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Sunday 21 August 2005

Mo: so inspired and driven yet a real hippie at heart

LATE in 1987, Mo Mowlam, a very new Labour MP, who had arrived two hours late for dinner, sat in my living room, her legs curled up under her on the sofa, and talked about some of the disadvantages of being in the House of Commons. A major complaint was that she was too tied up at Westminster to have a chance of forming a relationship outside parliament. Her other pressing concern was that if she was seen out with another MP it would be all over the tabloids. There was a brief moment, she said, when she and Gordon Brown might have become an item, but fear of press scrutiny had ruled it out of the question.

Just slightly older than my husband, John, with whom she had been at university, Mo had just turned 40 but didn't look it. I hadn't met her before, but I was struck by how attractive and energetic she was and I enjoyed her straight-forwardness and sense of humour. "Looks and sounds just like she did at Durham," said John afterwards. "And still clearly just as self-centred and ambitious."

Mo had stood out in the Durham of 1968-71. "She was a star," said another contemporary, "able to move with equal facility among the people who knew which way to pass the port and the people who couldn't remember which way to pass the next joint."

Yet though Mo could move easily in groups, she was never quite of them: she was, after all, studying social anthropology.

Full of bonhomie, Mo was good fun and would sleep around cheerfully and smoke the odd joint, but her inner steel was visible through her flower power exterior. While contemporaries were letting it all hang out, Mo was building up a useful network in the Labour Party. Others might spend their summer holidays finding their inner selves: Mo was acting as an au pair to Tony Benn's family. While her contemporaries were dithering about whether to be sci-fi writers or live in an ashram, Mo took off to America, acquired the PhD that gave her a reputation as an intellectual and then returned to her Northern roots as a half-hearted academic and whole-hearted Labour activist; she became an MP at 37.

I wished Mo well, but I never saw her as a friend. Like many a political populist and back-slapper, she was brilliant at connecting superficially with people, but was too egocentric to be truly empathetic. She offered familiarity without intimacy. And she had some of that Sixties amorality I found repellent.

Having a long chat with her one day in the House of Commons in the early Nineties, I was appalled at how guilt-free she seemed about having taken the journalist Colin Hughes away from his wife and small children. (Their relationship failed.)

I used to see Mo at conferences when she was a shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland from 1987-89 and from 1994 onwards when she became shadow Secretary of State. Relieved that someone who seemed to listen to all sides had replaced the totally partisan Kevin McNamara, I interviewed her in 1995 and wrote a largely favourable profile, remarking on her industriousness, toughness and her north-of-England commonsense. "Mo knows there's nowt so queer as folk", I wrote - "a very valuable philosophy for someone dealing with Northern Ireland".

Like millions of others, I was - and have remained - full of admiration for the courage Mo showed when at the beginning of 1997, she had to undergo an operation for a brain tumour and radiotherapy, lost her stunning looks, her figure and her hair and still campaigned vigorously and showed undiminished energy when made Secretary of State that June. It was heartwarming and hopeful to see her mobbed in the streets in Northern Ireland.

Yet, I soon began to realise that Mo had serious deficiencies. I had praised her for being classless and having a common touch, but I had missed something vital about her that was to make her ultimately the wrong person for Northern Ireland: she retained a Sixties approach to law and order and respectability. She simply could not stand men in uniform or church-goers and she made this very, very clear.

The famous story of how she sent one of her male protection officers out to buy her tampons was not apocryphal, and her indifference to the deep offence she caused religious people by swearing and blaspheming was appalling. There is plain-speaking and there is downright rudeness.

Sixties amorality infused Mo's attitude to the participants in the peace process too. It was understandable that she found nationalists more fun than unionists, but not that she was so happy in the company of ex-terrorists of all persuasions.

A Secretary of State who calls Martin McGuinness "Babe" has a pretty dodgy moral compass.

Mo was to earn great cachet among the unthinking for her courage in visiting Johnny Adair and other loyalist prisoners to ask them to back the peace process. It wasn't courage: it was stupidity and amorality. It gave these scumbags a sense of their own importance and invulnerability that equalled that of their republican counterparts.

Mo sent out a similarly disastrous message when she ruled that the IRA ceasefire held as long as it ceased "military operations", thus giving them and their loyalist equivalents carte blanche to continue merrily with murder and mutilation - what a civil servant described as "internal housekeeping".

Although Mo was extremely popular and got great public credit for the Good Friday Agreement, she was by then well marginalised. Her alienation of unionists, her intellectual muddle-headedness and her inadequate grasp of detail had led to Downing Street taking over serious negotiations.

Preposterously, she wanted to be Foreign Secretary, but she was shunted off into a non-job and left the House of Commons in 2001. Her dull, self-serving autobiography did her no favours: it was ludicrous to attribute her fall to Blair's jealousy.

Mo Mowlam's was yet another political career that ended in failure. But she was a woman of inspirational personal courage and resolve. That is how she should be remembered.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards