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Dame Margaret Beckett: ‘I hope I’ve helped the women who have come after me’

She’s not very good at putting up shelves, but when it came to showing her colleagues what female politicians could achieve, Margaret Beckett did it all herself

Margaret Beckett was born Margaret Mary Jackson in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, one of three daughters. She studied metallurgy at the University of Manchester, where she was a vocal member of the Student Union. Beckett was selected as the Labour candidate for Lincoln in 1973. She lost the following election in February 1974, but later that year, when Harold Wilson called another general election, she won the seat from sitting MP Dick Taverne.

Beckett became a member of Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet in 1989, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury. After the death of John Smith in 1994 she ran for party leader but lost out to Tony Blair. After the 1997 election she held a number of positions in government, including Secretary of State for the Environment, and Foreign Secretary – the first woman to hold that post and only the second woman (after Thatcher) to occupy a top-level office of state.

In the post-Blair years Beckett has remained a familiar figure on the back benches. In her Letter To My Younger Self, she reminisces on a life in politics that was informed by her childhood experiences of hardship and loss.

I was a very isolated teenager. My father had died some years before and my sisters were away at university, so there was only my mother and me at home. And that was the time my mother’s health began to deteriorate. She’d always been an absolute toughie, a bit like Barbara Castle – a small redhead, very fiery, totally indomitable. She rushed everywhere, you couldn’t keep up with her and she was the person everybody could rely on. She went on working full time – she was a very good teacher. 

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I was born at the tail end of the war. My father couldn’t go into the armed forces, to his great fury, because his heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever. So he was assigned to bomb damage repair. Towards the end of the war, he got pneumonia, became very ill and his heart was irrevocably damaged. We were living in the North-West, a terrible climate for respiratory disease. Every winter he was nearly dying. So my childhood was dominated by his ill health.

Education was very important in our family but completely taken for granted. It was assumed we would get scholarships to grammar school, we would be educated, and that we would have careers. My mother had won a scholarship when there was only one per family, so she was academically successful and became a fully qualified professional teacher, which was unusual. And that was our saving grace. Because although she didn’t get equal pay, she got more than most women in her position, and that just kept our heads above water after my father’s health broke down. It was evident from my earliest years that people could end up in all kinds of financial trouble through nobody’s fault. Just bad luck. And if you did end up with problems, there wasn’t enough of a safety net – and that wasn’t right. That’s how my childhood fed into my politics. 

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The newly elected MP for Lincoln outside the House of Commons in 1974
Photo: Wesley/Keystone/Getty Images)

My younger self would be astounded by my career in politics. My older sister and I tried for two years to join the Labour Party without getting a reply. When I joined in the early 1960s, I’d never even seen an MP. So it wasn’t remotely within my view. I thought about teaching or social work, things you think will improve people’s lives. But the big turning point was realising that all those people were working in spheres where the rules were set through the process of politics. That was a revelation. It was very freeing – I thought all I need to do is join the Labour Party, then it doesn’t matter what I do for a living. So I went on pursuing my scientific interest in the background.

I looked up to people like Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle. They had such star quality and could hold an audience. Harold was brilliant with hecklers. He would lead them on and completely destroy them, have the whole audience roaring with laughter. I also really admired Judith Hart, who is not so well known now. The longer I worked for her, the more I found I both liked and admired her.

I found I thoroughly enjoyed international negotiation – that is something my younger self would never have imagined. It’s like a hand-to-hand tussle at very close quarters and what you can achieve depends on how well prepared you are and how much you listen. Listening and the relationships you build with people are the most important things.  

The thing that has changed most during my time in Parliament is the role of women. When I was first elected, there were so few of us. After the 1987 election, Labour had begun working to bring more women in but we worked out that at that rate of progress, it would take 200 years to get to 50 per cent women in the House. That’s when we brought in all-women shortlists. The parliamentary Labour Party has more than 50 per cent women now, which is a triumph. It has massively changed politics for the better. When I first came here I resented that we were expected to specialise in ‘women’s subjects’. I hope I’ve shown that women can go into the Treasury or Trade and Industry. I hope I’ve helped the women who have come after me. 

Tony Blair, John Smith and Dame Margaret at Heathrow Airport in 1992, en route to the EU
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

John Smith was an amazing character. In the House of Commons, he was formidable – not least because he had a tremendous sense of humour. There’s nothing more debilitating than being laughed at. I remember how he got the House roaring with laughter at Nigel Lawson by singing the Neighbours theme tune across the despatch box. This was when Lawson was totally at odds with Margaret Thatcher. Everybody was in stitches. 

In 1992, everybody thought we were going to win. I was in John’s treasury team and we did a shadow budget, which was much better than Norman Lamont’s actual budget. The Treasury spent days trying to prove our figures were wrong and then had to give up and went back to telling lies about us. After 1992, we were frightened to hope. But I went on a trip to Japan shortly after the 1997 election. I was invited into the cabin by the pilot, who said: “We were out of the country when the election was held – but when we came back, I couldn’t get over how everybody was so happy.” And they were, of course.

Leo was human warmth incarnate. We got married in 1979 and were married for 42 years

When people ask about my greatest success, I say, I think it must have been the minimum wage – because everybody takes credit for it! All the background work was done by Ian McCartney. But at the end, there was a big political fight and that’s where I was involved. And that was a fight I won. A lot of people were on desperately low pay. My driver told me about a woman he knew whose income went up by £100 per month. That’s life transforming.

Delivering a speech to open the 2021 Labour Party conference in Brighton
Photo: Justin TALLIS / AFP / Getty

When I met [husband] Leo, I wasn’t expecting anything. We didn’t instantly fall for each other. But we started to work together and eventually, it became clear he wanted to marry. I remember thinking, am I sure? What will be the first thing I want in someone? And the first thing that came to mind was human warmth. Well, that was it. Because Leo had 10 times more human warmth than a normal person. Leo was human warmth incarnate. We got married in 1979 and were married for 42 years [he died aged 95 in 2021]. The only advice I would have for my younger self is don’t despair. I went through long periods when I didn’t have a partner but realised there was nothing wrong with me, I just hadn’t come across the right person yet.

The principal thing I would say to my younger self is that you don’t have to know what your life and career is going to be. You’ve got plenty of time. At 16, I was quite adrift and had no idea what to do long term. But when you work out what you want to do, that’s when you can really go at it. Getting to work for the Labour Party was a turning point. I went for the interview when we were on the brink of the 1970 election and was asked what ought to be in our manifesto. Unlike in science, there was no right answer, all you can do is say what you think. It’s down to your own judgement. I’ve been earning my living by my political judgement ever since. What will I miss most about being an MP? The people. It’s always the people.

I’ve been involved in fighting climate change for years. There is no doubt the issue will determine the future of the human race. One lesson I’ve learned is that there are lots of excellent people working in environmental charities and giving aeons of time to it who don’t like politics or politicians. You can do wonderful work in Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace, but when it comes to negotiations, the decisions we have to make as a world, it is the politicians who are in the room. And the door is shut. You want the politicians to be the right people. So more environmentalists should join the Labour Party.

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We have got a serious problem for all politicians, which is Boris Johnson. He brings everyone down. The damaging thing is that there’s nothing he would like better than for people to think we’re all as bad as he is. Because then he gets away with it. The British people have always had a healthy scepticism about politics. And that’s quite right. It’s when it gets into cynicism, where they really believe everybody is corrupt, that it’s dangerous. Because almost anyone could do better than Boris Johnson. 

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be Leo. On any given occasion I always want Leo’s advice. He had very good political judgement. And even more, we had an extension built at home – ironically so that Leo could be cared for at home as he got older – so it’s a bit surplus to requirements. But it means furniture has got to be moved around and shelves put up. And Leo was an absolute homemaker. He was really good at it. And now I’ve got to do it without him, it’s very difficult. I never got around to contemplating what I would do without my husband. Life is always busy here so I haven’t had to focus on it yet. I suppose I shall do what I usually do, which is muddle through and see what happens.

Interview: Adrian Lobb

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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