Nothing like a dame: interview with Dame Margaret Beckett
Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes talks to the UK’s longest serving female MP
Dame Margaret Beckett - Image credit: Alister Thorpe/Holyrood
Dame Margaret Beckett has been a member of parliament for over 40 years and is the longest serving woman MP ever.
In her time, she has smashed a few glass ceilings, having been the first female British Foreign Secretary, first woman Trade and Industry Secretary, Labour’s first woman deputy leader and its first female leader, albeit for just 10 weeks, following the death of John Smith.
Beckett, the MP for Derby South, is the remaining direct link that the Labour Party still has with its time in government in the 1970s, having served in both Harold Wilson’s and Jim Callaghan’s governments.
And she has worked for ten (11 if you count Harriet Harman as acting leader twice) different party leaders and has known the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for going on 35 years.
She was famously dubbed one of ‘Blair’s Babes’ – a term that extracts one of her favourite expletives beginning with ‘f’ (she’s a champion swearer) – in Tony Blair’s first government and held various positions of state under him and was also the Leader of the House of Commons.
Having been part of Blair’s team, she was then caught in the cross-fire between him and Gordon Brown, who, once he finally got into Number 10, sacked her as Foreign Secretary, only to replace her with a young David Miliband, then brought her back as a ‘big-beast’ to deal with a housing crisis as property prices plummeted and inflation soared in the wake of the Great Recession.
Beckett has had a front-row seat on political history for over 40 years and I ask her whether she has seen anything quite as bonkers as the political landscape we now occupy.
“No, never,” she laughs. “I mean, this is the weirdest and most disorganised and chaotic parliament I have ever been in, and it’s the weirdest and most disorganised and most chaotic government I ever remember.
“And you could argue, perfectly legitimately, that there are a number of contenders for that position but I think this one wins it hands down.
“It’s the whole Brexit thing, isn’t it? They didn’t make any plans at all.
“I mean, there are many things that to my mind, David Cameron should be blamed for, but of all of them, the worst was to get us into this position because there was no plan.
“I’m not entirely surprised that they made no preparations because a long time ago, probably two or three years ago, maybe more, Cameron gave evidence to the select committee I chair and George Foulkes was on the committee at that time and he asked him about the Scottish referendum, because this is the committee that looks at the national security strategy, and there was nothing in the national security strategy about the potential impact of a Scottish yes vote to independence.
“So, George asked him about it and he said, ‘No, there isn’t anything’ and ‘No, we haven’t made any preparations because you don’t plan for things you don’t want to happen’.
“I thought that was one of the weirdest theories of government that I have ever heard, but it did mean that when we had the EU referendum, I was absolutely confident that they would not have made any plans for it, as indeed is clear, they didn’t, and they nearly forbade government departments, and the Bank of England – who nevertheless did it surreptitiously – from making preparations.
“Unbelievable, that Cameron forbade people planning for a Leave vote, he then walks away and his successor then makes the first of a series of incredible misjudgements by deciding to go straight ahead, accept the criteria she’s been given for how you do the negotiations, and set a ridiculously tight deadline, and that’s why we’re in the mess that we’re in.”
Given what she has witnessed in power, what does she think drives Theresa May in terms of Brexit, given she was a Remainer?
“I think she has a strong sense of duty and a strong sense of public service.
“The trouble is, and you’re probably too young to remember, but at one time it was fashionable to talk about some philosophical concept somebody had invented, some philosopher, I suppose, called the ‘Peter Principle’, which said that people can go through life gradually, you know, improving their standing and their status and so on and so on, and sometimes they get to the stage where actually, they’ve got a job they can’t do, but until that happens to them, nobody knows that they can’t do it, including them.
“I have a horrid feeling that that’s where Theresa May is.”
So, what made anyone think she should be leader?
“Well, one of the reasons she’s there is because there wasn’t really another choice.
“I suppose the other obvious contender was George Osborne, but for obvious reasons, he decided not to run and I think everybody thought at the time she was the right choice, including her, and it’s only with the benefit of hindsight and seeing how – and I’m sorry to say this about another senior woman politician – but how badly she’s handled things, what terrible judgements she’s made, that she’s still making, all to placate her own back benches.
“This is all about the Tory party and barely at all about the country.
“I think it’s criminally irresponsible of people in this government to act this way and I would not have believed it, even of the Conservative Party, and to be fair, I don’t think most of them are in this position, but the odd lunatic thinks that Brexit is so important that it doesn’t matter if it even jeopardises the Good Friday Agreement, which as I say, is criminally irresponsible, and very dangerous.
“What’s worse is, I think they hadn’t really thought about it.
“There are some really fanatical people for whom Brexit is more important than anything in the world.
“Everybody knows who they are, there are a number of them, but it’s very hard to forgive people like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who are in positions of responsibility, for the irresponsibility that they are showing.”
Notwithstanding her scathing critique of the Tory Brexiteers, Beckett is well known as an uber-loyalist when it comes to talking about her own Labour colleagues. In public, at least.
In private, she has a wicked sense of humour and can make a witty and withering assessment of the ambitions and abilities of some within her own party who she doesn’t think make the grade.
But I was sworn to secrecy.
Originally on the left of the party, she supported Tony Benn in his failed deputy leadership bid and famously accused Neil Kinnock of being a “Judas” for not supporting him.
But she then backed Kinnock for the Labour leadership in 1983, and while Kinnock thought she had too much sympathy with the far-left group Militant Tendency, John Smith – who was more to the right of the party – reportedly joked that she was living proof that the rehabilitation of offenders actually worked.
She was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1992 under Smith and when Smith died in 1994 she became, temporarily, the leader.
Beckett then stood for both leader and deputy leader and while Gordon Brown backed her for deputy leader in 1994, she lost out to John Prescott, amid some strong-arm tactics from his side.
Despite attempts to undermine her, Beckett was regarded as one of the safest pair of hands during Blair’s tenure and popped up regularly to defend the government during media firestorms, earning her the tag of ‘minister for Newsnight’.
I ask her if being a woman was a handicap in terms of her leadership bids?
“Well, let’s say it didn’t help. Particularly being a woman called Margaret, that really didn’t help!
“Although it was one of my jokes that it would give the Tories a chance to march outside Downing Street shouting ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!’
“Actually, I think the principal thing was that people hadn’t been quite sure what to do after we lost the ’92 election.
“It was so obvious, it seemed to me, that John Smith was the right person to become the leader and I mean, prior to that Leo [her husband] and I would have always automatically supported the candidate of the left, but we thought that: a) John was pre-eminently the right person and b) that having lost the ’92 election, we didn’t accept this thing about how Labour will never win again, but we did think that we couldn’t afford to play games and that the best thing to do was to go for the right person, so that’s why we backed John, which a lot of our friends were not happy about.
“John just had it, you know – leadership. I mean, he was a terrific person to work with because he had a quality that at that time I thought was unique and I’ve only ever encountered it in one other politician and that other one is Ed Miliband.
“John had a quality of a sort of quiet confidence in his own abilities, which was not arrogant or cocky, but he wasn’t nervous about other people.
“He was not remotely one of those leaders who was looking over his shoulder all the time to see if x was trying to snatch the prize or if this person was going to steal his thunder.
He didn’t care about any of that. He was comfortable in his own skin, he knew what he could do, he was confident that he could do it and he was happy to let other people have their place.
I remember he said to me when I became deputy leader that there are things that only the leader can do, which is set the direction and of having a vision for the future and those are the things that the leader must do.
“And then there’s this mass of other things that the leader had always done and it was expected that he would do because the leader always does them, that I was then left to do.
“All kinds of things, you know, heading the campaign team, signing off the party politicals, going to various ceremonial functions that the leader didn’t actually have to be at, a whole plethora of stuff and when I ceased to be the deputy leader, they divided my jobs up among five people!”
Give a busy woman a job?
Beckett owes her political longevity to a reputation for straightforwardness, loyalty and a real authenticity.
She may look like a petite Princess Anne but there are no pretensions about her.
She swears a lot, enjoys folk music and still likes to take an annual three-week caravan holiday – although now limited to France – with her 90-year-old husband, Leo, who still manages her office and it is he who welcomes me into her busy Westminster office.
She talks about ‘we’ all the time and when I ask if this is the Royal ‘we’, she laughs and says ‘no, that’s Leo and I’.
They most definitely come as a package and as she says, every politician should have one.
She points to both Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon having their husbands close to the inner sanctum.
“I think that’s very sensible, absolutely. In fact, when I became Foreign Secretary, I think it was Judith Hart [former minister for overseas development at the Foreign Office] said, I think to both of us, certainly to me and to Leo, I can’t remember whether we were together... Oh, she said to Leo because she used to see him sometimes at the members’ entrance when each of them was waiting for their partner, and she said to Leo, whatever you do, go with her as much as you can, don’t stand any nonsense, try and go with her, because it makes such a difference and it’s such a help, and that was true.
As it happens, the very first international trip that I did was to India, and Leo came, and the feedback we got was that Mr Beckett was an asset. Which he is, because he’ll talk to anybody!”
Beckett is the youngest of three sisters – a nun, a psychiatrist and a politician – which while sounding like the intro to a joke, she says is emblematic of how she was brought up.
“Basically, because my father’s health failed when I was about three, my mother was the breadwinner and where we were extraordinarily fortunate was that my mother was a trained teacher and therefore, was paid rather more than most women in her circumstances would have been and that just kept us going.
“So, in our household, it was taken for granted that a woman might have to work and support her family and you weren’t just there to just sort of run the house and look after the kids kind of thing.
“My father was also immensely supportive, he absolutely made it clear, this is what women should do, women should have independence, women should have their own career, women should do what they want to in life. That was innate.
“So, I think it was the combination of that and then I suppose for me, the transformative book was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which was sort of revelatory.
“Oh, yes, it was absolutely revelatory, the way it focused you on the problems that a lot of women were having.”
I observe that Beckett has never played the so-called ‘women’s card’. Was that a conscious decision?
“In a sense. I mean, it was a conscious decision in the sense that it always seemed to me that the whole point about feminism was that people should be able to do the things that they wanted to do, that they felt were right for them, that they were interested in, not the things that other people thought they [should do].
“I mean, especially early on when I was elected, you were always getting letters from people saying, ‘You know, as a woman, I care passionately about this and therefore I think you should make this your top priority because as a woman, you should care about this’.
“Now of course, we all care about all kinds of things, the health service and social care and all those things but I was actually very interested in Treasury stuff, trade and industry, that kind, manufacturing.
“Those are the things that I was passionately interested in and my view was the whole point about this is that if that’s what I’m interested in, that’s what I should be able to do.
“I shouldn’t have to specialise in women’s issues because I’m a woman. And I didn’t.
“I didn’t say anything much about it at the time, nothing in fact, but when I became Foreign Secretary, I’d done enough international stuff to know people around the office including some quite senior women, and one of them said to me, ‘You do realise, don’t you, that there are people in the Foreign Office who don’t think that a woman should be Foreign Secretary.’
“I was faintly surprised by this but I thought, OK, that’s their problem but one thing I did think then and since is that that sort of person probably doesn’t just think it shouldn’t be a woman, but also thinks that the Foreign Secretary should have gone to the right school, to the right university and preferably have a reputation as a bit of an intellectual. Well, now they’ve got one of those!”
It is also widely reported that Beckett made a conscious decision not to have children, putting career before family, but she tells me that is not the case.
“No, it just didn’t happen. I didn’t marry until fairly late and by then it was no longer possible.
“I don’t particularly talk about it, but I had a hysterectomy when I was about 36.
“And really, it wasn’t a problem to me. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is the end’, I thought, ‘If that’s what I ought to do, that’s what I ought to do’.
“I had a lot to do with my sister’s children when they were small.
“I’m very devoted to them, so I was used to being around small children and there was a point I remember, before I married, actually, when I was in a shop one day and some child started to scream and cry and I thought, ‘Oh, God, that’s a terrible noise’ and I thought then to myself, ‘Hmm, something has changed’.
“Once I would have thought, ‘Poor little thing, it’s tired, take it away and look after it’, and I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe the time for thinking about beginning a family is beginning to pass or has passed’, but the question didn’t arise at that point.
“At the time it did, at the time I was married, there was no question, it was too late.”
What does she see as her greatest achievement?
“Well, it must be steering through the National Minimum Wage because absolutely everybody takes the credit for it.
“But the two people that actually deserve credit for it, in my prejudiced opinion, are Ian McCartney, who did all the background work, incredibly thorough, detailed everything, and me, who took on the political fight to get it through and get it into law and get it so that it’s still going strong.
“And I think that we two, as I’ve said before there’s always a team, we two made the major contribution between us.
“But you know, the world is full of people who tell you they did it and maybe I feel it sounds sort of conceited to take the credit. Maybe that’s being a woman for you.”
And on that note…
“Yes, I’m sorry that Labour has not had a woman leader but I’ve never been one of the people who thought there ought to be a woman leader because there ought to be a woman leader.
“I have never, and I don’t think Harriet has either, to take the obvious person, ever voted for somebody because she was a woman – only if I thought she was the best candidate.
“I mean, when Harriet became deputy leader, I voted for Alan Johnson, because I thought he would be better than Harriet. And Harriet took the same view when I was running against Tony Blair.
“If people think that’s wrong, that’s a matter for them. I think it should be the best person, and if the best person happens to be a woman, that’s great.”
What makes a leader?
“I had a lot of confidence in Ed Miliband. I thought very highly of Ed.
“I was very nervous when Tony got the leadership because he was comparatively inexperienced and my feeling was, not that he lacks the capacity to lead, but that maybe he wasn’t ready. Maybe that he was too inexperienced, which is one of the principal reasons why I ran against him.
“But no one could doubt his potential to lead.
“It’s a little bit like the Barack Obama thing, you know, looking back, one wishes that he had waited and Hillary Clinton had had her opportunity and then he’d come through, but there you go.
“But yes, I mean, Tony definitely had it, and, looking back, Harold was clearly a leader, Jim was clearly a leader, Neil…Neil, I mean, it was very sad about Neil, so yeah, I think most of them have been people who have been clearly leaders.”
And Corbyn? Beckett was one of 36 Labour MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate in the Labour leadership election of 2015.
Later, during an interview with BBC Radio 4, after it became known he was in the lead among the candidates, Beckett was asked if she was “a moron” for nominating Corbyn. She replied: “I am one of them.” And it made predictable headlines.
“Well, it wasn’t me who said that, it was, I can’t remember who it was, one of the people who goes on about how he used to work in Number 10, and there are an awful lot of them!
He said we were all morons for nominating Jeremy and I was on a programme and somebody said this to me and I said, ‘Well, hang on, you do realise I was one of them,’ and that was quickly translated into me calling myself a moron but that doesn’t matter.
“But look, Jeremy was making the point, I thought very validly, that one of the things that was essential during that leadership debate was that we addressed the issues of austerity and I thought that was right and valid and why not. So, I nominated him.
“I’ve known Jeremy for 30 years, nearly 35, I think, and there’s a lot of rubbish spoken. I mean, this rubbish about him spying and selling secrets to the Communists or some such crap.
“I mean, really. I don’t know how people can have so little self-respect to spout such rubbish because they must know it’s all lies and nonsense.
“Jeremy had a big problem when he first became leader of the opposition because he had never really done any of the things that a leader of the opposition is expected to do before.
“He hadn’t had to work out policy or positions with others in any serious way, all kinds of things, and I remember saying to people in the party, ‘we’ve got to understand that he’s going to face an enormous learning curve, lots of things you all take for granted that a leader will just do, he hasn’t had any experience of doing.
“We’ve got to be understanding and we’ve got to be supportive as he finds his feet’. And then for a while it looked as if he wasn’t going to find his feet.
“But I don’t think anybody would dispute now that he has, and I noticed Ken Clarke said the other day he’s become a perfectly competent leader of the opposition. So, there isn’t any doubt, he has.
“He’s learnt a great deal, he’s transformed himself, he fought the last election campaign extremely well, at quite difficult times, so you know, he’s doing alright.
“On the cold hard facts looking at the electoral landscape, it seems to me, I’m sorry to say, that I think it’s hard to see how we can win the next election because we’ve got such a big chunk to do.
“However, it is absolutely the conventional wisdom that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, and I have never seen a government working so hard at losing an election, so who knows?”
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