Fookes, Janet (1 of 1). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee's office, London
Fookes, Janet, 1936- (speaker, female)
Peplow, Emma, 1984- (speaker, female)
Part 1: [Note: Interviewer's level is low in recording] Born in London, moved to Hastings at the age of two, evacuated to relatives in Lancashire during the war. Wanted to be an MP from around the age of 8. [02.30] No issues of discrimination because of gender, although knew it would be difficult. Never experienced prejudice against women MPs. [03:20] Discussion of parents and family – mother made excellent assessments of fellow MPs’ character. Father cynical about the process, discouraged at first but just to test resolve – then a great support, paid for election campaigns and other financial support. [05:30] Parents no particular influence over beliefs, mother interested in the person, father a ‘reluctant conservative’. Family mixed views, one uncle with a bust of Lenin on mantelpiece, other named after Gladstone. Always political discussion, but neither actively involved. More cultural interests. [07:40] Not remember much about evacuation, more about returning. Bombs were still falling. Father was pessimistic, fought in First World War. Returned when danger of invasion gone, but knew how to react to bomb if told so. One air raid both parents protected her. Lucky all survived, parents were great support. [09:30] Remembers one building would not walk past as was sure it would fall down, but is still there now. Mostly parents kept quiet about it, knew more from afterwards. Not a scarred childhood. [11:15] First school emphasised ‘good manners’, but good teaching. First taste of public speaking at 8 years old, enjoyed immensely. Public speaking contest at secondary school but little else. Stayed at home for school, did not want to board. Went to a state girls’ grammar school for more academic stimulus. Row between headmistress and father when he was told she ‘didn’t have a university brain’. Later became chair of governors for that school when sat on council – enjoyed that! [14:20] Enjoyed History and English at school, studied History at university – partly due to political ambitions (not come across PPE). Went to Royal Holloway, women only at the time. Strict experience! [15:40] Homesick at university, everyone else delighted to be away. Very stimulating, but worried if doing the right thing. [16:20] Never wavered from wanting to be an MP, although sometimes seemed remote. First year did ‘voice projection’ – sort of elocution, kept up privately. Passed exams for Guildhall – examiner’s written comments suggested knew theory but not always put it into practice! Remembered the advice. [18:30] Always took opportunities to learn. Conservative general office had tutors, private lessons with one. Good relationship even when was MP. [19:20] During university went to Conservative Central Office to ask advice on becoming MP (after gap when suffered from pneumonia). Senior officials – ‘seemed very old to me’ – suggested experience in local government. Went into that – ‘invaluable’ as was everything in miniature. Hastings at the time was a county borough and provided all services, so lots of experience from sitting on committees. [22:15] Chose conservatives because felt most suited – was not radical or want to tear things down. Conserve what is good and change what is not. One teacher at school said should not vote as parents but to think it out for themselves - remembers this clearly and did so. ‘Red’ Uncle put off from Labour! [23:30] At university went to many clubs, including Labour club. Heard Tony Benn speak there. Listened to all but stayed with Conservatives. [24:30] Never felt there was any barrier because of gender. Returned home and became chair of young conservatives – met Peter Walker (national Chair of young conservatives at the time). When he visited branch he nearly bankrupted it. [25:30] Wide range of people in young conservatives – one now in BBC natural history, another Mayor of Hastings, another was a boyfriend – dental surgeon. Mixed bag. [interruption]. [27:00] Teaching in independent schools at same time – no conflict of interest with local government roles. Enjoyed immensely – a captive audience! Tried to remain neutral – remember giving full justice to the rise of the Labour party. [29:20] No idea at the time that local government was like Westminster in miniature, only later realised how helpful it was. Well worth doing in own right, for the community, but did see it as a precursor. [30:30] First campaign, fighting an ‘old warhorse Razor Leonard’. Ward was part of the old town – enjoyed canvassing. Election night lost but closer than many expected, worried ‘Razor’. Next time ward on new council estate, very little help, remembers knocking on practically every door. Labour area but won seat. Lost again 18 months later. Fought 8 elections in 10 years, won four, lost four. Towards end holding seats – see what council life like. Youngest chair of education committee they’d had. 1974 local government reorganisation changed it all. [35:30] Still teaching part time, lucky to have financial support from family. Had a nice home and enjoyed living there too. [37:15] Not too much support from local county – had to become an ‘approved candidate’ to sit. Interviews (not ‘today’s hoops’). Walking along Millbank when boyfriend of the time ‘marched me to central office’ to register – hesitant herself (mid 1960s). Then after general elections lists were shaken up, had to start again, approved again – started receiving rejection notices from constituencies did not even know was registered for. First invitation to interview in Merton and Mordon in 1969. The seat was supposed to be lost in boundary changes but legislation had not gone through, were without an MP. 300 names put forward. Two interviews then choice by whole association. Meeting in local town hall with no preferred candidate. Raining hard that night, parents waiting in local pub. Won it – the young conservatives support helped. Awkward as President wanted to be the candidate himself – had to be persuaded to shake hands. Others been ‘devoted’ to previous MP, so ‘slightly curious’ time. [43:00] Difficult to remember the night –must have been exhilarated. Thrilled. Parents were as well. [44:30] Campaign was short – selected in January, election June. No financial help, travel hard. Still working, no place in constituency. ‘Dear Dad’ supported financially. Marginal seat, Labour expected to win, but pundits wrong. Asked to be interviewed by BBC if won. Could not look at ballot papers, had an excellent temporary agent drafted in to run. Remember coming across Westminster Bridge to BBC next day with tears in eyes – after so long trying. Still remember moment now. [48:40] Did not move until won, quickly rented flat. [50:00] First interview – ‘sheer nerves’ – not done much tv but kept waiting. Robin Day helped to get me on. Questions ‘quaint’ – references to whether I had the same interests as Ted Heath, famously still a bachelor. Asked if he was starting a matrimonial agency! Given the DVD of the interview now but not watched. [52:50] Move worked well, council experience helped. Apart from the President all were friendly, settled in quickly. Difficult to travel in and out of Westminster late at night, and then be in again early next morning. Party always have their annual dinner on Thursday evening and have to journey twice. No chance of that when in Plymouth. [56:10] Arrived in House day before – tried to get measure. At that time got a desk in a ‘ladies room’ (now part of strangers bar). Formed friendships with others in there. [57:30] Found the atmosphere excellent – did not experience sexism. As a woman you stood out, no nasty treatment. [58:30] Other MPs in our room initially cross-party but came conservative – Mrs Elaine Kellett firm friend. Bridesmaid at her second wedding in St Mary Undercroft. Inspected for dust night before! [1:00:00] No special need for support for each other – just got on with life. Loved being an MP, very happy. [1:00:46] Last to make first speech – wanted to know more about parliament before did so. Chose to speak about sex education in schools, was not common then. Went down well. Did not use notes. Had been awarded ‘wooden spoon’ for being last by columnist – wrote to him to ask for spoon and still has it. [1:03:20] Knew that the seat would disappear, so needed a new seat. Three seats going into two, one labour, one Conservative – lost Conservative one. Look elsewhere – one seat asked for ‘no bachelors, no women’. Central office suggested Portsmouth, chosen by association but the sitting member fought hard to keep it and she lost. Plymouth seat came up – Dame Joan Vickers was then MP for Devonport, invited for a visit. Met one lady who later became a very close friend. New Plymouth seat – advantage to be a woman – Nancy Astor. Helped by Joan. Prepared – met key people, canvassing, know issues. Hard to run two constituencies at same time, wanted to still be proper MP for Merton & Mordon. Plymouth is far away! No financial support but MPs salary. [01:10] Early election in February 1974. Won by a few thousand but next election, Oct 1974, much harder as the Conservatives not expected to do so well. Three elections were counted in the Guildhall, town clerk concentrated on the Devonport election, but hers closer. Could not look but clear was very close – rerun after first count (lost by four), then opponent asked for recount, by 3am gave up for evening. Sleepless night – phone call from Elaine Kellet-Bowman part way through. 12 noon next day clear won and labour candidate conceded. Three way fight with Liberal – Liberal candidate was upset she had split the vote. Became firm friends, still are. At time it was alarming, majority of only 34 – just one bundle ballot papers. Papers beginning to disintegrate from all the counts. [01:15:00] Lucky in support and friends in Plymouth. A shock to move – great distances. Relied on friend she met at first visit who became a very close friend. When her hat fell through she lived with her for several years. [01:17:10] Went a different route rather than becoming a minister. Put on committee for unopposed bills, then on speaker’s panel of chairman (5/6 years after joined house). Junior to start. Most Commons work done in committee. Before realised became a more senior chairman looking after major bills. That time just one chair – quite exacting. Morning meetings twice a week and perhaps afternoons, past midnight. Now more people, but you learnt procedures thoroughly. Helped when became deputy speaker. [01:20:50] Had not tried to become involved, but became an interest. Now fascinated in the difference between the Commons and the Lords. [01:21:40] Deputy speaker – 1992, looking for one on Conservative side. Whips phoned to say the Prime Minister (Major) wanted her name to go forward. Accepted. Had wanted to be Speaker but Betty Boothroyd got it. [01:23:15] First day terrifying, elected unopposed early afternoon, in chair by 5pm. ‘It feels very high!’ Got used to it quickly, prayed nothing went wrong procedure-wise. Would have a meeting around noon – Deputies, Betty, clerk and sergeant-at-arms. Discuss business today and post-mortem from previous day. Then on to Speaker’s study and decide who should speak. She put forward conservative list in morning. Speaker had master list. Work with whips, but all had to accept the list. Principles: privy councillors, those with special interest get priority, then how often MPs had spoken. Caused complaints but always knew how often they had spoken. Lords – different, decide timings so everyone can speak, whips decide order. [1:27:30] How it was depended on what was happening, Speaker would take questions and more interesting times. Fill in for her. One time Dennis Skinner stood in seat – told him to sit down and the whole house waited to see if he did (he did). [1:28:25] Past as teacher did help – sometimes MPs were like naughty children. Had to be firm but fair. Also – when selecting order had to make sure minority parties were also included. Not really much pressure from whips. [1:29:10] One event sticks out – peaceful Thursday afternoon, someone asked on a point of order if Prime Minister had resigned. Knew nothing about it – he had not (when Major resigned as party leader). People kept raising points of order. After communing with clerks, allowed a sort of debate to take place on it, but was ‘hairy’. Speaker asked her for a drink afterwards – Speaker had been watching, but ‘I was managing alright’ so Speaker didn’t come in. Scariest moment as was unprecedented. [1:31:45] Had opportunity to bring in private member’s bill, 2/3rd in ballot. Spoke to whips to see if could get their help – ‘curb crawler’ problem. Seen it in Plymouth (men slowing down to pick up prostitutes). Local and national issue, no time for government bill but they helped – provided a model bill. Became the ‘sexual offences act’, also increased sentences for sexual assault – pleased with that. Problems arose in the Lords, thought men would be falsely accused. Weakened by amendment (had to happen twice) but chose to press ahead instead of lose whole bill. Later it was corrected. This time accompanied police officer in Plymough in night and came across several prostitutes – were polite to me despite bill. [1:36:00] Wanted to speak on women’s issues but not be limited to it. Animal welfare other main interest. Conservatives wanted to abolish dog licences. Had some help from outside organisations, amendment to local government bill, but just lost it. Tried again later and not quite make it. At that point government was ‘obsessed’ with getting rid of regulation – generally agree if not needed, but this issue was important. Problems with abandoned dogs or dangerous dogs. Dangerous dogs did pass (sponsored private member’s bill), were shortcomings – but at least something done. [1:39:30] Plymouth issues – privatising the dockyard. Put it out to contract. Thought was right to do so, but many in constituency against it. Difficult position to be in. ‘Hair-raising’ meeting in Plymouth, trouble-makers from outside. Spoke her piece and it was not well received. Police advised going out the back way, regretted doing so. On TV news. But thinks it was the saving of Plymouth – kept it open. Situation not happen often fortunately, normally you oppose the government for constituency, not the other way around. Dockyard won a big submarine contract that kept it open, and introduced other work. [1:42:50] Privatisation a huge change and breaking control of the unions. There to see a turning point. Decision to go into Common Market under Heath another significant moment. Remember the defeat of the Callaghan government in 1979 – nothing to eat as staff on strike, friend Sir Charles Irving made sandwiches in his flat. Extraordinary night, very tense. Atmosphere like a key football match. Did not know at time it was such a huge moment – politicians do not normally look that far ahead, maybe we should. System makes you think in short term [Interruption] [1:47:20] In an ideal world would have had opportunity to be minister, but won’t moan about what did not happen. Extraordinarily lucky to be MP. Many did not make it. Fulfilled my expectations. Upside about being an MP – able to do things ‘couldn’t hope’ to do otherwise. Sense of being at the centre of things. Satisfying to be able to help constituents (do not realise how much time that takes until it stops). Enjoyed representing Plymouth – a historic city. Thinking, a little bit, ‘this is mine’ for a while. Will treasure. [1:50:25] Drawbacks: long hours, boring people. MPs can be childish – a bit of a show for the media. Enjoyed committee work, missed that when deputy speaker. Sat on home affairs and chaired subcommittee of expenditure committee. Seeking to influence policy. Looked at alternatives to imprisonment and no change thirty years later. Issues about mental illness and women in prison still the same. ‘Took a stab’ at trying to fix. [1:53:10] Sensible change – finance bill now sent to committee, not whole thing to commons. A way of life and not a job. [1:55:10] Retirement really forced on me. Very difficult to go elsewhere as Deputy Speaker. But – not sure I could have held Drake in 1997, so could leave gracefully. New life in House of Lords. Enjoy enormously, continuation career but no responsibilities constituency. [1:56:45] In Commons, had to adjust to being in and out of power. Feel isolated from election campaign generally, become engrossed in your bubble. Like a solider on the battlefield – see your bit, not whole war. Missives from central office, people ask you about things on TV you haven’t seen. Remember male agents who had never had a woman candidate – did not schedule time for hairdresser! [1:59:00] Immensely enjoyed being at work with armed services – naval base in constituency. Wanted to go out and do things. Exercise with Royal Marines on Bodmin Moor. Being winched to a helicopter – felt as the only woman there had to do it when asked. Also has been winched from ship to helicopter, which is a lot worse. Another time flew in a jet fighter. [2:02:45] Partly due to constituency, but mostly part of political scene. So much to do, just have to choose your priorities. Vote on trust sometimes. With Home Affairs select committee went to US to see how they dealt with control of hard drugs. See huge warehouses full of drugs, and a converted yacht to track the traffickers. [2:06:20] One or two trips abroad with Lords. Armed forces parliamentary scheme. Went on a Royal Navy ship patrolling Caribbean for a week. Exciting. Issues because of very different approaches of the British and US coastguards! Became so involved in ship’s life. Sad to leave. Many stories like that – could go on for hours.
Life story interview with Baroness Janet Fookes (1936-), former Labour Member of Parliament.