If the flowery hat doesn't fit...

Written by Alicia Collinson on 20 December 2008 in Interview
Interview
Alicia Collinson, wife of Damian Green who was arrested last month, found the role of a politician’s wife radically different to what she had expected when her husband became an MP

I wasn’t entirely clear what I was expected to do to support my husband, Damian Green, when he set out to become an MP. My childhood image of the politician’s wife involved a lady in a big, pastel, flowery hat and a princess-line coat. She was a charming creature, who produced lovely children, and was always there in the background being supportive. Her smiling face graced election manifestoes and grainy black and white photos in the local paper. She never needed to speak - unless to declare the Conservative Association Christmas Fair open.

How could I possibly emulate that being? For starters, I wasn’t sure I had the qualities, or time, to perfect the non-stop smile. I was too busy juggling my career as a barrister and the early years of motherhood. So - just like many other partners of candidates - I made the role up as I went along, without anyone to warn me of the pitfalls I’d encounter.

What, for instance, do you do when you draw the raffle and pull out your own ticket for the top prize? How do you avoid offending every single person, other than the winner, when you’re invited to judge a cakebaking competition? How do you continue to use your maiden name - as many female barristers do - without being pilloried in a Sunday paper as a radical feminist?

It was not until my husband was elected to Parliament in 1997 that I was given a slim booklet called Two for the Price of One. It answered some of those questions, but came too late to prevent me putting my foot in it in lots of ways. Even then, the politician’s spouse I was reading about was more worried about accompanying him on trips abroad and wearing the right hats and clothes. She seemed to live full time in the constituency and would be lucky to see the MP at weekends.

As a divorce lawyer, I could think of few recipes more likely to promote marital disharmony. I especially noted the phrase: “Try to ensure the absent parent speaks each week on the phone to each child personally if possible.” It was that “if possible” which struck a chill. Need the prospect be so bleak for the child of such a relationship?

Did I empathise with that political wife? Well, no. The gulf between my own experience and what I read or was told about the role was wide - and that seemed to be a common experience for others. I found myself passing on sundry tips from older spouses whenever I met the partner of a newly selected candidate. Some of the tips began to seem a bit trite when they’d been repeated a few times. It was all very well saying “start as you mean to go on” or “don’t spend more than two nights in the week away from your politician”, but how did that translate into changes in your day to day life?

I ended up gathering together as much advice as possible from wives, ex-wives, husbands, partners and the children of politicians, and wrote a book setting out the wide range of their experience and how they dealt with the differing demands and expectations of the political support role. So far, Politics for Partners: How to live with a politician has received a warm welcome.

Wearing different hats is, of course, still an essential part of the role of the political partner, but only a few of mine relate directly to politics, and none of them are flowery. I wear different - if metaphorical - hats when I juggle my own full-time career and the varied demands of family life, committee work, fund raising and pastimes. In among all those calls on my time, I want my husband’s electors to know I’m backing all his endeavours in Ashford, Tenterden and the surrounding villages. Do I succeed in satisfying them? They’ll certainly tell you they don’t often see me wearing hats - other than in sun or rain. But they do see me at a huge variety of events and in the local shops: being there and being interested.

So what role am I supposed to be performing as a political partner? The electors of Ashford are voting for Damian Green and not for me. They don’t want to know my political views (and most assume they’re the same as his). They don’t want me to say anything interesting (by which I mean controversial). But they do want to know, and are endlessly fascinated with knowing, that my husband is being properly looked after at home and that he shares and understands their own experiences of family life.

It wasn’t long before I discovered the extent to which you need to share your politician with the electors and people within your political party. Everyone seems to want to be the MP’s special friend and to bend their ear. This leads on to a real complication. If you don’t create boundaries, they’ll expect the politician to be available seven days a week - and that will affect you.

Parliament may only sit for limited periods during the year, but much of a politician’s work is done in the constituency, sorting out problems, going on visits, having meetings and attending events: at weekends as well as during the week. It can sometimes feel like a 24 hour-a-day job. Being woken before 6am by a phone call from the press office is just as disrupting as having your home invaded by a camera crew recording a piece for the next morning’s news at 11.45pm. Perhaps that’s a reassuring sign of your politician’s success, but you need some time off, or you can end up spending your holiday tempted to throw the ever-ringing mobile phone in the swimming pool.

Some of the interest in your family life is helpful and positive: a bit like being adopted by a favourite aunt. Damian’s first constituency chairman knitted us the most delightful baby clothes. The house that became our constituency home was identified by a wellwisher, who had taken it entirely on herself to look around suitable properties and send us the particulars of two she thought would be appropriate. It saved so much time!

On the other hand, other aspects of the fascination with you and your family life can be really intrusive. The press assume you’re a public figure because your politician is in the public eye, and they seem to feel they’re entitled to comment about you - the way you dress, the way you look - quite unblushingly. In the supermarket, you can find your purchases being closely examined by passers-by. Where you go and what you do is apparently acceptable for comment.

It’s taken on an additional dimension in the blogosphere, where commentators forget they’re commenting about real people as they commune with their computer screens. One was gratuitously rude about the fact I’d written a Policy Exchange pamphlet on the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. The accusation was that, since I was a Conservative politician’s wife, the pamphlet must be ideologically biased and couldn’t be objective. They ignored the fact that the subject matter was wholly within my professional expertise and was not remotely party political.

You’re always told you need to have a thick skin to survive the tosh that gets written and reported about you as a result of politics. A carapace is probably a better description - a hard shell which can take the knocks meted out and which reflects an image of unconcern to those who attempt to undermine you. And something within which you can shelter. Maybe the flowery hat and the princess coat were just such an armour, all those years ago. If you tell yourself that what’s being reported is something made up about someone else’s image of what you are, then it’s far easier not to let it fuss you.

It also helps you keep things in perspective if you remember the times when you’ve known, from your own personal experience, that something reported simply isn’t true. You can then weigh the possible accuracy of the rest that is reported by comparison. For example, on June 17 2008, someone using a proxy AT&T computer in California went onto Wikipedia and changed the entry relating to Damian’s personal life - twice.

The first change reported that he and I had had a son in between our two daughters, and gave a date of birth for him. The second change, made some minutes later, gave some names and a different date of birth for the alleged son; it also changed the names of our daughters. Damian corrected the entry the next day, but in the meantime the erroneous information was picked up by another internet ‘encyclopaedia’.

I happened across this entry in September and sent them a comment pointing out the information was wrong. They had the cheek to suggest that my comment wasn’t ‘authoritative’. Hold on a minute! I knew whether or not I’d given birth, and I’ve got the birth certificates with the correct names on them.

But what on earth was the point of those changes to Wikipedia in the first place? Not just inventing a child, but changing the names of the ones we knew we had had. Was it done to convince people that nothing on Wikipedia should be taken as fact? Have other public figures had their entries changed?

Unfortunately, normal politicians don’t have rebuttal units to trawl the net and correct erroneous facts on their behalf. I suspect - from my personal experience - that there are loads of things written about politicians that are just plain untrue. Indeed, the more successful your politician is, the more likely that giggling or malicious idiots will add more tosh to the pile. Your carapace may protect you from being fussed about the worst of this rubbish, but you’ll be tested.

So, apart from the body armour, what else do you need to survive as a political couple? Five other golden rules (apart from buying a good book that tells you how to do it) are:

  • Take an interest. If you know absolutely nothing about your partner’s work, and care even less, there will be times when you’ll have absolutely nothing to say to one another. Most people who become politicians are a bit driven and slightly obsessive, so you’ll really miss out if you don’t know what’s going on.
  • Suppress your ego when you’re wearing the political partner hat. However high-powered you are in your own non-political field, you can land your politician in a lot of grief if you start expressing your personal opinions.
  • Try not to live apart. As busy people you may spend little time together anyway. If you are spending most of the week hundreds of miles away, you may simply drift apart. This is more of a threat than the so-called pressures of Westminster life, which just involve the ordinary temptations of any workplace.
  • Make friends and network with other political partners. MPs tend to be in their constituencies at the weekend and rarely socialise with one another’s families.
  • Be prepared for life after politics. It’s an unpredictable business. Boundary changes or electoral landslides can leave your politician out of a job (and you, as well, if you’ve been working for them). You need to keep up with old non-political friends. You need to know what you’re going to do next. Keep that spare hat in reserve, and don’t worry about when you’ll need to wear it. It might fit you surprisingly well.

Alicia Collinson wrote this article for Total Politics before the arrest of her husband, Damian Green MP. She is the author of Politics for Partners: How to live with a Politician (Politico’s Media).

Spouses’ tales 1

Eve Burt - Wife of Alistair Burt, Conservative MP for North East Bedfordshire

“I have worked for my husband since 1983, and gave up a career in the Jockey Club to do so. Our kids have grown up with their Father doing this role so we consider normality to be working most weekends because we have been doing this all of our lives.

"Regarding the Conway affair, people make mis-judgements. During this time our local papers were good. We had one complaint out of 74,000 constituents, so most of them were not bothered. The thing that annoys me is that we [spouses] feel it’s demeaning to suggest we don’t work, people will believe what they want.

It’s rare that we get time off but we like to travel when we can, Europe hopping, spending time with our grand daughter, visiting art galleries or by going for long walks in the lake district.”

Spouses’ tales 2

Yvonne Clapham - wife of Mick Clapham, Labour MP for Barnsley West and Penistone

“I left school without any qualifications at the age of 14 years 11 months and worked mainly in dress shops as a window dresser. After studying part time I went to University as a mature student in 1980 and achieved a Social Science Degree and Professional Social Work Diploma. I worked as a social worker. Mick was elected in 1992 but I continued with my role until 1998 when I negotiated working part time in Social Services and part time with my husband in London. I did not want to give my own job up but after two years we agreed it was too problematic and I decided to work full time for my husband in London.

My two children were grown up and had left home. Working together did mean we could spend more time together and that he had a PA on tap whenever he needed it so it worked out well. However in London he is mainly in meetings or in the chamber and as I am the only one he employs in London I do feel isolated in the office all day. Working in social work I was used to being in a team and working closely with other people.

I have always been open [about my role]. As soon as I began working for my husband I made the constituency party and everyone aware of it. The local press have always been aware of this. When the Conway story came to light the opinion of the local newspapers was that, working for my husband was not news, everyone knew. Like everyone else I was hounded by the national media as my name is in the telephone directory but I was happy to confirm what I did — they probably wished they had not phoned.”

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