Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Politicians can't complain about privacy

They are mistaken in thinking that we want to be taken into their domestic lives
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The Independent Online

Please not, Mrs Cameron! Or Samantha, or Sam, as you perhaps would like us to call you. This is shaping up as the most vapid and dispiriting election campaign for years: the level of political debate is at a new low while party leaders struggle unsuccessfully to make sense of the grave crises facing the nation while abusing their opponents.

But if there's one thing that could make it worse still it would be a match-up of the spouses. Sarah Brown has already been enlisted to describe her hubby in excruciating terms – "I know he's not a saint. He's messy. He's noisy," but still, "he wakes up every morning and goes to bed every evening, thinking about the things that matter" – and in turn Samantha Cameron is being wheeled on.

"You're going to see a lot more of her," her husband threatens, "so Britain get ready!" She herself has told us that she "can honestly say that I don't think in all that time he has ever let me down" (a claim almost no normal consort of any kind would make in honesty), and now she's going to talk more about Dave on tomorrow's television documentary.

Apart from being vulgar, trivial, degrading and altogether naff, this parade of other halves illustrates what Auden used to say: the trouble with nowadays is that people have forgotten the difference between their friends and strangers. In the process, as those politicians seem not to have realised, they have completely forfeited any right to privacy.

This abnegation had begun with the husbands. In one television interview, Cameron was asked by Jonathan Ross, "Did you or did you not have a wank thinking 'Margaret Thatcher'?". In another, Brown was asked by Piers Morgan whether he and his wife had ever joined "the mile high club", which is to say whether the First Lord of the Treasury and his wife had ever engaged in sexual intercourse in an aeroplane.

As Evelyn Waugh said in another context, one would think that only a simpleton or an egomaniac would submit to such an ordeal. Maybe I was the only one to muse about what Churchill's reply would have been been if asked whether he ever masturbated while thinking about Miss Horsburgh, his minister of education, let's say, or Attlee's if asked whether he and his wife had ever copulated in a railway train.

In fact our politicians did not formerly face such questions, or endure such ordeals, and they now have no one but themselves to blame. Nor were their wives once enlisted in this horrible business – Sarah Brown was in the audience for that interview – and their new role is, to say the least, an ironical reflection on what we are supposed to think of as the triumph of feminism.

Far from parading their spouses, prime ministers often kept them out of the way. Mrs Disraeli was an amiable featherhead (she could "never remember which came first, the Greeks or the Romans"); Mrs Lloyd George was a put-upon lady who sat at home in Wales while her husband lived almost openly with his secretary-cum-mistress in Downing Street, although that would later be poignantly reversed in the case of the Macmillans: Lady Dorothy's decades-long liaison with Robert Boothby was known to all Harold's colleagues.

As the excellent biography by Mary Soames, her daughter, has shown, Clementine Churchill was a most formidable woman in her own right. But she played small part in public life -- an exception, and another irony, was her wartime work for Red Cross Aid to Russia, popularly known as "Mrs Churchill's Fund" – and confined herself to giving her husband private support and good, frank advice in private. Nearer our time, Denis Thatcher was in his way an admirable prime ministerial consort. He occasionally played up to the part Private Eye had written for him – replying when asked what he did with his time, "Well, when I'm not pissed, I play a lot of golf" – but otherwise stuck to his father's maxim: "It's better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt."

If there's a real culprit it is, as so often, Tony Blair. He left Downing Street with a tirade against the "feral media", which must rank very high in the annals of brass neck or chutzpah. For the past 12 years it had often looked as if the only purpose of New Labour was to manipulate that media. He and his gruesome wife like to denounce an intrusive press, while asking for the privacy or their family life to be respected.

But then look back at all the photo-ops of Tony and his boys playing football, and every other way in which he exploited his image as husband and father. Not long ago a celebrated novelist complained to me about the media, and the way they forgot their own supposedly rigid policy of not publishing recognisable images of children. I reminded him of the occasion on which a smirking Blair had come out into Downing Street to announce the birth of his youngest child, holding up a mug conspicuously emblazoned with a picture of one of his other children. When Cherie Blair had a miscarriage, no one but family and friends need have known, had not Alastair Campbell leaked the news to take the heat off another story. In her emetic memoirs she then insisted on telling us about the circumstances in which that youngest child had been conceived. And before that, at the time of the last election, Tony and Cherie were interviewed by The Sun, and talked about their sex life: "Five times a night Tony", in that paper's words (or as one Tory cynic said, "Another Labour lie").

At that point politicians simply deserve everything they get. They have not only forgotten the difference between friends and strangers. If they are going to invade their own privacy in such grotesquely intimate fashion, they should expect no mercy at all.

Although the present party leaders may not be quite as bad as that, they are very much mistaken in thinking that we want to be taken into their domestic lives. Why, many more displays of cloying conjugal affection, and the British electorate will be pining for a national leader like Sarkozy or Berlusconi.