The French have become unhealthily obsessed by the personality and private life of their President, Nicolas Sarkozy. The media are fascinated by him. He is the subject of more than 100 books. A psychiatrist, Dr Serge Hefez, has given this condition of extreme fascination-repulsion a medical name: “Sarkosis”. The French, according to Dr Hefez, have come to see the grinning little chap in platform shoes as some sort of reflection of themselves. Not surprisingly, the idea troubles them deeply.
Could it happen here? On a smaller scale, it already has, although in our case, the psychological obsession is far nearer to repulsion than fascination. If the French have succumbed to Sarkosis, the British are suffering from a nasty bout of Cheriephobia.
What is it about Cherie Blair that unites the right and the left, men and women, the rabidly nutty and the reasonably liberal, in a spirit of open, unashamed loathing? If, as reviewers have claimed this week, her autobiography has told us little about political life during the Blair years, the reaction to it – an exploding boil of resentment – has revealed some profoundly unattractive attitudes in the national character which have been festering away over “the nice decade”.
Modern notions of political correctness and of gender prejudice go by the board when Cherie is under discussion. Rent-a-gob television satirists, who would normally be wary of making comedy about the way a woman in public life looks, trot out unpleasant, tired jokes about her face, her mouth and, when more political daring is required, the shape of her bum. Commentators regularly complain that she is too greedy, or too opinionated or too self-pitying. For many, she has become the epitome of all that has gone wrong with Britain during the Blair years.
Cheriephobia has, mysteriously, become the acceptable face of misogyny and class snobbery. Behind the bullying critiques and the sadistic jibes lies a simple, old-fashioned British prejudice: Mrs Blair is a jumped-up, mouthy woman who has too much to say for herself and who has made more money than she deserves.
A prime minister’s other half, the British still seem to believe, should play an anonymous, self-denying background role – politically invisible, like Norma Major, or a harmless national joke, like Denis Thatcher. Cherie Blair’s first mistake, for which she has never quite been forgiven, was to refuse to hide her own personality behind the mask of a consort. It was amusing when she was photographed, tousled and without make-up, on the doorstep of the Blairs’ Islington house after the 1997 election. She would shape up eventually, it was thought. But she didn’t. She continued to be herself, to lead a life as normal as circumstances would allow.
Unless the Cheriephobics know things about her that rest of us do not, it is difficult to see the justification for their criticisms. She is a woman who has made her way from relatively lowly origins to a position of influence, both in her own right and as the wife of a powerful man. She is a strong character who, during her years at 10 Downing Street, managed pretty well to keep her views to herself. Now, with understandable relief, she is, as the title of her book says, speaking for herself.
One does not have to be interested in Cherie Blair, or have the slightest inclination to read her book, to see that the charges levelled against her are hypocritical. She accepted a large publishing advance: who in public life has not? She is disloyal to the party: her remarks about her husband’s former colleagues are models of restraint compared to those of Campbell, Prescott or Levy. She goes on too much about being a humble Scouser, often in grating, poor-little-me tones: sentimental solipsism, whether we like it or not, is part of the culture in which we live. In other words, Cherie Blair has done nothing which has not been done by other political celebrities.
When she and her husband left Downing Street for the last time, Mrs Blair dared to wave cheerily to the press pack and call out, without the slightest trace of bitterness, that she would not miss them. Widely described as a gaffe, it was nothing of the sort. She had simply behaved in a way that anyone in a similar position might have done.
Commenting on Dr Hefez’s diagnosis of Sarkosis in the French people, a friend of Sarkozy identified a “slight misalignment between this man they identify with and the expectation they have of the president, any president”. The result was disappointment and resentment. The same sickness lies behind the attacks on Cherie Blair. As a public figure, she has simply been too normal, too open, too obviously flawed – in other words, too like the rest of us.