Cherie’s memoirs ‘are not awful’ shock!

Yes, the 400-page tome is full of gynaecological goo and bimbo-style twittering about getting her hair done. Yet Speaking for Myself is also a surprisingly endearing narrative on the incoherence of New Labour.

Jennie Bristow

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Let’s be clear about one thing: I don’t much care for Cherie Blair. I don’t like many of her opinions or her fascination with religious mumbo-jumbo of either the Roman Catholic or New Age variety, and I don’t like confessional memoirs in general. I have spent my adult life criticising the policies and principles of the New Labour administration, so I’m not exactly a fan of her husband either.

And yet, I rather enjoyed Cherie Blair’s autobiography Speaking for Myself. It’s a hoot. In fact, it’s the funniest account of our dysfunctional culture that I have read since Douglas Coupland’s Jpod, a novel about the inner office life of Canadian techno-geeks, featuring several guest appearances by the author himself. Cherie’s effort is less surreal, but only slightly.

Speaking for Myself has been serialised at length in The Times (London), and panned by critics for many of the right reasons. Tim Black, writing on spiked, attacked the ‘confessional incontinence’ of the former prime minister’s wife, and the hypocrisy with which she fiercely defended her family’s ‘right to privacy’ while Blair was a public figure and in office, only to lay bare the most intimate details of their matrimonial bickerings and children’s conceptions when she wants to land a book deal (see Mrs Blair’s confessional incontinence, by Tim Black).

In a vitriolic column in The Sunday Times, Minette Marrin slammed ‘Cherie Blair, Judge Dreadful’ for being a disgrace both to ‘the law’ and to ‘our sex’: ‘Women are so emotional, so impulsive, so irrational, I used to be told. Women are not logical; they are inconsistent and easily taken in. Women are so obsessed with status, with their husbands’ status and with material possessions. Women are indiscreet and gossipy in a way men are not. All this is true of Cherie Blair.’

Yes, yes, banged to rights. The book is embarrassing – for its gynaecological goo, and the fact that every chapter seems to be dedicated to explaining Cherie’s many blunders and gaffes. As the title indicates, Speaking for Myself also suffers from the disease of ‘Me-ism’ that spread so rapidly through the Labour cabinet office in the latter years of the Blair administration – though the symptoms exhibited by Cherie are not to disagree with her husband’s political decisions, but to impress upon us that she was always a better lawyer, coming top in the Bar Finals while ‘Blair, A. [was] nestling in the Third Class section’; as well as being a generally more practical person, worrying about who was going to bring home the bacon when Tony wasn’t running the country any more.

But for all that, there is something about Speaking for Myself that is sympathetic and, dare I say it, rather sweet. Even Minette Marrin admits that ‘[h]er love of her husband and her extended family is endearing’, and Cherie’s occasional descriptions of a partnership in which she and Tony were ‘not only lovers but best friends’ reads like a genuinely-expressed, old-fashioned love story from the 1970s. A clever, young, radical, ambitious couple setting out to conquer the world together – that was the dream of the baby-boomer generation, before the politics of left and right collapsed and the practicalities of sexual equality were revealed to be rather tricky.

Cherie’s attempt to negotiate all that as a barrister and mother of young children in Downing Street should not be dismissed altogether, for it raises some interesting questions about what it means to be a wife in the twenty-first century. And what it doesn’t mean, surely, is that ambitious, intelligent women should jack in their careers to keep their mouths shut and their legs crossed, because their husband’s work and public position is more important than their own. Even when it quite clearly is.

Sexual equality, and the pursuit of individual ambitions, not only frees women up to be their own people – it expects this of them, and encourages them to expect it of themselves. Which means that all but the most like-minded couples will pull against each other at certain times, pursuing their own agendas and making their own mark upon the world. In the case of the Blairs, the shame is that Cherie’s mark upon the world has been moulded by the shallow, self-obsessed, celebrity culture that gave birth to New Labour and was encouraged by the Blair government.

The fact that Cherie has pursued her high-flying career is easily defensible – even admirable. The fact that she has become known for moaning about invasions of her privacy unless it suits her to tell all, and twittering like a bimbo about her time with her hairdresser and ‘lifestyle consultant’, and anodyne dinner parties with various heads of state, is a product of the culture of our times, in which the only thing naffer than mainstream politics are the public personalities of those engaged in it.

Above all Cherie Blair’s autobiography, like her many gaffes, provides a startling illustration of the extent to which the political class today simply does not know how to behave. From opening the door of their Islington home in a nightie and with bad bed-head the day after Blair won the election in 1997, to becoming embroiled with a conman in an ill-advised property purchase in Bristol, Cherie’s blunders and her bewilderment at the ensuing scandals reflect the lack of those unwritten, but perfectly clear and naturally observed, rules of public life that once existed.

From its war on Clause Four to its courting of celebrity in an attempt to create ‘Cool Britannia’, New Labour ripped up the old ways of doing things without providing a replacement. As became increasingly clear in the latter years of the Blair government, today’s political class lacks both loyalty and etiquette: public figures neither know how to behave or how to pretend they are behaving. So Blair’s erstwhile colleagues turned upon him in a narcissistic display of tantrum and ego, MPs continue to find themselves embroiled in one minor scandal after another, and former deputy prime minister John Prescott used his own autobiography to spill his guts about his battle with bulimia. It’s all pretty unsavoury stuff.

Cherie is certainly no victim of this process – but it would be wrong to blame her for creating it. Her life journey from baby boomer to protagonist in the Third Way gives some insight into what went wrong in the Nineties shift from politics to personality politics. Misplaced idealism, puffed-up pragmatism and twitching insecurity came to fill the void where politics used to be, and the upshot is 400 pages of history-as-fluff.

Jennie Bristow is former commissioning editor of spiked, and editor of the new website Parents With Attitude. Email Jennie {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Speaking for myself, by Cherie Blair is published by Little Brown. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) All rise for Cherie Blair, Judge Dreadful, The Sunday Times, 18 May 2008

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