The voice of authority - Jackie Weaver on internet fame and her Scottish upbringing
As a snapshot of how politics is done, the Zoom meeting of Handforth Parish Council that went viral earlier this year revealed it as a rowdy affair, with a bunch of men shouting the odds and being brought to heel by a middle-aged woman who talked sense and crucially, could cut them off with a click of her mouse.
That video catapulted Jackie Weaver, the straight-talking chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, into the nation’s psyche, marking her out as a hero of women everywhere who find themselves being shouted down by angry men in meetings.
And as a result, the last few weeks have been a rollercoaster for Weaver. She has become national news and her instant popularity and now-familiar phrases have inspired all kinds of companies to rush out merchandise, from mugs to greetings cards to fridge magnets to T-shirts and memes, all to capitalise on her profile.
She has been interviewed on everything from Sky News to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Good Morning Britain and Channel 4’s The Last Leg.
She has trended on Twitter and TikTok and is touted as a future contestant on Strictly.
She has been guest speaker at various International Women’s Day events, given university lectures and been invited to speak at political gatherings by parties of all stripes.
She has been immortalised in a sponge cake, given celebrity status with a coveted Twitter authentication blue tick and also won a raft of famous admirers from the worlds of politics and show biz along the way.
And in true diva style, she has famously said that people could now refer to her as ‘Britney Spears’.
Her profile is now so great that Amazon’s Alexa, if asked: “Does Jackie Weaver have any authority here?” answers: “As long as there is reasonable behaviour, she has authority here.”
Weaver, an unassuming, 63-year-old mother of three grown-up sons, who has been married to Stuart, a design engineer, for 40 years, is a senior council official in Cheshire, who originally, as it happens, hails from Motherwell.
She describes herself as “very ordinary” but there is something quite extraordinary about the way she has so calmly handled this remarkable turn of events which has turned her everyday life upside down and even seen Helen Mirren named as the actor most likely to play her in a film.
And while clearly caught in the middle of a media storm, she laughs and tells me it is one she is more than willing to ride if it can further people’s interest in getting involved in local politics, which is her real passion. And anyway, it might not last “a week past Wednesday”.
We start with the background to that meeting.
“There had been problems at Handforth for some time,” says Weaver. “Clearly, something like that doesn’t blow up on a sixpence.
“Now, I don’t live in Handforth but historically, it’s always felt like two sides of the tracks in that it is an area where acute deprivation sits next to extreme wealth and you kind of have that sense of two halves.
“But more recently, the balance of power in the council was affected by one of the councillors from the more dominant side not attending for a period of six months which, in effect, invalidates their seat. That’s when the proverbial really hit because of course, now, you were looking at a real power struggle.
“The chairman had unilaterally suspended the clerk back in November, and then unilaterally declared himself clerk. We now had three councillors on one side and three on another – but the chairman had a casting vote, and you inevitably had an imbalance of power.
“The three you hear from in the meeting were passionate about Handforth issues – the local bus service, the local transport plan, the neighbourhood plan – but none of this business was getting done.”
The disgruntled councillors eventually asked the self-declared clerk to hold a meeting but were refused.
In exercising their right under the Local Government Act 1972 to call a meeting, they found they were without anyone to chair proceedings and so contacted the Cheshire Association of Local Councils for help, and it was Weaver that took the call.
Actually, although it maybe doesn’t look that way on the film, I am extremely conflict averse. I don’t like it. My initial reaction is, I want to cry, I just don’t like it at all...
“I knew it was going to be problematic. Handforth already had a reputation, so I thought I would go myself because it would be unfair to put someone else in that position. I say ‘go myself’, but in the current times, that meant walk all the way over to my desk and switch on my computer!
“I thought that we’d have a little bit of verbal abuse, you expect that, but more of the sarcastic, dismissive nature rather than what we did get. I have to be honest, I think some of those individuals involved would start a riot at a children’s party.”
The meeting became so heated that Weaver admits that, had she been attending in person, she would have ensured she had police or community support officers for back up. She describes the experience, jokingly, as being akin to a tour of Iraq.
Weaver was confronted by several angry and abusive individuals, which may make for compulsive YouTube viewing, but she was having none of it and eventually cut the main offenders’ connection off.
Asked whether the behaviour of one man in particular, who even questioned her authority to be there and shouted, ‘READ THE STANDING ORDERS’ vociferously, was particularly common in local government, Weaver says, wryly: “Definitely not of that intensity. You can’t go into democracy at any level without some thickening of the skin around the edges because you will be talking with people who feel passionately about their local area. But there’s a way of arguing your case – even forcefully – without it being what you see on the video.
“Actually, although it maybe doesn’t look that way on the film, I am extremely conflict averse. I don’t like it. My initial reaction is, I want to cry, I just don’t like it at all, but over the years I’ve learned mechanisms that work for me for coping with that kind of thing, because of course, in council meetings where passions can be high, there is conflict, there’s differences of opinion, and I’ve certainly seen different views expressed passionately with very little respect.
“But I’ve never quite experienced a meeting like Handforth’s on that night.
“I wasn’t there to conduct hostage negotiations. I was only there to make this meeting happen and, to be fair, we did in the end reinstate the clerk, so thankfully I don’t have to go back.”
To some extent, over the last few weeks Weaver has clearly had to play to a media-manufactured caricature of herself as this autocratic matriarch who shuts men up with a firm voice and a click of her mouse, but that person is far removed from Weaver herself.
And it is fair to say that this is not the interview that either of us thought we were going to do, but on this, I can safely say that Jackie Weaver has given me the authority.
So, who is Jackie Weaver?
In brief, she is not a feminist – “I’m not an angry man-hater; I love men, particularly the one I have been married to for 40 years.”
She doesn’t like people – “they demand too much”. Doesn’t have many friends – “too much of a commitment”. Is not party political – “I like bits of them all, but don’t really like any of them.”
She is Scottish but says she doesn’t follow its politics. She doesn’t like Alex Salmond – “My father was never very fond of the SNP and even less so of Alex Salmond, and I’ve just sort of followed him on that.”
She thinks Nicola Sturgeon is too angry, but she does like Janey Godley doing the Sturgeon voiceovers. She also has a penchant for elaborate nail art.
Above: Jackie Weaver at home, February 2021
Weaver’s mother was from Forres and her father, a steel worker from Motherwell, worked at Ravenscraig. She describes a childhood growing up in Lanarkshire interrupted by numerous moves for her father’s job, both within Scotland and then with a move down to England when she was ten and her brother Billy was seven. At one point, she had moved three schools in two years.
She says the moving around meant she focused more on things than people and still finds that kind of human attachment uncomfortable. She says she doesn’t let many people in and finds friendships “too much of a commitment”.
Her relationship with her mother was clearly strained. She talks about her having a “Scottish scratchiness” and being angry a lot of the time, while her father exhibited what she describes as a “Scottish stoicism” and “perhaps didn’t intervene enough” in friction between his wife and daughter.
For much of Weaver’s teenage years, she became the main carer for her mother, who appeared to have mental health problems although was later diagnosed with a perforated stomach ulcer, which, retrospectively, explained some of the behaviour previously put down to being ‘all in her head’.
My father was never very fond of the SNP and even less so of Alex Salmond, and I’ve just sort of followed him on that.
Weaver says she missed a huge amount of school because of her caring responsibilities and says that when her mother’s health improved, she “wanted to take back the role of mother with a vengeance” which Weaver resented.
Weaver says she would belittle her mother almost as a defense mechanism. “That was kind of my armour, so if I couldn’t outright fight her, because you weren’t allowed to fight back, I could at least make her feel bloody stupid.”
Above: Jackie as a child on a ferry on the River Clyde
When Weaver was 18, she basically came home from a night out with a boyfriend and her bags were sitting packed at the door. In brief, she went to stay with her boyfriend’s parents, found a job, a bedsit, and didn’t speak another word to her mother until she bumped into her in the street one day four years later. That brief encounter rekindled something of a relationship, but they never spoke of what had led to the rift.
I ask her what she now thinks was at the heart of it all and she says: “Power. And I didn’t have any.”
She says that she does wish that she and her mother had discussed their issues, but there was never the opportunity and her mother “wouldn’t go there”. Her parents moved back to Scotland, to Elgin, when her father retired and she says that even as a married woman with her own family by then, she felt abandoned by their move north. Both parents are now dead and she has lost contact with her brother.
As a teenager, Weaver originally wanted to go to university and study medicine but says she couldn’t have lived under the “oppressive control” that her parents would have had over her life, given she would have needed their financial support. She gained a place to study nursing instead, but never took it up. She worked in computing and then with Mothercare before marrying and having children.
I ask her a bit more about where she now lives and the community that she belongs to. She says there’s not much to tell: “It’s the kind of place where you join the community as Nancy Weaver’s daughter-in-law and then you are Stuart Weaver’s wife, then Michael Weaver’s mother. You never actually are just ‘you’. Somebody actually said to me recently, ‘Who did you used to be?’ I thought, I’ve always been the same person, what a stupid question.”
Undeterred, I ask it anyway.
“It’s all very dull, really,” she says, reeling off a potted life history. “Stuart and I got married, one baby a year later, and then two more. My husband comes from a farming family, so we were tied to a particular location where there was nothing really – a pub and a church.
I was looking for something to do apart from children and they were advertising a vacancy for the parish clerk, a paid post, and I didn’t get it.
It was OK that I didn’t get it, except it was given to the chairman’s wife. Now, that’s not fair, not in the rules, and so I thought, right, what can I do about this, let’s shake this up, so I stood as a councillor, got elected and did three years.
“I hated it. I hated the people. The other councillors were OK, you can negotiate with other councillors, there’s rules. No, it was other people, the public, hell, there are no rules out there, and that’s not my environment at all. I never really had a passion or commitment to the area really either, so I guess that was what it was as well.
“So, yeah, it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t care enough. I realised that what I was really interested in was just kind of like fixing broken things. So that idea of going somewhere, seeing that something isn’t working properly and making it work better, that’s what I’m interested in.
“I only got this job that I have now because I was at a meeting where they needed a secretary and the qualification for being a secretary apparently was, one, you can’t run very fast, and two, you can type, so I became a secretary.
“It was an unpaid job, which was fine: I have got all the skills for doing it and had the time to do it, it was interesting. And then the organisation, which was a lot smaller than we are now, needed a treasurer, and I said I could do it but I am really rubbish with numbers, and was told,
“‘Oh, don’t worry about that’, and so I became the treasurer. And then there was a change in the structure of Cheshire Association of Local Councils, which meant that we became separated from our secretariat, and we needed to advertise for a new secretary, either to buy it in from another company or another organisation or to employ our own.
“So, of course I said, ‘I can help with this, let me do the admin for you and I will get the advert designed and put out.’ Then, it was kind of on the 11th hour, I said to the chair, half-jokingly, ‘I could do this job’ and he said, ‘I know. Why haven’t you applied?’ So I did, and I got the job. That was 25 years ago. And I am still sure that the reason I got the job was because I could make the tea.”
Weaver is a fascinating mix of someone who says she doesn’t like people or conflict but immerses herself in the messy world of local politics.
She likes rules, despite calling herself a rebel, and is driven by wanting to fix things and then moving on, and yet in her personal life, there is clearly the unresolved issues that can no longer be fully mended, given her mother is no longer with us.
But then Weaver admits herself that the four-year counselling degree she graduated in from Derby University in 2017, which was heavy on bereavement counselling and prompted a lot of soul-searching, could have been part of her approach to finding a solution.
Tying up loose ends, taking control and keeping things in order. That’s what gives Jackie Weaver the authority.