Behind the Black Door

Sarah Brown’s memoir of public relations.

I first met Sarah Brown in Margaret Thatcher's bedroom. Our children were playing in a sea of toys beneath long floral curtains chosen by Norma Major - a play date organised by that unlikely nanny Damian McBride. When we decided we wanted some tea, a multilayered silver tray appeared full of fancy little cakes, courtesy of some sort of diplomatic gathering downstairs. I glanced at the wife of the then chancellor over the trolley (trying to shake an image of Mrs Thatcher in the en suite bathroom), looked at the children disappearing among the toys in this ad hoc nursery and thought: your life is surreal.

That surrealism pervades Mrs Brown's memoir of life at No 10 Downing Street. Gordon rescues HBOS; Sarah is off to a charity auction. James Purnell resigns and Gordon's leadership totters - and the family is kept awake all night by rehearsals for Trooping the Colour. Mrs Brown discusses the death of the Big Brother star Jade Goody with a concerned Jesse Jackson Jr, and growing vegetables with Michelle Obama. A family summer holiday lasts six hours before a foot-and-mouth outbreak calls the PM back to London. A DBE intended for Graça Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, gets mixed up with a big shiny card made for her by the young John Brown. On a visit to Glastonbury to promote the international White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, Mrs Brown has to take police protection, noting wryly: "I can't believe this will make me the most popular person at a music festival."

This is a domestic take on politics; the collision of the political with the personal. At one point, Sarah is woken at 5am and told by her husband to prepare to leave No 10 that day if the banking rescue package has the wrong impact. And when they do hurriedly leave, on 11 May 2010, the kids have to be reassured that their favourite duvets will soon follow them. There is a sweet story about Fraser telling his dad that when he grows up he wants to be a builder, a teacher and a dad. "Then he looked at Gordon and said, 'But you are just a dad.'"

The Prime Minister appears in the book as an occasional character, always kind and loving, always caring for his family, always dutiful to them and the nation - yet his appearance in the flat or at a family holiday, or chasing Sarah in circles around No 10 to try to catch a moment with her, only serves to underline the awkwardness of the lifestyle. In the midst of an idyllic summertime in Scotland last year, visiting friends and family and having children's sleepovers, "Gordon set down his perspective on the global financial crisis". The disconnect jars and is sometimes funny.

Much of the diary is told in a naive style - the wide-eyed child not quite believing that she is there. There's a touch of the John Major about Sarah Brown's style, with "I immediately joke", "needless to say" and "terrific" mugs of tea. If it's a little banal, there is a personal honesty, too - she talks, for instance, of being afraid to "make a giant fool of myself" when she has to speak at the British Fashion Awards.

This fear of public speaking - together with a sharp awareness of the number of highly glamorous women she has to appear next to - pervades the diary. Michelle Obama greets her with "At last, a normal-size person". Brown worries about her weight (a little), about her dresses (a lot), and about falling down in high heels (from time to time). "I am off again," she writes on 28 January 2010, "to fulfil my destiny of being photographed with every supermodel on the planet." She gets hair and make-up to "do their best for me" before being snapped next to Elle Macpherson.

The lack of budget for her wardrobe is a perennial complaint, not because Brown wants a cupboardful of designer dresses, but because she has to have endless outfits to wear in public - "there is a great call for a different outfit for every occasion" - and the failure to provide any financing for this (she is not allowed to receive gifts of clothes, either) underlines the vagueness of the position of what she calls WPM, Wife of the Prime Minister: "I have no exact status, no official position, masses of conflicting expectations both internally and externally, and a terrible suspicion that at any moment a great mistake will be made by ME!"

She has two staff, which "expands to a grand total of five" when she arranges the spouses programme for the G20 summit (the Obamas bring 500). On occasions, she is so exhausted that she faints and once has to be revived with Prince William's emergency oxygen - carried with him wherever he goes.

This lack of financial support for the WPM's office also adds piquancy to the indignant account of the small errors revealed in her husband's parliamentary expenses. As she notes, the family is significantly out of pocket from their position - "there are many costs associated with this job that are never reimbursed". One suspects that a reason for writing this book is to recoup some of those: the family is not wealthy.

Occasionally, Sarah Brown the former PR professional peeks through the curtain of famous names. There is a sharp awareness of the media: she notes a positive column about her husband's handling of the financial crisis by Paul Krugman in the New York Times; shows an inside knowledge of the political make-up of the Guardian's senior editors; and knows which video clips receive most hits on the Downing Street website (Maggie Darling's cat). Mostly, the media are present as a pest: relentless, hostile, intrusive, untrustworthy and dehumanised. The attention affects her friends, family and even her sister-in-law's children, who are bullied because their parents shared a cleaner with the Browns.

Sarah Brown signs up for Twitter (she now has over a million followers) in part so that she can show people a little of her daily life without having it twisted by the media - and because the WPM has no personal budget for communications. Like that decision, and like her tweets (and like that first play date in Mrs Thatcher's bedroom), this memoir, for all its personal glimpses, is ultimately a work of public relations.

First, it isn't a real diary: it was compiled last summer from notes, emails, letters and her schedule. Second, it is so full of "thank yous" - from the chap who agreed to let her have a venue at the last minute for some occasion to the 12 pages of acknowledgements at the end, from the son of the director of PiggyBankKids to Michelle Obama and the No 10 gardeners - that you sometimes feel you have wandered into a bridegroom's speech. But then, this is precisely the sort of thing that is genuine Sarah Brown - the thoughtfulness and the courtesy that prompted Piers Morgan, of all people, to surprise her publicly with a "good egg" award. Third and most important, political events and what must have been some fairly traumatic personal moments are so airbrushed as to leave the diary feeling a little empty, despite all the busy celebrity engagements and official trips overseas.

Shortly after entering No 10, Brown writes: "I believe that part of my role as WPM is to make an often extraordinary life as ordinary as possible for myself, my husband and my children. I intend to be good at that." And now she has done it for the rest of us, too.

Behind the Black Door
Sarah Brown
Ebury Press, 464pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.