The farce that is being played out on the other side of the channel begs one important question. What’s the point of a First Lady? For starters, the term is so insulting.
The post-holder is unelected and wields no power, just the right to stand in photos looking important, wearing designer clothes, smiling at the less fortunate.
There isn’t a similar role for men – Denis Thatcher was no First Gentleman. His job, he said, was to support his wife and tell her some home truths when necessary. The most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel, married her second husband after they had lived together for 10 years. Joachim Sauer, like Denis Thatcher before him, shuns the limelight, doesn’t give interviews and consequently needs no bodyguards and can live a private life out of the spotlight. A distinguished research scientist, he didn’t go to his partner’s inauguration, watching the ceremony on television. In 2012, he shunned a trip to Italy on a government jet, choosing to travel alone on a budget airline. Well done! Mr Sauer is said to be “grounded” with a dry sense of humour. He and his famous spouse share a love of Wagner and hiking. Why do politicians’ wives think they have a role to play in the public eye? Yet they all do, almost without exception.
In the United States, Michelle Obama has entered her sixth year in the White House, and is widely regarded as a role model. She celebrated her 50th birthday on Friday and gave an interview declaring “women should have the freedom to do whatever they need to feel good about themselves” – including Botox ... talk about spouting inoffensive platitudes. For her husband’s second term, she’s marked out areas of social concern to devote her time to, from healthy eating and exercise to supporting military families and encouraging more children from poor backgrounds to go to college. She’s the third First Lady with a postgraduate degree, and one of her predecessors, Hillary Clinton, looks like running for the top job next time around. In the US, the First Lady is expected to have a defined high-profile role (which cannot be controversial), but in this country and in Europe, the position is a poisoned chalice. We don’t need some super-mum telling us how to live, for goodness sake, we’re more sophisticated.
Valérie Trierweiler was said to be ready to forgive her errant partner, if she could keep her courtesy title. In the event, he has said nothing and done less to make amends. Samantha Cameron has tried to stay out of the limelight, but is still trotted out as arm candy every time hubby has visitors to impress. She’s a mother of three, who works part-time. Why should she have to be visible at all outside that? If François Hollande has any sense (and there’s no evidence he does) he should immediately cancel the role of First Lady and do his long-suffering electorate a big favour.
My red-carpet secrets
Jennifer Saunders is always good for a pithy home truth. Last year she observed that the red-carpet parade of over-dressed stars and minor celebrities at premieres and award ceremonies has become the modern beauty contest – a place where women are ruthlessly judged, and usually fail. According to Jennifer, “there are so many rules … you can’t wear your dress, it’s got to be someone else’s … you can’t say you bought it in a shop”. It’s all about showcasing designers, you have been reduced to a human coat-hanger.
The Academy Awards, whose nominees were announced last week, will see the usual parade of women in dresses they haven’t bought, wearing jewellery that is on loan, demeaned into sticking their legs out at cameras like incontinent stick insects. Red carpets resemble a shopping channel showcasing luxury brands, and every day intelligent, successful women sign up willingly to this charade. Once, I turned up at the opening of a swanky shop, to be asked by a photographer what I was wearing, presumably to caption my picture. It was a pink lace frock bought in a junk shop for £25, teamed with rubber swimming shoes. I just murmured “vintage” and everyone was happy.
Because they’re worth it
There’s been a predictable burst of whingeing from the Taxpayers’ Alliance about the revelation (after a Freedom of Information request from the London Evening Standard) that MPs have commissioned portraits and sculptures of themselves costing £250,000 since 1995. I am not that bothered. It works out at around £12,500 a year, not a great deal of money for an important institution to spend on art in the modern age. As for calling this a “vanity project”, surely it’s essential that we record important figures in public life for historical record, although you might disagree with the artists chosen.
Our National Portrait Gallery holds a wonderful collection of famous Britons from all walks of life, including some really toe-curling renditions of the royal family. Even the crass, such as Bryan Organ’s lightweight portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales or Pietro Annigoni’s flattering rendition of Princess Margaret, reflect the spirit of their times. The BBC has honoured nearly all its director-generals (Greg Dyke was painted by John Keane) with a portrait that is hung in Broadcasting House, although Mark Thompson has not yet been immortalised.
Diane Abbott was the first black woman to become an MP, so has an important place in modern history, and Stuart Pearson Wright’s magnificently uncompromising work grabs the attention and will stand the test of time. Sure, photos are cheaper, but will they have the same impact in 100 years?
Scargill and the City
A BBC documentary team has discovered that back in 1993, Arthur Scargill applied to buy his London council flat in the Barbican using Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” scheme. Does that make him a hypocrite? Maggie’s nemesis, who failed in his attempt to become a home-owner, has told the BBC he would have handed it back to the National Union of Mineworkers, who had paid the rent (the not inconsiderable sum of £34,000 a year) since 1991.
Scargill, who stepped down as union president in 2002, fought and lost a year ago a court battle with the NUM over this flat, claiming he was entitled to remain in it “for life”. Let’s not judge him too harshly for trying to feather his nest (are Tories with duckponds and moats any different?), although it’s interesting that a former miner would find his ideal home in the City of London – a stone’s throw from the investment bankers and high-powered lawyers he must rank as class enemies – and not in the moors and dales of beautiful Yorkshire. Perhaps he was a secret Barbican cinema buff, or enjoyed afternoon visits to dance matinees at Sadler’s Wells?Reuse content