Cherie Booth Blair, high-profile human rights lawyer, Britain’s former first lady, do-gooder and champion of women’s rights, is on to her next big thing – empowering the Indian female. On a visit to Delhi, ahead of her ‘Women Mean Business’ conference in Mumbai next month, Blair discussed why she doesn’t cook chicken tikka masala and political correctness with Rashmee Roshan Lall
What are you here for exactly this time round?
Well, this time round I came over to speak at an Access conference, Access being a micro-finance umbrella body for all of India. It was the first time they’d actually made some presentations to stars in the microfinance field. I also spoke at a roundtable with a group of about 20 women about what turned out to be a very interesting discussion on how when microfinance developed there seemed to be fewer women in leadership roles.
Yes, correct me if I’m wrong but that’s the main focus isn’t it? You’re here to launch a fund that will invest in companies that place women in leadership roles?
The main focus of my foundation is absolutely about getting women into leadership roles, particularly in business. So, part of that is about encouraging women to start their own businesses and part of it is about progressing so that they can edit not just the Sunday Times of India but The Times of India.
Sure, but are you launching anything to do with that now?
No, I’m doing that in Mumbai on the December 11. So, whilst I was here, because a number of people who’re going to speak live in Delhi and Mumbai, I was seeing some of the speakers while I was here – Kiran Bedi, Tejpreet, CEO of GE, – because I’m very determined that in my conference we’re going to have women and men talking about this issue together. It shouldn’t simply be about women talking to each other.
Do you really feel Indian women need help from your Foundation to become entrepreneurial?
I don’t think that my Foundation has anything to teach Indian women. But, let’s set the background: I was brought up by two strong women; my mother and grandmother, however, had none of the advantages that I had partly because they didn’t have the education I had, but partly because they were born at a different time and place from where I was born. I was lucky enough to be born at a time that when I went into the law in the 70s, there were very few women, but times were changing definitely, as Bob Dylan sang. As a result when I went into the law, that was the first year that women coming to the Bar had gone over 10%. Now, it’s 50-50, so things have changed. But that doesn’t mean we’ve got nirvana in the UK either for women but what is clear is that even when women get equal education, as they progress through their working lives, they find it harder to rise to the very top. And the figures for women QCs (top lawyers called Queens Counsel) are only 9-10%. The figures for women on the boards of FTSE100 companies is minuscule. I’ve always been interested in these issues but I’m also conscious through my time at No. 10 (Downing Street) that our experiences in the UK illustrate experiences that are far more stark for women in developing and emerging countries. Part of the mission of my Foundation is to do something internationally and in particular, to harvest the goodwill that there is among women across the world. I know plenty of women in the UK, America and Europe who want to help women in other parts of the world so that we can share experiences and learn from each other. I’m doing some work, for example in the Middle East and I’ve got a project in Africa, but I wanted to do something different in India. And that’s probably because, certainly for as long as my husband was leader of the Labour Party, I’ve got to know Indians. Actually, it was before that. One of my dearest friends from university is Veena Russell, who became Lady Veena Williams. But her parents are South African Indians and the first time I ever was really conscious of race discrimination was when Veena’s dad took me out. We were going to a South Indian restaurant in Kilburn and we went on the bus together. I lived with Veena in her flat and her father came over to the flat. He took me out and I was conscious after we got on the bus that everyone was…
Yes, yeah, because here I was a young, white girl with this very handsome by the way, older Indian man. That would’ve been in about 1976 so I’ve always had, since then, an interest in India and obviously the Indian community overwhelmingly supports the Labour Party, I’ve many friends.
So far. But the British Indian community could change to the Conservatives if they look like they’re going to win.
Certainly in the 12 years that my husband was leader, that was certainly the case. I have many friends. I am patron of the Asian Women of Achievement Awards, Women of the Future Awards, which we’re also launching in Mumbai. We need to understand that in India there are many women who are the poorest of the poor. India has the largest population of poor in the world of course but there are many other women who have opportunities. There are some women, of course, who will always rise to the top because they have the right background. But there is a growing number of women who are now educated, who want to see opportunities for themselves and yet there are, in this country, the same sort of problems that I encountered in the 70s in the UK. So in India, I wanted to do something a little different.
You mention women who succeed because they have the right background. Would you place Sonia Gandhi in that category and is she a good example of a woman who succeeded – and is succeeding – in a man’s world?
I have huge admiration for Sonia Gandhi because in a sense you wouldn’t say she came from the right background – she is, after all, Italian, coming in to a foreign country. But she was a woman, who absolutely had a belief in what her husband was doing. And then beyond that, she carried on his legacy, that she transmitted to her children. She’s also I think a woman who is very very conscious of what she can and cannot do.
What do you mean Sonia Gandhi didn’t have the right background? She married into the right family. Presumably, the work you want to do in India is for people who may not have those advantages?
Certainly, it’s about women who are not the poorest of the poor because what I’m looking at is trying to build up role models and leaders in India but because they’re women who are disadvantaged when it comes to putting their talents completely, to living their talent out.
But is it really viable to look at the world – political, corporate or cultural – in a gender-specific way?
I think if we don’t look at the world as it is, if we look at the world as it is, we see we are not using all the resources of the world because 50% of the world’s population, who are women, do not appear to be achieving in the way they should achieve. If you take the raw material and you look at who’s doing well in the exams, who’s doing well in the universities and then, who’s not doing well in the world of work.
But isn’t it rather limiting to look at the world in that way? Surely you, as someone who succeeded despite the times you grew up in, should be the last person to advocate a gender-specific meritocracy? A meritocracy should be about merit, not gender?
Yes, but it’s very easy to say it’s about merit but it’s a question of how we define merit. You’re right in identifying – but you see I wouldn’t put it that way. I would put it in this way – the world flourishes, we are more creative, more imaginative with this diversity in our approaches. The world flourishes when women and men come together as equals, with equal respect and opportunities. I do not think that all women are the same, nor are men the same. But because we’re different, we have more to offer each other. One of the problems we have with the structures of society is that we don’t allow people to live out those differences but they impose a view of what a woman is and what a man is, what a woman does and what a man does, which doesn’t reflect the fact that none of us in fact, fit those stereotypes. So how we organize the world of work so that you do end up with a board in a company which is actually made up of mainly men – all of similar backgrounds – and in India that might be even of similar castes.
Sure, an Indian board could have a linguistic brotherhood.
Yes, or whatever. It reflects a timidity of outlook and a lack of imagination about what can be achieved.
Is this all part of the Swiss fund that wants to invest in companies that have women in leadership positions?
No, no, I don’t have a fund. The fund is something I just something I happen to be on the board of advisors for.
But is this gender-specific investment fund a good idea anyway? There was one like that and its assets have fallen drastically, it’s not doing well at all.
I wouldn’t claim to be a fund manager. I wouldn’t come to me for any investment advice. Please don’t tell anybody that Cherie is giving you, or anyone else, investment advice. But I’m sure that a lot of that is to do with the right investment strategy. But what the (new) fund is about, of course, is taking something that everyone says – business schools, research – that diversity produces better results on a board and using the power of finance and investment to reward companies that are doing this.
Moving on, as a human rights lawyer, does it go against an immigrants’ human rights to be required to conform to the legal and cultural norms of their adopted country?
There’s a difference between legal norms and culture and there’s a difference between culture and religion, for example. Culture is a very complicated thing and is often quite difficult to change. I believe part of the change and the evolving of culture, the law does play a part in that. I spoke before about what happened with my friend, in going out with her father. That was at a time the UK introduced the first race discrimination law, which was a fairly weak racial discrimination law in the mid-60s by a Labour government. When the Labour government came back in Harold Wilson’s second term, they introduced the Race Relations Act, which has been the basis of our racial equality laws for 30 years. Though now of course we have a single equality law. And you shouldn’t have asked me about the law – it’s my field!
That’s why I asked you.
Well, I think society as a democracy puts laws in, so I think it’s absolutely right we treat honour killings – not just in England but across in the world – as dishonourable. I also think that there are certain practices against women that we should condemn.
What about Britain’s image across the world as a country where political correctness has gone mad? That it’s unable – and unwilling – to do anything about large numbers of settled immigrants who refuse to become part of the mainstream?
I think you grossly exaggerate what modern multi-cultural Britain is all about actually. In fact in London, where I live now, if you look at the world where my children were brought up and the world where they are now, coming into the workforce, I wouldn’t say that we see the Asian community in a ghetto at all. That’s one of the things having been patron for 10 years of the Asian Women of Achievement Awards, which isn’t by the way, just about women from India; from China as well.
But I wouldn’t deny that there are places in Britain where poor immigrant communities have come together and we have had difficulties in giving them opportunities which, say the Asian Women of Achievement have had. Like everything else, it’s not perfect. One of the things I’m proudest of about my husband’s time as prime minister was that Britain became much more comfortable with itself as a multi-cultural society.
Some say it’s become more politically correct and hypocritical than genuinely welcoming of diversity?
I don’t agree with that. For a start, the law does have a role to play in this. And when I was talking about what happened with me in the 70, it was a time when you still saw signs of ‘No Blacks, No Irish’.
Yes, and ‘No dogs’. You don’t see that any more and thank God for that. It’s partly of course, because it’s against the law but it’s also become against the culture. Now I do not believe as a lawyer that the law can solve everything but good laws can help contribute to a change in culture. No culture is set in its ways forever and part of culture is always about change. As for political correctness, I think it’s a very easy phrase that people who don’t like change use to hide the fact that they don’t like the consequences of that change. And I don’t see the changes in British society as political correctness gone mad, I think they are a gradual awareness and an awakening to a mutual respect, whether it be women or people of different race or ethnic origin. It goes back to my view about human rights and what we believe in the individual dignity of each man or woman, who should be judged as individuals and not as stereotypes.
You’ve been quoted to say ‘there’s not much kindness in the public space’. Is that your deep, personally felt experience because you’ve had rather a controversial image over the years – the British press loved to excoriate you and the world media often took its cue from that?
Actually, to be fair, I think the international media has been kinder and the Indian media is…
Flattering and fawning?
I wouldn’t say that. They are often quite robust. You are. And a lot of them are. But when I talk about kindness in public life, I’m talking more about the, almost de-personalization of politics. It’s a shame that you have politics as a soap opera and because soap opera is about fiction, it starts becoming as if we’re not really talking about real people. And actually, I think politics is a noble cause and we want the best possible people to go into politics for the best possible motives. And if we spend too much time denigrating and questioning their motives, and by that I don’t mean we shouldn’t be rigorous and have oversight of what our politicians are doing. But if our default mode is there must be something wrong otherwise why on earth would we be going into this, we are actually poisoning a really important part of life in my country and an important part of life in India, which is the largest democracy in the world. And what you want to do is attract more good people into politics, rather than put them off?
Leaders of the 27 European Union member states have been meeting to discuss who and how to choose the new EU president. The British government has been promoting your husband, Tony Blair for this. How would you like to be ‘Mrs Europe’?
I think that those are questions that you should direct to my husband but I’m very happy to be ‘Mrs Anthony Blair’.
What do you think of the European Union anyway – rising new quasi-country and the way to go for other regions in the world, or an undemocratic fix?
The very first time that I voted was in the EU referendum. I voted ‘yes’. Because of my work in the employment law field, I do actually do a lot of EU employment law because there’s a lot of cross-referencing there. I’ve appeared in the European court, I’ve done some leading cases there, I think the whole idea in the 21st century of Europe coming together with our common heritage and acting as a force in the world – in a world where we have the big forces of India, China, America with large populations, far larger than any of the member-states of Europe individually, coming together in one body with common values is a good thing.
So would it be an attractive proposition for you to live in Brussels then?
I’m not speculating on any of that. We’re talking about something that might quite frankly never happen. If it did, we would cross any bridges if we came to them.
There’s an old joke that goes that female lawyers use their personalities as birth control. Clearly not you?
I’ve never heard that one. Clearly not me. Perhaps because I married another lawyer. But I’ve just had my 55th birthday, so now, a miracle would be required and medical intervention.
You have a busy life…
Just a little
…would you describe yourself as a homemaker, someone who likes to cook and clean?
One of the things I missed most of all when I lived in No 10 was not having a home of my own because we’d sold our house. So I did have my constituency house but we went there much less than we used to, so I lived in this serviced accommodation which went with the job. It was furnished with the job and I had very little say in the décor. Even buying a cushion or something – I could’ve done it but I couldn’t have changed the overall décor. It already had cushions. So now, it’s actually very nice for me because now I do again have a home.
Many, by all accounts.
Only if you read the Daily Mail. Not as many homes as the Daily Mail say.
So are you a homemaker or not?
I think, like everyone else. But my husband too. He has views on the sort of home we should live in.
Do you like to cook and clean?
No. let’s be fair. I like to cook but cleaning, I have to confess, I have paid somebody else to do. But I do like to cook, arrange things in my house, decide whether I like to buy a cushion or not.
What’s your culinary repertoire? And if there’s any Indian, is it Britain’s famous fix, chicken tikka masala?
No, not chicken tikka masala. But Madhur Jaffrey used to do a TV programme (in Britain) and I have some of her early books and even then I enjoyed cooking Indian cuisine. And still do. My children enjoy it as well. But I have a sister-in-law who’s Chinese, so through her, I enjoy cooking Chinese. I like cooking all sorts of things, I like experimenting.
On a weekly basis?
Well no, not on a weekly basis. Frankly, during the week, you’re looking for something that’s quick and easy. You don’t want to think about too much. But there are times, weekends and holiday periods, I spend most of my Christmas holiday cooking. How sad is that?