Dame Eleanor Laing: 'It was heartbreaking to see the damage that John Bercow was doing to parliament'
Shouting “Freedom”, in her unmistakable soft Scottish twang as she elevates herself energetically in her Westminster office seat, is not exactly what you expect from the mouth of the very dignified Tory deputy speaker of the House of Commons, Dame Eleanor Laing. But as she becomes even more animated talking about the support she would have afforded the adopted Scottish nationalists’ figurehead of William Wallace, she can’t help herself, and shouts it once more, “Freedom”, while punching the air with a delicate fist, before having a wee giggle to herself and dropping back down, ever so elegantly, into her armchair.
Laing’s exuberance for Wallace is not down to some Damascene conversion to the nationalist cause, far from it, but is explained by the fact that she grew up in the Renfrewshire village of Elderslie where Wallace was born. And is proud of it.
Indeed, it was Laing’s father, a former district council chairman, who arranged in the early 1970s to have a signpost put up on the outskirts of the village that proclaims ‘Elderslie’, underlined with ‘Birthplace of William Wallace’.
He also raised money for a monument to Wallace in the village to be restored. One of Laing’s uncles had ‘Wallace’ as his middle name, as did her now ex-husband, and as does one of her sons. When I ask if her vociferous support for Wallace is just about winding nationalists up, she adds, mischievously: “If I’d been around in the 13th century, then I would have supported William Wallace, I absolutely would have. Wallace is not,” says the MP for Epping Forest, quite firmly, “the preserve of the SNP.”
Eleanor Fulton Laing was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire on 1 February 1958 and grew up in the nearby village of Elderslie where her father ran a building contractors’ firm and was also a very active local councillor. Though “at heart” a Conservative, he served as an independent and she says her extended west coast family was very vocal, very political, and very politically divided. Her uncle, she laughs, could have an argument in an empty room.
The family basically split into the side that stayed in Glasgow, becoming big Labour supporters – her father’s cousin, and her adopted ‘uncle’, Tom Fulton, a railwayman and trade union activist, was a deputy Lord Provost of Glasgow and very involved in Strathclyde Region and a one-time chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland. And the side that moved out of Glasgow to Ayrshire and became very staunch Conservative and Unionists. She emphasises the ‘Unionist’ bit and explains the split, politically, in terms of a different outlook in life between the men on her grandfather’s side of the family.
“My father’s politics definitely stemmed from the whole idea of standing on your own two feet and being responsible for what happens to you in life. I suppose you would have said that my grandfather, his father, was working class. He was a builder, a slater, and you know, 100 years ago, being a skilled worker was greatly valued, and it ought to be more valued today.
“So, he had a skill which could move around, and he moved out of Glasgow, having saved up enough money to start his own business. That’s the key to the whole thing, the fact that just after the First World War, my grandfather had the vision, the determination, to move to a small village from a big city and start his own business.
“And that gives you a different outlook on life because then you’re not depending on somebody else for your employment and for your financial wellbeing. You’re depending entirely upon yourself. And I suppose depending on yourself is the basic Conservative trait.
“But my goodness, yes, there were many family arguments about politics, and I loved all of that. I just drank it all in.
“I suppose, though, what I was really brought up with was a real sense of public service. I didn’t know, when I was little, that that was the phrase, ‘public service’, but my dad was a district councillor, he was chairman of the second district council of the county, and it was very much based around our village.
“He would be the first to say that he was a big fish in a small pond. He didn’t pretend that it was anything other than a small pond. He wasn’t interested in the big pond, he was interested in our village, and what he could do for our village and the surrounding area.
“And so, there was that sense, all around me, that you don’t sit back and wait for somebody else to take the action that must be taken. If something must be done, if something must be put right, somebody must be helped, you just go out there and do it. And that was combined, of course, with a tremendous pride, that our little village was the birthplace of William Wallace, the Scottish patriot, and appreciating the importance of pride in Scotland was desperately important.
“I was brought up to be very proud of being Scottish and being British. And to me, there is no conflict. I am both. I always have been. And if I say I hope I always will be, I hope that doesn’t have a party political implication, which I must steer away from, because of course, as the Deputy Speaker, I must, but I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m proud to be Scottish and British and I think that the lesson I was brought up with, around the William Wallace story, is that freedom comes at a price.
A young Laing pictured with Margaret Thatcher
“Freedom isn’t just there. Freedom comes at a price. We must stand up for the underdog; we must stand up for freedom of speech; we must stand up for the weak against the strong; we must stand up for what is right; and not just look on and say it doesn’t matter. And of course, William Wallace gave his life, in a most horrible way, to stand up for the freedom of his people. And that essence of what is right and just, that’s a spark within me, which is not extinguishable.”
As a pupil at an all-girls school, St Columba’s in Kilmacolm, Laing was laughed at by her teachers when she said she wanted to be a politician. She was told, in no uncertain terms and with a touch of the Miss Jean Brodies, that “that is not what our girls do”.
“They said it would be wiser for a girl to consider becoming a lawyer or a doctor, as they were careers one could return to after having a family and I remember thinking, that’s a kind of funny way to look at life,” she says.
“I have fought all my life for the rights of women and I think one of the reasons why is that I’ve always appreciated, from an early age, just how important it is to fight for equality. My mother was of that generation of civil servants who had to give up work when she got married. In the case of my mother, that’s what she wanted to do. She saw her job as running a household.
“And that’s what she did. For my parents, that split between my father earning the money, and my mother running the house and spending, was a happy and amicable balance. But that wasn’t the case for everyone, and I guess for me, I always saw my mother’s life as utterly boring and my father’s life was really rather interesting.
“From my youthful perspective, my father would come rushing in from work where he’d been doing interesting things all day, then he would have dinner, and immediately rush out again, either to play golf or to go to a council meeting, while my mother would watch television. I did think to myself, ‘what’s going on here, I don’t want to spend my life watching television. I want to be like my dad’.
“My mother was totally happy, and she totally encouraged me in doing everything I went on to do. But the luckiest thing for me was that my father, although he was of a generation who saw women’s roles as being very different from men’s roles, and that worked for that generation, he didn’t impose that upon me. He thought that I could do anything I wanted to do.
“And there’s a person I have to thank for that. And it’s Betty Harvie Anderson. Betty Harvie Anderson was the Member of Parliament for East Renfrewshire, which was where my father was chairing the district council from when she was elected just after I was born. And he thought she was magnificent. Not only politically, but in her office, she just was brilliant, and all that she had achieved and would achieve. So, he recognised that women could play other roles.
“I was so fortunate because my dad believed in me. He didn’t want me to be like other women. He wanted me to grasp the political nettle and to basically go on and do what I have done. And it’s my greatest sadness that he died the year before I became a member of parliament. It still brings tears to my eyes to think that he didn’t see me in here and he didn’t know that I would have the enormous honour of representing the seat that Winston Churchill once held in parliament…but of course, I think he does know,” she says, looking heavenward.
Laing joined the Tories when she went to Edinburgh University at 18, before resigning soon after, concluding that the Federation of Conservative Students at that time was “terribly right wing”. She then stood as an independent in the race to become president of the union, with the university newspaper describing her as being a cross between Scarlett O’Hara and Margaret Thatcher.
And in 1980, she was the first woman to be elected president and having been elected, was required, by tradition, to stand on a table and drink a yard of ale. The diminutive but also very persuasive Laing, argued that “women can do things differently” and so opted instead for half a yard of G&T.
“Well, I couldn’t even lift up a yard of ale to this day,” she laughs. “So, I definitely couldn’t drink a yard of ale. In the end, most of the drink went down my T-shirt, soaking it through, and I wonder now if that would leave me open to all kinds of other accusations,” she giggles.
After graduating, Laing worked as a lawyer in Edinburgh then moved down to London to practise before the lure of politics drew her in. In the late 1980s, she became a special adviser to John MacGregor, a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. She stood unsuccessfully in the 1987 general election for Paisley North.
And in 1997, she was elected Conservative MP for Epping Forest, a constituency represented in a former incarnation by Churchill, whose portrait is one of many on the walls of her Westminster office.
It took just over a year for Laing to be appointed to the whips’ office, the first of several frontbench positions she held during the Tories’ time in opposition, including a period as shadow secretary of state for Scotland.
In 2013, Laing was elected as first deputy chairman of Ways and Means – becoming one of three deputy speakers – after Nigel Evans stood down. Portraits of her predecessors fill the walls of her parliamentary workspace, with the other two women to have served in the position – Betty Harvie Anderson and Sylvia Heal – standing out among a sea of men.
In 2019, she stood in the Speaker election to replace John Bercow, campaigning on a ticket of restoring trust to the House of Commons and bringing in some kindness to the Speaker’s chair. She tells me now that Bercow’s tenure as Speaker was one of the most painful periods of her parliamentary career. She describes how she tried to stand up to him but found it impossible and says that there were times that she would retreat to her own office and throw things in frustration and “scream silently”.
“I can say freely now what I couldn’t say then, but it was heartbreaking to see the damage that John Bercow was doing to parliament. Heartbreaking. And I was working with him every day. I was constrained then in what I could say and there are places I don’t want to go but while he could be the most charming person in the world, he is extremely intelligent and effective, sometimes, the other side of his character prevailed.
“I don’t want to go too far but suffice to say, yes, it’s perfectly possible to exert your authority without humiliating members of parliament, for instance, on the floor of the House of Commons. There’s no need to humiliate anyone in order to chastise them.”
In the end, Laing lost out in that election to Lindsay Hoyle but was elected Senior Deputy Speaker and became the first woman to become the chairman of Ways and Means.
She says she has always felt a “significant duty”, which endures to this day, to make the most of the advantages her generation of women have, and equality matters to her. We sit down in her office the day after a Sunday newspaper had run with a story that claimed Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, crossed and uncrossed her legs in the chamber to put the prime minister off his stride. Laing is clearly livid.
“What a ridiculous story. Simply appalling, childish, crass, and just stupid. I must pick my words wisely here given my position as Deputy Speaker, but I think what I can say is that there are some genuine points to be made about the interaction between men and women in the political world and that women often look at things from a different perspective from men.
“And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important that we should have a critical mass of women here in parliament and in other decision-making organisations. But what we must avoid is the trivialisation of the position of women. And that kind of stupid story just takes us back the way.
“The fact is that Angela is a very competent political operator, and she stands at the despatch box, and dominates the chamber in a most professional and effective way. But to talk about the length of her skirt or her legs in that way, it just trivialises everything about her abilities.
“I think there are some people, mostly men, but some people, who are afraid of the idea of women having positions of authority. I say mostly men, because I’ve come across women who are like that as well, who don’t want to see other women succeed. And it’s partly a generation thing, of course.
“But I honestly believe that most misogynistic men don’t realise that they are the misogynist. They think they’re paying you a compliment if they say something about the way you look. It doesn’t occur to them that they’re putting you in a box which is different from them.
“Times have changed and in the 25 years since I was elected, I see a completely different attitude to women in here which is why that stupid story is just that, stupid. And if it involved as many as two or three MPs gossiping, I’d be surprised. It’s not more than that. It really is not more than that. They’re very silly. But they are a tiny minority. Most men who are now elected to Parliament are of a generation who do respect equality and wouldn’t talk that way.
“My 25th anniversary in this place was on the first of May and I suppose what I would reflect on is that there are a lot of advantages in being older than one was 25 years ago, because most of the men in parliament now are not older than me and they don’t patronise me. And additionally, as Deputy Speaker, they don’t patronise me.
“And I don’t suppose they bother either about the length of my skirt nowadays, whereas 25 years ago, they did. When I came in here 25 years ago, that was the atmosphere the whole time, the whole time. Men patronising you and looking you up and down in that way. And in those days, I used to dress in a much more old-fashioned way than I do now in parliament. I purposely wore skirts below my knee rather than above my knee, whereas, when I was out socialising, of course, I wore tight jeans and short skirts, but not in here. But attitudes have changed just as the make-up of parliamentarians has changed, which is why those claims about Angela were so depressing.
“We’re at a crucial time right now where we simply must not give in and must not let things slide backwards… It’s by empowering women that we allow the voice of 52 per cent of the population to be heard.”
I ask Laing what she then makes of the mess that politicians appear to get into even defining what is a woman.
“Well, I have to be careful what I say here because I am impartial being Deputy Speaker, but I do know what a woman is. And I am very, very concerned that the enormous achievements that we, who count ourselves as feminists, have made over these last few decades, are in danger of being undermined.
“Because in order to stand up for women’s rights, you must define the woman who is being stood up for. And if a woman can be anyone who says they’re a woman, then you dilute, and you undermine the rights that we have fought for. For the women who bear children, bring up children, and do all the other things that only women can do. And really, we mustn’t diminish that, we mustn’t diminish that.
“I must be careful not to criticise any specific political point of view about all of this, but I would say, most emphatically, that I am fearful that the rights which we have fought tooth and nail for in the last few decades, are in danger of being diluted and diminished because this matter [reform of the Gender Recognition Act] has not been properly considered.”
This is clearly a sensitive area and Laing is acutely aware that she has been criticised for having a mixed record on voting for gay rights. She abstained against the repeal of Section 28 in 2003; voted for civil partnerships in 2004; and abstained in the 2013 vote for equal marriage. Going back further, she spearheaded the Tory rebels in 1998 to back a motion lowering the age of consent to 16 for homosexual men.
Speaking during the debate, she said: “Nothing that is being proposed tonight is in any way encouraging physical sexual activity among young people before they are sufficiently mature.” She differed with many of her Conservative colleagues, saying: “It is nonsense to say that there cannot be equality between 16-year-old boys and 16-year-old girls. Young people need protection, but young people are not protected by being made into criminals.”
MPs from her party “hissed and booed and muttered” at her as she outlined her case in the chamber. Sir Nicholas Winterton, the former Conservative MP for Macclesfield, decried, “she’s not even a Christian” which was not true, her Church of Scotland faith remains fundamentally part of who she is.
Former Speaker John Bercow. Laing says he could be difficult to work with. | Credit: Alamy
She says that it was all about equality and fairness for her. “This was 1998 and the criminal law was clearly so out of step with society. I’m a lawyer, and I believe that the criminal law and the law, must be constantly under review in order to keep it fresh, keep it relevant to the point and reflective of the society in which it is operating.
“Because if laws fall into disrepute, then the law itself, and the concept of the rule of law, is undermined and to return to that point of freedom, you cannot have freedom without the rule of law. And I said at the beginning, that the thing that matters most to me, and it still does, after all these years, and all the cynicism of being in politics for most of my life, is that underlying concept of freedom.
“And in order to have freedom under the law, you have to have a rule of law that works. In order to have a rule of law that works, you have to have laws that are respected. If you don’t have laws that are respected, they won’t be upheld.
“And I had no hesitation, back then, that one of the first things I did when I came into parliament was to support the amendment and the age of consent was reduced from 21 to 16. One of the reasons why I was so vociferous about it was that it wasn’t OK to be gay at that time, which was wrong. In parliament 25 years ago, men who were gay, were not openly gay. It was several years after that, when Alan Duncan came out and then other people followed. But we had to fight for it, step by step, we had to fight for it.
“When I stood up on the opposition benches that night, I was hissed and booed by the old men around me. And I use the phrase ‘old men’ because this was 25 years ago. Most of that generation is gone. They behaved abominably to me, but of course, just like when my teachers at school laughed at me for wanting to be a politician, my backbone was stiffened by these threats from old men around me on the Conservative benches and remember, there were only 13 women then and only 17 Conservatives voted for that amendment out of 165. Seventeen Conservatives voted for it, so, I was sticking my head above the parapet, and I’m glad I did, because I do believe in equality on all strands.”
And although she abstained on its repeal, Laing tells me that Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of Section 28, to effectively ban teaching about homosexuality in schools, was “an outdated mistake”.
“The world was moving in a different direction then, and, and in any case, that was about education of children, you ought to educate children about everything. But in an age-appropriate way. There shouldn’t be taboos that you don’t talk to children about. So, Section 28 was just simply wrong, but it was a product of its time. And, again, we have moved on so far, because some of us have stood up for equality.”
Laing voted in favour of the Civil Partnerships Act in 2004 and in favour of the Equality Act in 2007. However, she criticised the manner in which the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was introduced by arguing “social change should come about by evolution, not by diktat from the top of government” and subsequently abstained from voting on it, saying at the time, “I find that I can neither support this bill, nor am I happy to vote against it, it has been badly constructed.”
She tells me now that she was always personally “very comfortable” with equal marriage but had to balance that with opinions held within her constituency. “I’m a simple, straightforward, Church of Scotland Christian, that’s actually quite an important part of my make-up,” she says. “I don’t make a big fuss about it and equal marriage fitted perfectly well with my belief in equality but not everybody thinks like that, and sometimes you have to balance the personal with your loyalty to your constituents.”
I ask her if she sees any similarities with the anti-gay rhetoric that was heard around the time of the campaign to repeal Section 28 with the arguments that are now being aired around the reform of the Gender Recognition Act. She disagrees with that basic premise but says it is “one of the thorniest issues” that politicians are wrestling with.
“The similarity I recognise is that you have to balance the rights of a vociferous minority with the silent majority. You always have to balance that. And it is incumbent upon those of us who are elected representatives, at every level of government, to use our experience and what wisdom we have to try to achieve that balance.
“And it’s difficult because there isn’t a straight black and white line, yet some people think there is. But there clearly isn’t, because we are even struggling to say what is a woman. And we have to look at the practicalities when working out how this can be dealt with.
“You take any 15- or 16-year-old girl in my constituency who goes into the changing rooms of the local swimming pool, or to try on clothes in an Oxford Street store. I want to protect that girl from finding herself standing next to a naked man who says he’s a woman. That’s wrong.
“We need to recognise concerns. I remember going to visit the very first women’s refuge in the country, set up back in the 1970s by Erin Pizzey, and I went there a long, long time ago, more than 30 years ago, to donate some household stuff. And they wouldn’t let my husband carry anything in and I couldn’t carry it.
“And I remember thinking, well, that’s a bit daft but they said my husband absolutely couldn’t come in. That concern, that fear, really made me think, and it still makes me think, that it is absolutely right that there have to be safe spaces for women. Because while 99 per cent of men do no harm to women, there is a small percentage – and we have no way of truly knowing who they are – who do mean harm and it’s a very great harm. And we have to protect women.
“The difficult thing to do, however, is not speak up for the minority, because that’s what we instinctively want to do – everyone wants to be kind – and we have changed the balance of politics for the better because of that. Once upon a time, those who didn’t want anything to change, or those who had the power and the influence, and the money, wanted to keep things their way. And some of us had to fight to change it.
“But the pendulum has swung completely the other way. It is now much more the predominant thing to speak up for the minority. And if one sees an oppressed minority, then you automatically say, ‘oh, I want to stand up for that oppressed minority’. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m here to do, to fight for freedom and equality for everyone.
“So, my natural instinct is to say, if somebody is not being treated properly, by the law, or by society, or by the health service, I want to speak up for them, and make sure that that minority is listened to. But it still has to be a balance between the vociferous minority and the silent majority. And I fear, given my role, I can say no more than that balance is not necessarily being achieved right now as far as the trans rights issue is concerned.”
One of the interesting facets of being Deputy Speaker means that, unlike the Speaker, Laing retains her Conservative party affiliation, although she is barred from voting or speaking out about the matters of the day, which is why she so clearly chooses her words carefully. I wonder how frustrating that has been, particularly at a moment like this when trust in parliament is at such an all-time low.
“Yes, it has been difficult, especially at controversial times, not to give my own opinion. But I have been able to do it because I take my duties as Deputy Speaker – and the impartiality that that entails – very seriously and quite frankly, I care more about democracy and making the House of Commons work properly than I do about hearing the sound of my own voice,” she says, before adding, after some considerable thought and delivered with a wry smile, “It’s probably rather good for me to always think twice before I say anything.”