Terence Blacker: Just don't 'dress down' when you visit Africa, Tony

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The Independent Online

Imagine the scene. Our new best friend, General Musharraf, arrives at Heathrow for a state visit. As he emerges from the aircraft, the photographers on the tarmac find they are in for a surprise. Instead of wearing his usual, oddly reassuring military mufti, the Pakistani leader has paid tribute to our country by appearing in a pinstripe suit, with a bowler hat on his head and a monocle in one eye. Behind him, his wife wears the tweed suits and frumpy hat favoured by Her Majesty the Queen.

This, some may feel, is more or less the effect that has been achieved over the past few days by our own leader and his wife as they have made their peace-making tour of the Indian subcontinent. At a state banquet last week, Tony and Cherie sported the faux-ethnic look that was all the rage in the late 1960s when the smarter class of hippies – breadheads, as they were known at the time – were going East in the footsteps of George Harrison, Timothy Leary and other gurus of the moment. He was wearing a high-collar Nehru jacket, collarless shirt and matching trousers, while she was in a fetching little number of embroidered blue silk.

Next day, as they moved among the people, Mrs Blair made an appearance at a school in Bangalore in more modest garb, but with a red bindi, unfortunately smudged, on her forehead. A day later, the couple were draped in local shawls for a photocall in Andhra Pradesh.

Predictably, there have been sneers and criticism from the usual quarters. One excited journalist reported that the embroidered suit worn by the Prime Minister's wife had been made by workers at an Indian factory earning 36p an hour. Another suggested that, as a fashion statement, Nehru jackets were approximately 20 years out of date. The revelation that the Blairs' Indian collection was the work of the fashionable London designer Babs Mahil prompted speculation that image consultants had been at work.

Of course they had – and quite right too. In the fashion-conscious 21st century, we are what we wear. Clearly Babs Mahil and her team were asked by government advisers to produce designs that were appropriate for a global statesman and his wife and in keeping with Britain's new role as a general force for goodness and virtue across the world.

Blair's policy of sartorial inclusiveness, of blending into as many cultures as possible, is characteristically daring. Over the past 50 years, politicians have tended to use various props and items of clothing to help stamp their personalities on a gullible electorate. Macmillan expressed the new internationalism with a Russian hat. Wilson had his pipe. Tony Benn was rarely seen without a workman's mug in his hand. William Hague was less successful, going for boy-band cool with his baseball cap but ending up looking like something out of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Today, style consultants in Whitehall believe, all that has changed. The modern, peace-making statesman belongs not to one community but to the world. As he flies from one country to another, he must be as adept at rapid costume-changes as a pantomime artiste.

Of course, sartorial inclusiveness should not be taken too far. It would be insensitive for Tony Blair to visit Australia's premier John Howard wearing a swagman's hat with corks hanging from the rim. For Cherie to conceal herself in a burqa while in the Arab Emirates might be misconstrued as a political statement. Any temptation to "dress down" while visiting parts of Africa should be resisted.

All the same, this new initiative, replacing that troublesome ethical foreign policy with an all-purpose ethnic look, is significant in its way and constitutes another achievement for our impeccably image-conscious government.