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10 September 2012

Edwina Currie – so hilariously self-centred that it's hard to keep a straight face

Edwina Currie
Edwina: hilariously self-absorbed (Photo: BBC)

I forget plenty of encounters, but my only meeting with Edwina Currie, whose diaries have just been serialised in another place, seems etched permanently on my personal memory stick.

\It was not long after the 1983 General Election, and the Irish Embassy had invited a few new MPs to meet some Irish people with whom they might like to discuss issues of mutual concern. I’m sure the other MPs were delightful, but I can’t remember a damn thing about them. Edwina, however, swept in looking rather magnificent, and on being introduced to me said: ‘I haven’t seen you round the Commons. Are you in the Lords?’

‘Bloody hell,’ I thought petulantly. ‘How could I look old enough to be in the Lords?’ However, I merely uttered some platitude or other and we were then joined by Nuala Fennell, an Irish Minister. Nuala was an economist and campaigner for women’s rights (a lonely job in Ireland for a long time), who was big on being consensual, so she tried to find common ground. ‘In the Dail we use most of the Commons procedures,’ she said, ‘but there are a couple of differences.’ And she asked Edwina a slightly abstruse question about lobbies. ‘Oh, yes, it’s a bit funny and old-fashioned,’ said Edwina, and launched into the ignoramus’s guide to what happens in parliament. When pleasant Nuala found the chance to say through gritted teeth that she knew all that since she’d been around for a while, I left them because I couldn’t stand any more and joined a group with Lady Ewart-Biggs.

When Edwina kindly joined us, there was a bit of a conversation going on about single mothers. ‘I’ve no time for them,’ said Edwina. ‘Children should have two parents.’ At which Jane Ewart-Biggs, whose husband Christopher, then British Ambassador to Ireland, had been murdered by the IRA, said with commendable restraint, if rather tartly, ‘Some of us didn’t have a choice.’ This, of course, passed Edwina by.

I almost admired her. In ten minutes, while seeking to inform and charm, she had seriously annoyed pretty well everyone she had talked to. You had to laugh. So I classified her as having the potential to be a sacred monster and followed her career with considerable interest.

The thing with Edwina, I realised, was that she was so self-centred that she noticed other people only if in some way they related to her. My father, an academic who found many aspects of ordinary life perplexing, thought about human behaviour and sought to understand. He once explained to me that while he was selfish, my mother was self-centred. He was actually dead right. There’s a big difference between being selfish and being self-centred. My mother was unselfish, kind and empathetic, but she did look at the world from a very personal perspective, whereas my father could assess people and events without relating them to himself in any way. I’ve no idea if Edwina is selfish, but her self-centredness was of such mega proportions that in conversation she might as well have been stone deaf.

She has rarely disappointed me since. Her diaries have some real gems. Enthusing about the election of Bill Clinton, she reveals her insight into his character. ‘I must have had the briefest of contacts with Bill at Oxford, when we took part in a union debate. We both spoke against the Vietnam war – though, at the time, I had only the foggiest idea where Vietnam was.’

Lamenting the inadequacies of John Major, her ex-lover, as Prime Minister, she reflects: ‘If I’d stayed by his side, would he have retained the imagination, the drive and the risk-taking ability of 1985-88? I’d have tutored him and pushed him and kept him going, and helped him assess friends and enemies.’ For those who like to imagine parallel universes, one in which a beleaguered John Major saw the world through Edwina’s eyes is well worth dwelling on.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


© Ruth Dudley Edwards