Spectator – Carla Carlisle

I have more in common with Tessa Jowell than you think. True, I found the ‘Casino in Every Town’ thing quite creepy and was relieved when it failed. And frankly, when I watched the wonderful opening and closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics in Turin, I broke out into a sweat. I kept thinking about the Dome disaster and wondering how on earth we are going to pull off the Olympics in 2012. And, to tell the truth, the war in Iraq and Tony Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush make me tremble, tremble, so I can’t honestly say I admire Tessa Jowell’s loyalty to her leader. But this I have in common with her: when my husband brings me a wad of papers to sign, the ‘x’ put by the spot awaiting my signature, I don’t read the wad. Sometimes I ask: ‘Am I signing over all my worldly goods?’ and in jest (I hope), he replies: ‘No, only the good half’.

On the feminist scale of consciousness, I realise this financial dopiness doesn’t rate very highly. And the sisterhood have been tough on Tessa for her girlish fluffing ‘My husband pays the mortgage’?but that is how a lot of marriages work. It’s the only remnant of Marxism that has survived intact: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’. If Tessa Jowell had married a poet or a cellist, she might have been the member of the partnership who arranged the mortgages, and bought the lightbulbs, dog food and shares in BT. But she married someone whose job is money. She turned all that over to him, probably with a sigh of relief.

‘Just sign here,’ says my husband (we are the partners in our Farm Partnership) and I sign the papers that will take out a mortgage on our house that will pay for the restoration of the 400-year-old barn that will be the heart of the diversification that will save the farm. ‘Sign here,’ he says, and I sign the papers that will give the bank the deeds to two fields as security for the £90,000 loan we need to build the reservoir that might see us through the drought years ahead. Early in the marriage, I signed papers that were designed to soften the blow of being names at Lloyds (I won’t even go down that road). I never read them.

I know this scatty form of marital accounting doesn’t add up, and I’ve watched as close friends have been widowed or abandoned and suddenly had to become financial grown-ups. After years of gazing at financial accounts through mental cataracts, they’ve been pushed head first into the real world. Despite the stories about little old ladies being swindled by crooked solicitors, these women quickly become financially literate, happily replacing Marx with Balzac, who believed that money becomes more important as you get older as it cushions you from the world.

But back to Miss Jowell. I know a few Tessa Jowell stories. When the teenaged daughter of her close friend died suddenly, Tessa cancelled her political diary for a month and spent all day, every day at her friend’s bedside. She guarded the door, organised the household, welcomed the welcome and politely got rid of the unwelcome. This is a woman whose gut instinct is loyalty.

I suspect that in the future she will balance her chequebook and read the small print. But Miss Jowell’s crime is one that, in varying degrees and without the tartufi bianchi, hits close to home. I for one will put on my reading glasses and look a little closer the next time my husband says ‘sign here’. And if more women do that, I reckon Miss Jowell will have achieved a cultural revolution greater than any the Minister of Culture ever dreamt of.

This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on March 9, 2006.