At 16 I had long hair in pigtails, and was terribly thin and gawky. I certainly wasn’t a sporty kid but I was good at public speaking and drama and singing so that was the way I could be popular. I went to what they call a direct grant grammar school – there were 70 children in my primary school year and two girls got into this grammar school. Most of the children in my grammar school were better off than I was. They weren’t rich – this was a Catholic grammar school in a suburb of Liverpool – they were just better off than us. And they certainly didn’t come from a single-parent family as I did. So I was very conscious that the only way I was going to get anywhere was if I could succeed, and at that time success was defined as doing well at exams. So that was my focus.
I think I got my outgoing trait from my parents. They met when they were actors on tour. My mother had to give up her acting when my sister was born, and then when my father [well-known TV actor Tony Booth] abandoned us, when I was eight, she had to take up a job in a fish and chip shop. Thank goodness we had my grandmother, my father’s mother, who helped out with the childcare and gave us a roof over our head. But it was difficult. I don’t remember my mum really having many new clothes, she spent all her money on my sister and I. My mother left school at 14 because her own mother died, and she had to look after her 10-year-old brother and her father, who was a miner. My mum loved him, he was self-taught, he was a poet. My mum loved literature and my paternal grandmother loved reading, so we weren’t a household that didn’t have books. And my grandma always had a very strong sense of justice and right and wrong. We were always very politically aware. I joined the Labour Party when I was 16.
I didn’t really consider being an actor because I’d seen the effect of my father’s precarious career – he was very successful but sadly he spent it all on what he described as “drink and crumpet”. I was very conscious of all the sacrifices my mum and grandma made and I wanted to make sure that I had a job that would bring me financial security so I could share that financial security with them. My then-boyfriend’s mother said to me, “Cherie, you’ve always been good at debating, why don’t you think about being a lawyer?” I had no idea what that meant or involved. I’d never met anyone who was a lawyer. But I thought, that sounds like a way of using my speaking skills, and at the same time earning money.
Very few people were divorced in those days so it was a big thing to deal with when my father left my mother. He was quite famous, about to get on to Till Death Us Do Part [the popular sitcom of the Sixties and Seventies]. And my grandma’s cousin was our local parish priest so that didn’t necessarily help either. Also, without a working father we had much less money. But in another way I was very lucky because my grandfather – my dad’s father – was alive. He was very fond of my mother. I don’t think he really forgave my father for abandoning her. Even before my father left I was brought up very much as part of his family. Sometimes I wasn’t entirely sure whether my dad was my dad or my bigger brother.
The 16-year-old me used to say she was going to be the first woman prime minister. So maybe she would be surprised to find out that I never was. Or maybe she’d be surprised that I actually did make it to 10 Downing Street, albeit on my husband’s coattails. Though the better way to get there would be to do it yourself of course. Maybe she’d be amazed that I did become a QC like one of my heroes, Rose Heilbron, the Liverpudlian woman who was the very first female QC.
If I could go back and give my young self advice it might be to understand, which I didn’t until I went to the bar to do my pupillage, that in this world it’s not just about how much you know, it’s also about who you know. And I didn’t know anyone. I definitely felt the imposter syndrome at times. Just little things like going to eat the dinners at Lincoln’s Inn [the London-based, very prestigious body of lawyers] – they presented port at the end and I had no idea what it was. I just didn’t know the etiquette of lots of things. I only realise now that a lot of what we were doing in the halls and Lincoln’s Inn was what they did in Oxford colleges and public schools, but they were completely alien environments to me.
He managed to charm me eventually, but when I first met Tony we were rivals for the same scholarship. And then for the same place in chambers. My pupil master said to me, Cherie, there’s only one place here and there’s a boy and there’s a girl and, obviously, we have to go for the boy. I knew more about the law than he did, but of course it was a disadvantage being a woman, especially a working-class woman with a Liverpool accent. In those days people just said he was a better bet. Which just goes to show how wrong stereotypes can be because I’m still a practising lawyer 45 years on and he gave up the law after seven years for some other career entirely.
I hadn’t realised when Tony became prime minister that there would be such interest in me. And then of course Tony and I were quite different from our predecessors. I was the first prime minister’s spouse to have gone to university. It just wasn’t the thing for women to do that. We were also different in that we had a young family, our kids went to the local state school. So there was a lot of interest in all of that. I became conscious about what I wore, how I looked. I did quite a lot of high-profile cases as a lawyer, but there you’re judged by your successes or otherwise in court – with the wig and gown, it’s not a beauty contest. So it was a bit different being in the public eye when no one was interested in what you said. In fact you weren’t supposed to say anything. People tended to focus on how you look. So if I could give my younger self advice I’d say learn how to do your hair and makeup.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone – it’s a hard choice between my mother or my grandmother. My mother, who I owe so much to, saw me become a QC, and she saw us going to Downing Street. She came with me when we met the Pope, she met the Queen. We did all sorts of things that neither of us would ever have dreamed of. But my own grandmother died in 1987, so she only saw me become a barrister, she didn’t see those other things. I always remember the first time I went with Tony to the Vatican, to see Pope John Paul II, and we got the official visit, and I could hear my grandma in my head as I was walking down the corridors of the Vatican, saying, well we might have had a priest in the family but our Cherie met the Pope.
If I could go back to any time and live it again it would have to be, for us as a family, the moment in ’97 when we won the election. There was a series of events, starting with the exit poll, then going over to Tony’s seat. And seeing that my old seat [Crosby], which had been Tory the whole time I was growing up, had become a Labour seat that night. That was an amazing moment. We came back to London and the dawn broke, and the sun came up, and we went into the gathering of the Labour Party members and realised that after so many years of Tory rule we actually had a chance to make things better.
What did Margaret Atwood, Paul McCartney and Trevor McDonald tell their younger selves?
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