‘and that night we watched Meet the Parents with Robert de Niro’ (4).
But what is most intriguing about Speaking for Myself is not the sly character assassination of Gordon ‘Bachelor’ Brown, nor the revelation that Princesses Anne and Margaret were a) posh and b) rude – it is the fact that such a monument to confessional incontinence exists at all.
For the Blairs have not always been so candid. In fact, throughout Tony Blair’s premiership, from 1997 to 2007, both were keen to invoke a right to privacy, particularly as regards their children, the bloody birth of whom Cherie is suddenly all too keen to describe in distended detail. In 2000, for instance, they took out an injunction to prevent their ex-nanny Ros Mark from publishing details of her life in their household (5). And in 2001 they complained about the publication of rather uncontroversial pictures from Leo’s christening. As Alistair Campbell said at the time, ‘the point the prime minister is trying to make is that he does want Leo to be a very private matter. He doesn’t want intrusive attention. He would rather they got on with the business of bringing up the family in their own time and their own way.’ (6)
The Blair’s determination to keep their private lives private was such that many at the time thought it an admirable stance, principled even. In 2002, while defending Cherie from her numerous detractors, the columnist Natasha Walter wrote ‘Cherie’s private life has long been a source of fascination to commentators who have been deeply frustrated by her desire to keep it private.’ (7)
Unfortunately Cherie’s sudden openness, with no seam of private life deemed too dark to mine, casts the earlier pleas for privacy in a cynical light. They seem less like the acts of a couple wishing to preserve a genuinely private realm apart from public office, than the attempt of people in public office to censor and regulate what is reported, whether it is in the public interest or not. This revealed itself most starkly in December 2001, when, during the furore over whether the MMR vaccination causes autism, Cherie, despite repeated questioning, refused to confirm whether Leo had had said jab – and once again the right to privacy was cited (8). As she put it ‘[the press] had no right and it would set a bad precedent…’ (9)
But beyond the charge of hypocrisy lurks the deeper problem of the meaning of privacy itself. What the Blairs invoked when it suited them, the censorious ‘right to privacy’, is distinct from a genuine notion of privacy, a space in which to forge and develop relationships, not to mention one’s self, free of the accountability, indeed scrutiny, which attends one’s public role. If the private realm, in this sense, is defined by its informality, its freedom from the state’s gaze, then the right to privacy is defined precisely by its formality, its regulation by the state. It is a legal definition of what is and is not public, in other words, of what one is free to discuss, to report and to criticise and what one is not. And as such, it inhibits the public realm rather than protects the private.
If Cherie Blair’s bout of snide disclosure and self-vindicating assertion tells us anything, it is that the idea of real privacy has been hugely denigrated in recent years. There seems no longer to be a clear distinction between public and private, to the extent that, just over a year after leaving Downing Street, the former first lady of Britain can reveal all the horrible things that she thought about her husband and his political colleagues, as well as horrible things about her own physical and emotional turmoil (we really don’t need to hear about all that blood, Cherie). At a time when the distinction between public and private is blurring fast, proper privacy – the private space for relationships and human growth – ought to be defended; the ‘right to privacy’, however, as invoked by politicians and celebrities who want to keep the press at bay, possibly because they’re storing up their gory life stories for a future memoir, should be challenged.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
Emily Hill felt John Prescott’s revelations were part of an epidemic of ’emotional bulimia’.Tessa Mayes stood up for the right to photograph and write about public figures – including Prince William’s girlfriend. She also looked at how Princess Caroline of Monaco used the EU to defend her privacy. Elsewhere, Josie Appleton asserted the importance of privacy, and Rob Killick explained why it’s important to have spaces that are free from the prying eyes of officialdom and others. Or read more at spiked issue Privacy.
(1) Leo: my miracle baby at 45 (and yes, he did have the MMR jab), The Times, 12 May 2008
(2) The night I hated Tony, The Times, 12 May 2008
(3) Miscarriage: ‘I’m afriad the baby’s dead, Mrs Blair’, The Times, 12 May 2008
(4) Why our hearts sank at George W’s electon win, The Times, 14 May 2008
(5) Blairs will do whatever it takes to defend privacy, Daily Telegraph, 6 March 2000
(6) Blairs seek a ruling on Leo pictures, Daily Telegraph, 19 June 2001
(7) Why I hope Cherie Blair has seen off her critics, Independent, 11 December 2002
(8) Jab dilemma that pricked consciences, Guardian, 24 December 2001
(9) Leo: my miracle baby at 45 (and yes, he did have the MMR jab), The Times, 12 May 2008