Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Politicians' Wives: Classy Professionals, Pushy Go-Getters or Sad Stay-at-Homes: None of Them Has as Much Fun as Footballers' Wives. (the NS Profile)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Politicians' Wives: Classy Professionals, Pushy Go-Getters or Sad Stay-at-Homes: None of Them Has as Much Fun as Footballers' Wives. (the NS Profile)

Article excerpt

Who would want to be a political wife? Suddenly there are reminders aplenty of just how gruesome a life it is, from the unauthorised holiday snaps of Cherie Blair in her not very flattering snake trousers to the public re-airing of every twist and turn of the Cecil Parkinson/Sarah Keays affair two decades ago -- this time in a television documentary for Channe 14. Whether your sympathies lie with Keays or with Parkinson, the big questions left hanging in the air at the end of the programme concern Parkinson's loyal wife, Ann: what was it like for her? Why did she stick by him?

ITV's new blockbuster Footballers' Wives may be fictional, but seems to portray the soccer-star lifestyle accurately enough, with "more arses per minute thanAn Evening with Johnny Vaughan and Friends . . . more cocaine than in a Yardie's knickers and more stiff nipples than four hours of Shackleton", according to the Guardian TV critic Gareth McLean. If you have not seen the show, that just about sums it up.

Life for a political wife is not half such fun. In politics, there is less money around than you find in footballing milieus, and, if I were to be very unkind, I might add that the male physiques are not quite so honed. But politicians do have one attribute that footballers lack: power, supposedly the biggest aphrodisiac of all.

Should we bother for a second about politicians' wives? (Politicians' husbands are still, I fear, such a small group that only PhD students need notice them.) I think we should; a politician's choice of partner in life tells us a great deal about the politician.

There are four categories of political wife. The most prominent of these is now the Modern Woman, who has a certain independence of spirit, and usually her own career. Think of Cherie, for a start. Then there is the Warrior Wife, who is really the driving force behind her husband's public advance -- Christine Hamilton. And then there are the much more common types: the Surrendered Wife, left alone to read about her husband's affairs, struggling to be loyal and smiley; and the Good Old Girl, the loyal, dogged spouse who brings up a family while her husband is working at Westminster, being both father and mother to the children.

Any self-respecting new Labour man wants a Modern Woman, whether as a partner or as a wife, like Cherie. With her substantial personal income, high professional reputation and strong private views -- generally a bit to the left of her husband and strongly proEuropean -- Cherie is the classic Modern Woman. Having a semi-independent, successful wife suggests that you are a modern, self-confident and emotionally mature man who grew up in the era of feminism and has learnt a few lessons. These are the men who can boast about their speed with disposable nappies and their cookery skills. They can reassure voters that they are modern men, less cut off and dysfunctional than the politicians of past eras.

The people close to Blair are mostly like that. Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, is the partner of Sarah Helm, a journalist with her own career and interests. Alastair Campbell's partner, Fiona Millar, is a very strong and independent-minded character who is Cherie's adviser, organiser and protector, in the same way that Campbell is Blair's. There is Derry Irvine's wife, Alison, though from a different generation, who is an art historian. Jack Straw's wife, Alice, is a high-flying civil servant. Jan, Stephen Byers's partner, has been working on a dissertation.

Then there are the Warrior Wives. Some put Cherie at least partly in this category, seeing her as almost equally ambitious to her husband. The best-known example is from the wilder edges of British political life--Christine Hamilton, far tougher than poor, smirking Neil. In her own way, Glenys Kinnock is a Warrior Wife who could easily (like Cherie) have been a Labour minister in her own right. The main difference between the Warrior Wife and the Modern Woman is that the WW is in some sense in competition with her husband, operating in the same world and profession, and therefore, perhaps, eventually some kind of threat -- as in the Hamiltons' case, where Neil was outshone. …

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