Friday, June 19, 2009

Scandalous Book Review: Cherie Blair's Speaking for Myself

Last November I had the chance to hear Cherie Blair (wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair) interviewed at the Times Center here in New York. I was fascinated with her story and bought the book, but life and other Scandalous Women intervened and I didn't get the chance to really finish the book until now.

With all the media attention on Michelle Obama and her role as First Lady it was nice to read about what it was like for someone on the other side of the pond. Cherie Blair never even had the honeymoon period that Michelle Obama had. From the beginning, every little decision from how she dressed to the fact that she was the first wife of the Prime Minister to continue working after the election was scrutinized. More unflattering photos were taking of Cherie Blair than I think of any wife of any world leader. Even Hillary Clinton had better press than Cherie Blair.

Cherie Booth was born in Lancashire in 1954, but raised in Liverpool. Her parents were young actors who married when Cherie's mother Gale found out she was pregnant. After giving birth to Cherie's younger sister Lindsay, her parents split up. Tony Booth continued on with his acting career, eventually winning great success in a TV sitcom called Til Death Do Us Part (playng the role that Rob Reiner played in the US remake All in the Family), and eventually fathering a whole soccer team of daughters by various women. Cherie's mother Gale, on the hand, gave up her acting career, and moved back home to Liverpool with Tony's mother, who helped to raise Cherie and her sister.

Cherie went to Catholic schools and eventually won a place at the London School of Economics and then went on to law school where she came in first after taking the bar exam. She met Tony Blair in 1976 when they were both up for the same spot in chambers. Unlike Cherie, Tony came from a more posh background than she did, something that the tabloids always made a point of mentioning. When the book first came out in England, Cherie was taken to task for being candid about the fact that when she first met Tony, she had two other boyfriends! The Blairs married in 1980 and Tony soon decided that politics was where he wanted to be. He won his first seat in 1983.

Cherie herself was an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament before deciding that one politician in the family was enough. She soon devoted herself to her career and to the Blair's three children, Euan, Nicholas and Kathryn. Like Hillary Clinton, Cherie was the breadwinner in the family. At the time MP's only made 20,000 a year. She specialized in employment, family and public law, fields that were just coming into prominence in the 1980's and 1990's. Although she used Cherie Blair privately, in her public life as a barrister, Cherie went by her maiden name of Booth just like when Hillary Clinton went by her maiden name of Rodham until convinced by politicos to take Bill Clinton's last name.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are Cherie's explanations of how the British legal system works, in particular what is called the cab-rank principal in which it is frowned upon for a barrister to turn down a case, just because he doesn't like the case, if he is available and the client can pay the fees, he or she must take the case. Can you imagine if an American lawyer couldn't turn down cases that they didn't like? While continuing her career after her husband was elected Prime Minister, Cherie writes that the powers that be constantly tried to interfere in what cases that she took, worrying that it might embarass the Prime Minister and the government.

It's also fascinating to read how differently things are run at No. 10 Downing Street compared to the White House. In the book, Cherie writes about Hillary Clinton showing her how things worked at the First Lady's office and Cherie marveling that they had volunteers just to answer Socks the cat's mail. She was inspired by her visit to have Downing Street implement an internship program that unfortunately only lasted two years. Unlike the First Lady in America, Cherie Blair had to pay for her hairdresser out of her own pocket to accompany her on foreign tours, and she had to keep it a secret that she was having help! The government also didn't provide any sort of help for the Prime Minister and his wife in terms of helping with clothing and the luggage when they traveled.

Cherie Blair comes across as very likeable in the book, one begins to suspect that the tabloid press had it in for her, precisely because she was a modern woman. However, Cherie admits that she found doing interviews nervewracking and would talk to much, which led her to make many gaffes during her years at No. 10, the first being opening the door the day after her husband first became Prime Minister to accept some flowers in her nightgown, completely forgetting that there was a host of photographers waiting outside!

She also comes across sometimes as hopelessly naive, particularly for someone whose husband was an MP for 11 years before he campaigned to be party leader. There is a moment in the book at the Labour Party conference when she realizes that her life has changed, and she can no longer wander around as freely as she did before. She seems to have forgotten in her desire to see Tony succeed, just what it would mean to her life to have him become Labour Party Leader, and potentially Prime Minister. She writes about how the tabloids got hold of nude photos of her good friend Carole Caplin and spashled them across the newspapers. Apparently she didn't realize that even their friends were fair game.

When the book came out in Britain, the tabloids had a field day with the news that her youngest son was conceived because she didn't pack her diaphragm for a trip to Balmoral in Scotland. Apparently she had been embarrassed on her last trip when the servants had unpacked her bags. As she puts in her book, the nights at Balmoral were cold and Tony Blair was so warm! She is also not very complimentary about the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his fractious relationship with Tony Blair during the ten years that Blair was Prime Minister. Anyone who has seen the movie The Queen will be disappointed in Cherie's description of that time, although she's not shyy about giving her opinion about Bill Clinton's indiscretion with Monica Lewinsky and what that time was like when the Blairs were on an official visit to Washington.

Still if one is interested in reading about modern British politics, and how hard it is to combine a public life, a career, and a family, you will like this book. In terms of their relationship the Blairs are much more like the Obamas than the Clintons. You get the sense that they have a real partnership, and not just a political one.
Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair - Hachette Books, 2008


Ms. Lucy said...

Thanks for this review:) I didn't know much about the lady...and yes, I know ezxactly what you mean about the pictures of her...not exactly flattering. The Media can be cruel. The book sounds like it was detailed enough to give a very realistic picture of this First Lady. Great:)

Gina Collia-Suzuki said...

Hello Elizabeth!

I recently received the Superior Scribbler Award for my blog and I, in turn, get to award it to five discerning bloggers. You are one of the five I've chosen.

For details, here's the blog post:

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thank you so much Gina. And Lucy, the book is really interesting. I had to watch The Queen again after I read it.