The Deborah Ross Interview: Clare Short - Labour's Earth Mother
Clare Short has had her problems. With Tony Blair. With the boy she gave up for adoption. Even with the people of Montserrat. But now, at 52, she says she's happier than ever. And it can't just be the power of Badedas
She says no, these are not her particular weaknesses: "But I often do my red boxes in the bath." Do you put anything nice in your bath, Clare? "I used to have cheap bubbles, but they weren't really a bargain, because you have to use a lot, and keep buying bottles, so now I've got..." Yes? Yes? "Badedas." Badedas? "A bit extravagant, I know." Actually, Clare, Badedas is so hideously extravagant you can get it down Superdrug for pounds 2.99! "Well, I once went to Rotterdam to stay with my friend and her mother gave me a bath with Badedas, and I just thought it was such a great luxury..."
So, no - not a flimsy or trifling woman. Indeed, I think if she and Alan Clark were, say, the last man and woman left on earth, he still might not make a play for her. This, of course, is intended as a compliment, and I'm sure she'll take it as such. She may even think there can be no greater one.
This is not, however, to say Clare isn't beautiful. Or sexy. She is both, I think. Although, at the height of the tabloids' various vendettas against her (especially when she was campaigning against Page 3), she was described as "too ugly to rape" with hair "you could fry chips in", it's just absurdly untrue. She is, actually, tremendously fine to look at. She has excellent cheekbones. ("I used to think I was an Eskimo foundling.") She has slender, well-turned ankles. ("Do you think so? How nice. thank you.") She has a terrific bosom, one which, if it ever appeared on Page 3, would have to continue on page 4 and possibly 5.
Her grey, very un-Barbra Follet, possibly viscose, shirt stretches with a great deal of effort across it. Her shirt is probably Richards or Wallis or Dorothy Perkins. "I dart in, try on a couple of things, then take or leave them. I don't have time for endless shopping." So, no personal shopping consultant at Selfridges, then, but do you have a New Labour personal trainer yet? "No. Although I understand Cherie has one," she replies mischievously, with a naughty little look in her Eskimo eyes.
Now Secretary of State for International Development, we meet at her department, which is housed on a floor of a nasty, modern, high-rise in Victoria. She says the department will be moving out soon, although she isn't sure where they'll be going. I say she can have the spare room in my house, if she likes, in exchange for a bit of hoovering and childcare and the promise that I have free use of her Badedas, should I want it, although I'm not sure I do. She says that sounds a fine idea "although there are 900 of us!". I say that's OK. My mother, being a Jewish mother, can come over to cook. My mother can't help cooking for 900, even when she's only making a TV supper for my dad.
Clare says that is just like her mother, Joan, with whom she still shares a house when she returns to her Birmingham constituency at weekends. "She produces great feasts. She can't help herself. She would give me six meals a day if she could, and spoils me endlessly."
Clare does, yes, give off this great charge of womanly warmth. Indeed, the first thing she does when we meet is tuck in the tag on my T-shirt which, being a sophisticated, together kind of person, seems to be sticking out the back. "Thanks mum," I say. "That's alright love," she says. You can't imagine Harriet Harman doing such a thing or, on the other side, Anne Widdecombe, whom Clare once saw "having her nails done in Army & Navy. There is this sweet, vulnerable bit in her but, you know, she's in favour of capital punishment, and against abortion in all circumstances, even when someone's been RAPED...".
Clare is superbly motherly. She does, of course, have the one child, her son Toby, with whom she was recently reunited, having given him up for adoption in 1964. She wears a little locket round her neck, which Toby gave her, and which contains a sweet, penny-sized photograph of him and her, smiling like mad. Toby, a city lawyer, was a Tory when they first rediscovered each other which, I say, must have made for some interesting discussions. Yes, she says, "but then he snuck off and joined the Labour party when I wasn't watching! I care about his values, of course, but would never have said to him: `You must join the Labour party.' It wouldn't have been right. But then he went and did it on his own, which I thought was rather nice."
I suppose I should say at this point that I've always believed no one in their right mind would ever want to be a politician, that you have to be socially or emotionally crippled in some way, that you have to have something missing in your nature that desperately needs filling. I think this may be true of Clare, too, although in a rather different way to most. Her empty place was the space Toby would have filled had she been able to hang on to him. But she couldn't, and neither could she ever have any more children. A bad run in with an intrauterine device, just before she entered politics, saw to that. "I'm a victim of the coil, whose possible long term effects on fertility were not known when it was first introduced." So all her mothering instincts - that capacity mothers have to so passionately love, protect and care - had to go into something else, and that something else was politics. She could not shape her own child's s life, but she could help shape the lives of others, and perhaps make them better. When I put this to her in my clumsy, sub-Anthony Clare way she, surprisingly, accepts there might be something in it. Giving up Toby, she says, "transformed my life, There was always this big gap that made me restless."
In short, what I'm saying, is that the Labour Party ultimately became her child, which in some ways is good, because it's meant she has always properly cared, unlike most politicians, who either tend to be in it for personal advancement, or at least get waylaid by it. Clare has, yes, seen this happen often. "I think, personally, that most who enter politics start off with a sense of wanting to make the world a better place, but quite a lot of that gets inverted by the process. By becoming an important person, they end up confusing their advancement with the advancement of the things they used to believe in. Hubris is, certainly, the disease of politics. The health and safety commission should send everyone a warning!" But in other ways it's not so good, because when a child starts going off in a direction you don't want it to go into, or won't listen, or gets mixed up with bad company, it can hurt quite a lot. New Labour has hurt Claire quite a lot, I think. Although she does appear to largely be coming round to what it's now grown into.
When she was removed, pre-election, from Transport, after a chronicle of outspokenness (a cavalier remark on cannabis legalisation, a statement that people ("like me") could afford to pay more tax, the suggestion that the British citizens of Montserrat "will be asking for golden elephants next") she gave a frank interview in the New Statesman criticising "the people in the dark" behind Tony Blair, and warning: "These people are making a terrible error. They think that Labour is unelectable, so they want to get something else elected..."
Now, though, she says: "If you are a political party that seeks election, there is no point in being right if you can't win." But, I say, if a party changes itself just to win, then its betraying itself and its roots, and that's wrong. She says: "I think, when Labour kept losing, then it was betraying itself." She adds: "OK, I did worry that, with some of the reforms, we were throwing the baby out with the bath water. But now, I'm more and more content we haven't. This government hasn't been perfect. There have been mistakes, There have been some little style things I didn't like. But, as I said to Tony after the thing in the rose garden where he launched the annual report - which was a bit glossy, and the rose garden was a bit whitehousey - but as I said to him: `Tony, I think this government isn't too bad.' And he said: `Coming from you, Clare, that is wonderful'."
Has Clare genuinely become reconciled to New Labour? Mostly, I think, although she can't resist the odd delicious swipe every now and then. Later, when we come to discuss Derek Draper, I say what I can not understand is how someone like him, who seems no more than a vain, gobby yuppie, could have been taken so seriously in the highest places. She says: "Well, he was only taken seriously in one high place, wasn't he?"
Although she claims not to be especially attracted to power, she does like being in power: "We used to sit around in pubs saying the world bank should do this and that, and now I go to the world bank, and say shouldn't we be doing this?"Clare, the second of seven children, was brought up in Birmingham, in a naturally political household. Her father, Frank, was a teacher and Irish republican who believed that Ireland should never have been partitioned. She grew up with this sense that "the British Empire was not a good thing."
She might have been a spectacularly bossy child: "I was 10 when Suez happened, and my dad felt strongly about it, so when the girls at school went about saying: `We'll throw Nasser in the Suez Canal', I went about telling them they were quite wrong, and the Egyptians were entitled to have their canal."
And she remains spectacularly bossy, it would seem. Although brought up a devout Catholic, she fell out with the religious side of it because she couldn't accept its teachings on contraception. Still, she remains, she says, an ethnic Catholic, in that she feels very Catholic. I say I'm an ethnic Jew in much the same way. She asks if I am bringing up my young son to feel Jewish.I say his father is not one of The Chosen, so it's a bit tricky. The rest of the conversation goes something like this:
"Have you ever taken him to synagogue?"
"But you must. If I was your son, I would want you to take me."
"It is part of him. We have synagogues in my constituency. I went to one the other week. The texts! Shouldn't you be giving your son a bit of that? Bring him to Birmingham. I'll take him."
I end up feeling deeply shallow and ashamed. Nothing new in this, I admit, but I wish she hadn't found the moral high-ground quite so easy to steal.
Still, stealing the moral high ground is something she is good at. She resigned twice from Kinnock's shadow cabinet on matters of principle. And it's partly why we like her so.
I think she is, on the whole, a passionate woman, and as much passionate physically as anything else. She talks, at one point, about the rows she used to have with her mum when she was 16,17, because she'd stay out later with boys that she should have done: "She used to lock me out. I'd climb in the window.
"Once I even walked two miles across Birmingham at night to stay in the flat of this older bloke who I was going out with who, rather sweetly now I think about it, made me up a bed on the floor of his flat. And this my mother did in the name of protecting my virtue!"
I wonder if she finds any of her colleagues sexy. John Prescott, for example, who, I confess, I quite fancy, actually. She looks at me with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. Well, she finally announces, "taste in men is very personal".
She got pregnant while a political science student at Leeds University. The father of the child was a fellow student. She could not have had an abortion even if she'd wanted to, as it was then illegal for under 21's unless they had their parent's permission So she married the father then, when Toby was born, gave him up for adoption via a private agency.
Now, this part of the story has always nagged at me. Why bother to marry, if you are later going to hand the child over? She has said in the past that, during her pregnancy, she began to realise how hard it would be.
"We were living in a cut off place. I thought: `I'm never going back to university', that it would be terrible all round, terrible for the baby, that there would be no money, that what I was doing was best for everybody."
So was there a kind of ambition there that, at that time, could not have accommodated a child?
She set out wanting to be a teacher, assumed she'd take teacher training once she'd done with university, but then applied to take the civil service exams. "It was the old, unreformed, privileged system of entry, and I thought I would like to go and look at the British establishment." She ended up running the private office of a Tory minister and, "after a bit, thought, `I can do this!'."
She was first elected MP for Ladywood, Birmingham, in 1983, by which time she had married her second husband, the Labour MP Alex Lyon, who was married with three children when she first met him. I ask her if she thinks how someone behaves in their private life is a good indication of how true they are in public life. A tricky one, this, she says. "You know, in the Seventies, when people were saying the personal is political, I didn't really know what they meant. Now I can see it's about some sort of integrity - what you believe in should affect how you live your life, treat your friends, but not piously. None of us is ever perfect.
"All of us do things we regret. Christianity teaches that everyone is a sinner, but you can be forgiven. You have to keep that bit in, I think, because nobody doesn't ever do wrong things."
She adored Alex, and nursed him through five agonising years of Alzheimer's from which he died in 1993. She doesn't believe in an afterlife, or heaven or any of that, but that's OK.
"I think we are all immortal, in the sense that every single human being that has lived on this earth has left repercussions, for good or ill, and anyone who means a lot to you still lives in you. My father, who died in 1986, is still part of my life. He loved birds and nature, so if I see a blossom tree I say: `Hey, dad, what do you think of that?'."
She thinks, actually, she might never have been more content than now. She loves her job. She loves her son and her three grandchildren. She loves her constituency and her constituents, "who sort of balance out some of the silliness that goes on over there," she says, cocking her head Westminster way.
She even loves being 52. "There are a lot of comfortable things about being an older woman," she says. Like finally being able to get away with trousers with elasticated waists, I suggest. Yes, there is that, she says, but, also, "when you are young and go someone's house, and make a mark on the sheets, or break a stool it's excruciating, and you don't mention it to anyone, and just sneak off. Now, I'd say: `I'm really sorry, I seem to have broken your stool.' That's nice."
Anyway, our time is up. She has to go back to her London house and get ready for Blackpool. A bit of packing, perhaps, then an extravagant Badedas bath.
I go home and don't have a Badedas bath, but do say to my son: "Look, I think you should learn what it is to be Jewish."
He says: "Do Jewish people get holidays and presents?" Sometimes. "Will I still get to have Christmas?" Yes. "OK, then, I'll be a bit Jewish." So that's settled, at least.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
life + styleClarissa Baldwin is the brains behind the slogan 'A Dog is for Life not just for Christmas'
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