People underestimate Margaret Beckett at their peril. Just ask Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Beckett was the newly appointed UK foreign secretary when Lavrov, unhappy about a speech that an American official had made, launched into him at a meeting chaired by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
“Lavrov kept going on at him, challenging him for quite some time, and nobody else said anything,” Beckett recalls now. “I was just getting more and more awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassed. And in the end, I said: ‘I feel very uncomfortable saying this because I’m very conscious that I’m completely new to this gathering. But I have been in full-time politics for more than 30 years and I’m not used to hearing a minister attack an official and I must admit, I don’t like it.’ He looked completely astonished but he stopped doing it.”
It’s not the first time in her career that Beckett has surprised those around her. She recounts the story of when a national newspaper journalist made a freedom of information request for some official papers – only to be taken aback by some of Beckett’s rather pithy annotations. “He obviously was one of the people who thought I was a quiet little mouse who never said boo to a goose,” she says. To the media, she explains, she was ‘somebody who just does what she’s told, and keeps her mouth shut’ but behind the scenes it was different. “Somebody who was coming to work for me told me once that he’d asked, obviously as you do, about me and had been told that I was a very tough negotiator, who usually wins her battles in Whitehall.”
As a cabinet member Beckett had her fair share of battles, not least over one of the policies which is regarded as one of her greatest triumphs – the minimum wage which she introduced when she was trade and industry secretary.
“There were a lot of rows, but they were rows about good things – the right things,” she says. “There was a dispute about how we should handle the minimum wage. It wasn’t a dispute about whether we brought in the minimum wage, it was how we brought it in.”
“If you have disputes with colleagues, you have them in private and you don’t bring either the colleague or the party or the government into disrepute. So I never had any of my fights in public. And I’ve certainly never had any of them in the press.”
This will be Beckett’s last parliament after she announced in March that she would step down at the next election. In her time as an MP, she has notched up a number of significant achievements: the first woman to lead the Labour party, the second woman (after Margaret Thatcher) to hold one of the great offices of state and the woman MP who has served the most years in parliament. Yet as a youngster she never had any aspiration to sit on the green benches.
“I never thought about being a politician. I’d never seen an MP or met an MP until I joined the Labour party,” she says. Joining the party was itself a struggle – it took two years for anyone to answer her letters because her local ward was defunct. But Labour, she says, was always the obvious choice for someone with a background like hers, where her family was struggling to keep its head above water. “It was knife edge a lot of the time. And it seemed to me there wasn’t enough of a safety net to help people who got into problems that weren’t of their own making, or indeed maybe were of their own making,” she says. “It was a given for me that it was the Labour party that was the refuge for people who didn’t have wealth and power.”
Within a few years of making it into the party, Beckett was in parliament, elected in the second general election of 1974. Immediately after winning her Lincoln seat, she was appointed as Judith Hart’s parliamentary private secretary – indeed she was offered the job even before Hart’s own election count had finished – and then progressed via the whip’s office to become a junior education minister in Harold Wilson’s government. It was, she recalls, an exciting parliament, with moments of high drama. “I was in committee when we got the news that Harold had resigned, and it was extraordinary,” she says. “Everybody who could shot out of the room immediately and gathered in the corridor. And I reckon it took about 10 minutes of people exclaiming and being astonished and saying: ‘Why does everybody think it’s happened?’. And then within that 10 minutes we were talking about his successor.”
Throughout her career, she was supported by her late husband Leo, who died last December. “He was very good. Not just with me – he was very good at identifying people who he thought should be in elected office, persuading them to run and then supporting them. So I was very fortunate always to have somebody of much greater and rather different experience than mine in the background, able to talk things over with and give advice, and so on. That was immensely helpful.”
In her early years in parliament (interrupted by losing Lincoln in 1979 before returning as MP for Derby South in 1983), Beckett was seen as being on Labour’s left wing. Has she been on a rightwards journey in the party? She says she doesn’t feel her politics have changed – with the exception of her attitude to Europe, where she campaigned ‘vigorously’ for a no vote in the 1975 referendum on EU membership but changed her view when ‘Europe began to change’.
Otherwise, she says, “I don’t feel I have changed dramatically. But the boxes you’re expected to fit into, those boxes have changed and been redefined.”
Factionalism within the Labour ranks has always been a problem, Beckett says, but in her view things are much better now than they used to be. “Judith Hart told me that when she was first elected, that when she went into the tea room, there were several Labour MPs in the queue and none of them spoke to her, because they were on the right and she was on the left. People just literally ignored her.”
Better it may be, but the party has had some strife-filled years of late. Beckett says part of the problem when Jeremy Corbyn was leader was his team. “We used to say Tony [Blair] was a control freak, but God he had nothing on Jeremy. I mean, to be fair, it wasn’t Jeremy himself but the people around Jeremy.”
“If you didn’t agree with Jeremy, you were accused of attacking him simply because you didn’t agree. And I remember saying once at the NEC: ‘I’m currently on the ninth or 10th leader of the Labour party I’ve served under and there has never been one of them that I’ve agreed with about everything and I don’t intend to start now.’ And Jeremy giggled – Jeremy didn’t care but the people around him were sort of ‘you’re a traitor’. I thought that was a) horrible and b) counterproductive.”
Beckett has had constructive relationships with politicians from different political traditions – ‘Condi’ Rice – with whom she ‘hit it off’ being a notable example. But she remains scathing about the damage she has seen the Conservatives inflict over her time in politics.
And in her view, David Cameron and George Osborne were in some ways worse than Margaret Thatcher and her ministers. “Thatcher was ideologically determined to try and destroy the welfare state and she had a very good go at it. George Osborne in many ways made it worse,” she says. “He inherited something that was already a thin welfare state, and pared it to the bone. He was a very smart politician, a very clever opponent. But what a nasty piece of work.”
As for the current crop of Conservatives, Beckett says: “There are a lot of decent people in the Conservative party. But where are they? What are they doing? They’ve consented to all this stuff about undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission, making it more difficult for people to vote. We’re slowly following in the footsteps of the Republicans in the United States, who don’t care how they win as long as they win. And they’re all going along with it.”
Beckett pulled off a number of achievements in government as well as the minimum wage. Her work on climate change in the Foreign Office was a particular highlight. “One of the things that that I am proud of very much is that when I was in the chair of the Security Council, we had the very first Security Council debate on climate change,” she says. “The Security Council only discusses peace and security and I insisted that climate change was a matter of peace and security. That was the first time that had been done.”
Beckett, of course, only had the very top job in the party in the period between the untimely death of John Smith and the election of Tony Blair. Many are concerned that although Labour has had two women as acting leaders – Beckett and then Harriet Harman (twice) – it has never actually elected a woman to the top job. Beckett does not think it’s necessarily a systemic problem. “It’s just sheer bad luck. There’s never been quite the right person and quite the right time together,” she argues. “But I’ve always voted for the person who I thought was the right person at the time, irrespective of whether it was a man or a woman.”
Beckett says the current man in the job, Keir Starmer, has been performing well in difficult times.
“I hear all these smartass remarks about how he shouldn’t be doing this, that or the other. But he’s visibly prime ministerial material, which is a step in the right direction. Nobody would say you can’t see him as prime minister,” she says. “He’s been handling a set of really unique difficulties. The whole Covid thing, made it very difficult to attack the government without being seen as debasing the coin of politics and being unpatriotic and all that sort of thing. It was all very, very difficult to handle, especially as he was new to the job himself. So I think he’s had a very difficult road to follow and I think he’s done all right.”
As she looks back on her career, Beckett says she feels fortunate, particularly as she had, she admits, no ‘master plan’.
“I never applied for any of the jobs I got. It was always that I was suggested by somebody else, or asked by somebody else,” she says. “I did find what I enjoyed. I had no idea that I would enjoy international negotiations until I found myself having to do them. I discovered I absolutely loved it – I found it very enjoyable, time-consuming, and exciting. There is a huge amount of luck in everything and I have been extremely lucky.”
Politicians, despite the flak they get, can still change lives for the better, Beckett concludes. “It makes an enormous difference who makes the decisions. That’s the thing that has me screaming at the television when I see people saying things like: ‘Oh, well, I don’t suppose anybody else could have done better than Boris.’ Yes they could – anybody could. Anybody with enough conscientiousness to go to the meetings for a start,” she says. “I’ve had a long period of involvement with negotiations on things like climate change. There are a lot of people who are very keen on these issues who despise politics and politicians. They join Greenpeace like a shot or Friends of the Earth, but they wouldn’t have anything to do with politics. But the fact of the matter is unless you’re born to wealth and power, the only way to influence things and change things is through politics.”
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