Having a laugh at those low political moments
I can't get Cherie Blair out of my mind. Why do people dislike her so much? Is it the old prejudice
To the Brighton Festival to promote my second novel, One of Us, a story of two political families whose relationship reaches crisis point in the run-up to the Iraq War. Tonight's debate, on trust in politics, has a fairly august line-up: philosopher A C Grayling, the BBC's Nick Robinson and former MP Oona King. Polly Toynbee, the queen of columnists, is in the chair.
The Corn Exchange is packed as everyone expresses their disappointment in politicians, journalists and an often apathetic public. Jeremy Paxman's aggressive interviewing style gets several critical mentions. Nick Robinson asks why the politicians deny us a grown-up debate about immigration, while Oona King acknowledges, with possibly reckless frankness, that such a discussion would be dangerous, given the reactionary views of much of the electorate.
How serious is TV coverage, I suggest, when a BBC news report can begin with a lingering close-up on the Prime Minister's nail-bitten hands? Robinson reveals there was much debate in the newsroom about that shot. In the end, they justified it on the grounds that Brown's mental state is a key component of the government's current woes. Personally, I loathe this kind of pseudo-psychological probing, especially as the media have abdicated so much of their serious investigative role, as Nick Davies argues in his excellent recent book, Flat Earth News.
Not listening to the locals
Surely the trust problem goes deeper than Paxman's belligerence or new Labour's nerviness? Throughout the debate, I think of a group of parents in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham called Parental Alliance for Secondary Schools (Pass). For the past few years, it has been campaigning, with invention and spirit, to improve local schools, including Hurlingham and Chelsea, a mixed comprehensive that not long ago was threatened with closure but is now, under its dynamic head Phil Cross, the second-most improved school in the country. Pass is now threatened by an unholy alliance between the government's academies programme and the local Tory council, which wants to turn several secondaries into academies and sell part of the Hurlingham and Chelsea site to the French government for a bilingual school.
Similar campaigns, to support existing schools and to resist the further privatisation of education, are going on, largely unpublicised, up and down the country. Yet this is the policy of both Labour and Tories, who are losing public trust and demeaning political language in the process. Why harp on about consultation when so often local community wishes are ignored?
The problem with Cherie
After reviewing Cherie Blair's autobiography I can't get the book or the woman out of my mind. It's certainly an extraordinary life story. But why do people dislike her quite so much? Is it partly that old prejudice about clever, mouthy women? Is it the nudge-nudge stuff about enjoyable marital sex? Or is it a transposed hatred of Tony Blair and the disastrous war in Iraq? The answer, I conclude, is yes on all counts.
Getting home, there is the usual exchange of emails, on education, and politics in general, with Fiona Millar, once special adviser to Cherie. I got to know her post-No 10, when, released from the inner sanctum of power, she took up the comprehensive cause with renewed zeal. We wrote a pamphlet together; its launch, in 2006, in a packed committee room at the Commons, is now famous for the moment a previously loyal Neil Kinnock finally spoke out against the government. It was the most electrifying political event I have ever attended. Fiona and I have kept in close touch ever since. The Blair years proved increasingly uncomfortable for those of us who support comprehensives, not helped by so many on the left giving up on local schools, or even state education itself. That's why I retain such admiration for Fiona. Despite taking a lot of flak, she remains principled and clear-sighted. And we have always had a good laugh, usually at our lowest political moments.
Melissa Benn’s “One of Us” is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99)