The Times

May 22 2000

From Wembley to No 10, the new culture of Dadism is born

Mick Hume
The Times

When Dennis Wise carried his baby son up to collect the FA Cup on Saturday, it signalled the end of an era in more ways than one. Not only are the Twin Towers of Wembley Stadium coming down, but the last bastions of old-fashioned "hands off" fatherhood are also being reduced to rubble.

Wise, after all, is better known for his altercations with referees and taxi drivers than for public displays of familial affection. He did not earn the nickname Dennis the Menace because of his interest in children's literature, and Alex Ferguson's description of him as a man who could start a fight in an empty house did not encourage images of domestic bliss.

So if even Dennis Wise now feels he can - indeed, should - make a point of parading and cuddling his five-month-old baby son Henry before the nation, we can be sure that things have changed. Only a fortnight before, the Manchester United players David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the awesome Roy Keane, who can make Wise look like a fluffy bunny, had brought their young children on to the pitch to celebrate the championship.

Everywhere, it seems, the most aggressive, competitive males are now keen to display a gentler side through showing their affection for their babies. Wearing the wife's underwear might still be just a little too feminine for a sports star, but happily sharing the job and the joys of parenthood is nowadays seen as de rigueur for the most macho of men. We await only the spectacle of Mike Tyson gently biting his offspring in the ring.

Perhaps this helps to explain the feverish attention focused on Tony Blair and his baby. Yes, young Leo is the first child born to an incumbent Prime Minister for 150 years. But even if one of Mr Blair's more recent predecessors had become a father, it is hard to imagine that he would have been being quizzed quite so intensively about his plans for helping to bring up baby.

The way that the proudly smiling faces of Blair and Wise were splashed across the weekend's papers illustrated perfectly the new culture of Dadism. There is much anxiety now about the traditional role of motherhood, with the work-childcare juggling act seen as increasingly fraught and worries about whether children will suffer the consequences.

One way of trying to overcome these problems is by inventing a new, more caring model of fatherhood. That is why Mr Blair has been subjected to all the speculation about whether he will take paternity leave, and who will take the night-time shift in Downing Street. (It is to be hoped that the Prime Minister's admirable commitment to giving baby Leo his 4am bottle does not have the breastfeeding police from the Department of Health kicking in his door.)

In the new culture of fatherhood, men's babies are also being used to make statements about the fathers. To be a dad is to demonstrate that you have a more gentle, more sincere side to your character. Touchy-feely fatherhood is seen to confer the status of responsible citizenship, even if dad has had the odd run-in with the authorities. This is not considered to be the kind of cheap image-building that can be bought with a trophy wife; a statement baby is a far more compelling badge of decency.

Nobody need be too cynical about men having and holding their babies. Tony Blair did not impregnate Cherie in order to win votes, any more than Dennis Wise paraded Henry to curry favour with Kevin Keegan. All of us thoroughly modern fathers could relate (for once) to David Beckham, as he showed off baby Brooklyn at Old Trafford (in a United shirt with a number 7 and "Daddy" on the back) more proudly than his Premiership medal.

But a gentle word of warning. It is fine to bring the worlds of children and adults closer together, just so long as we don't mix the two up. It can be but a toddler's step from a baby-centred society to the kind of infantilism one now sees demonstrated by tantrum-throwing footballers, dummy-sucking Liz Hurley, or high-flying "creatives" riding around London on shiny children's scooters.

Mr Blair himself has been guilty of this kind of dumbing-down, as when he decreed that the Dome should pass the "Euan test" by appealing to his young son. The Dome has since suffered the consequences of treating customers like children. So let's congratulate the proud father, and just hope that he doesn't get the idea of making the new Wembley stadium pass "Leo's law" by becoming a sanitised playpen.

mickhume@easynet.co.uk

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.