Not for the first time, I find myself agreeing with Cristina Odone. Cris writes:
I’m sick of the feminisation of politics. If it means having to meet Dave’s mum, Gordon’s auntie and Nick’s granny, give me macho politics any time.
Politicians once needed to prove their trustworthiness, efficiency, authority. Apparently these days they need an emotional hinterland to appeal to voters. The quickest way to achieve this is a picture op with a woman they love (wife, mum, sis, anything but mistress will do).
This is apropos of Sir Trevor McDonald’s unchallenging profile of “Dave” Cameron the other night, itself a transparent balancing act on ITV’s part after Gordon Brown’s unchallenging interview with Piers Moron. Two things immediately came to my mind on seeing the programme. The first was, presumably this means Mr Nicholas Clegg will have to be found a teevee vehicle befitting his dignity – perhaps an appearance on Loose Women. The other was, could we possibly have Trev back in a new series of News Knight?
But what captured the headlines was the deployment of SamCam, as the rather dishy Mrs C was pressed into service in her first TV interview. One one level, I agree with Justin that:
If you are the sort of person who approves of, or allows their voting preference to be swayed even a little by, the interventions in our electoral process by the wives of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, you are a moron who should be interned until after the general election.
Insulting the country’s intelligence by wheeling out the wife seems to be a political tactic for all scenarios. Gordon Brown is seen as too serious by voters so the solution is to push out his wife to say nice things about him. David Cameron is seen as not serious enough by voters so the solution is to push out his wife to say nice things about him. The meagre amounts of dignity and self-respect on display are such you wouldn’t be surprised to see the two leaders being dropped off at the televised election debates by their mums.
Well, quite, but this is not without features of interest. For instance, Cris derides politicians for attempting to appeal to the Mumsnet audience. I don’t actually find this outrageous, because Mumsnet has a very big audience. It also holds out the prospect of politicians coming a cropper, because they don’t realise these mums are a highly demanding audience, and assume they can be fobbed off with talk of your favourite woolly jumper or what biscuits you like to dunk in your tea. The politician patronises those mums at his peril.
And yes, it is dispiriting that instead of “Hello, I’ve got a policy,” the party leaders are offering the electorate “Hello, have you met my wife?” In some ways it must be a function of the political spectrum having narrowed so incredibly, that a personality-driven beauty contest has largely displaced argument over policy. But even so, the sheer vapidity of the exercise is depressing.
Exhibit A: The Trevor McDonald profile followed hot on the heels of another unchallenging profile of Cameron, this time from Andrew Yawnsley, who doubtless has figured out which side his bread is buttered. To the extent that this made headlines, it was due to Tory frontbencher and occasional Wright Stuff panellist Mr Edward Vaizey speculating that at some point in the past Samantha might have voted Labour. That a Tory spokesman denied this is to miss the point. Why do the media assume that the politician’s spouse is under an obligation to agree with him about everything? In the more grown-up age of the 1940s, it was common knowledge that Violet Attlee was a Tory and Clementine Churchill was a Liberal. The sky didn’t fall in. We elect the politician, not the wife. When the wife seeks office in her own right then her opinions come into it, which is why the media’s headscratching over Sally Bercow being a Labour supporter is so silly.
Exhibit B: We actually aren’t talking about demure housewives here, although you’d think we were. Sarah Macaulay was known as one of the best PRs in London before giving it up to be a political wife. Samantha Sheffield has a successful career as a designer – of what, I’m not entirely certain, but I know it’s expensive stuff for a posh clientele. In any case, Sam’s business career is a good deal more impressive than Dave’s brief stint as a PR for Carlton TV. Would you think, from following political coverage in either the broadcast or print media, that these were smart, successful, professional women in their own right? Not for a second. Their political role is to be pretty, well-dressed and usually mute, as if the political class was living in an episode of Mad Men. Perhaps it’s a backlash after the pushy, grasping excesses of Cherie Blair.
Exhibit C: Even when they do speak, invariably on the subject of their husbands’ characters, they don’t get to say anything interesting. If you were a biographer looking for a narrative, you might note that both Brown and Cameron are, coincidentally, bereaved fathers, and both have experience of raising a disabled child. That’s the sort of thing that might tell us something about their characters and outlook on the world. On the negative side, Brown’s volcanic temper is the stuff of legend, and Cameron’s Grocer-like rudeness is becoming so. But from the political wives – and I suppose their loyalty is commendable – the most colour you get is “He’s messy in the kitchen” or “He hogs the remote”. It’s not very illuminating. I’m not a huge fan of the confessional interview genre, but confessional interviews with nothing juicy just look like a waste of time.
God help me, I was never a fan of Iris Robinson, but you couldn’t ever accuse her of not being her own woman. For substantial modern women to transform themselves into props for their husbands, because that’s what the sexist assumptions of the political-media game require… that’s actually even more depressing than desperate husbands pressing the wives into service.
One final thought, on the issue of class. Mrs Cameron is, as we know, much posher than her other half. Dave may have been to Eton, but he’s still the son of a stockbroker, and I think (without consulting Noblesse Oblige) that’s still very non-U. Sam, on the other hand, was not only privately educated (Marlborough) but is the daughter of a baronet, the stepdaughter of a viscount and grew up on a 300-acre Lincolnshire estate. Not only that, but her business clientele is very posh too. Her teenage goth period notwithstanding, you’re talking actual aristocracy there. I can buy the idea that she keeps Dave grounded in an emotional sense, but I find slightly disturbing Mr Vaizey’s idea that he relies on her insight as a sort of woman in the street. Woman on the country estate, perhaps – for the woman on the street, you’d do better to poll Mumsnet readers. And where exactly did a Marlborough girl pick up that distinct Estuary twang?
Rud eile: Congratulations to Naomh Gall. Nice to see Belfast win something for a change.
 Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I find it difficult to hear a reference to “Sam and Dave” without thinking of two entirely different people. Hold on, I’m comin’!
 Carlton’s programming arm was notoriously pisspoor, but it managed to sustain an enormous corporate headquarters that seemed to function mostly as a halfway house for unemployed Etonians. These two aspects of the company may not be entirely unconnected.