Gwyneth Dunwoody: This One is Personal

Gwyneth Dunwoody [12 December 1930 – 17 April 2008] never placed personal ambition above public service. So she avoided the more fatuous trappings of high political office. Her undoubted leadership talents may have been seriously under-estimated

If Gwyneth Dunwoody had followed personal ambitions on the road to political advancement, she would have challenged for the highest political honours. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened in the process.

We would probably witnessed very lively and uncompromising campaigning battles. There would probably have been one of those dubious market research investigations beloved of Newsnight producers. Maybe a representative panel of voters would have been assembled and quizzed for their views by a remorselessly cheerful American. ‘If we had to choose between Gwyneth to Tony, which car would be more like Gwyneth? ‘

If so, the panellists would almost certainly have been more likely to opt for a no-nonsense, tough and reliable model. Maybe a modern Skoda. Certainly not a flashy and sporty job. They would certainly not have nominated a sporty Austin Healey, trendy Smart Car, or posh Porsche Testosterone.

Crusty Integrity

She developed a media style of humouring the more fatuous celebrity journalists. It seemed to reflect a crusty integrity. But a leader?

Maybe she was too likely to place ethical considerations even above party political advantage. I suspect she would have been more than able to combine integrity and competence, but the suspicion among the king-makers and queen-makers might have been enough to preclude her as a serious contender for the top job.

Maybe a different culture facing different problems would have recognised her leadership attributes. Yes, I could just about see Gwyneth not as a Tony Blair middle-east mediator but a Middle East leader of Golda Meir stature working tirelessly towards a just resolution of the region’s problems.

But that’s all a fantasy. Crusty integrity does not generally play as well in the leadership dramas as polished insincerity. Or, maybe even the rarer commodity, polished sincerity.

Why didn’t I think of Gwyneth before?

So have I fallen into the tradition of praising the recently-departed figure? Possibly. In compiling case examples of political leaders I have been aware of a dearth of female candidates. Has habituated prejudice blinded me to the possibility among those in public life in The United Kingdom? POssibly.

But I don’t think even now of Dunwoody as a female politician, but as an unremarked but able politician who happened to be female.

It is a pity that her story is less well-known than would be the case from a more determined self-publicist. I vaguely remember her father Morgan Phillips as a General Secretary of the Labour Party. I did not know that her political pedigree went back to her grand-mothers, who were both suffragettes, and her mother who became life-peer, and Lord Lieutenant of London.

The tributes today brought back other incidents that briefly hit the political headlines.

In December 2007 she surpassed Barbara Castle’s record for the longest unbroken service for a woman MP .. Mrs Dunwoody was also a Member of the European Parliament between 1975 and 1979, at a time when MEPs were nominated by national parliaments. Her most famous victory over those within the party who would shut her down came in 2001, when backbencher Labour MPs defied the party hierarchy to back her as chair of the House of Commons’ powerful transport select committee.

Under her leadership, the committee had produced several [frank] reports on government transport policies – which many saw as a factor behind the government’s desire to replace her with a more pliant chairman.

Gwyneth and Shirley compared

It is still tempting to compare and contrast the background and careers of Gwyneth Dunwoody and Shirley Williams. The association comes to mind in examining their backgrounds. Williams hailed from the intellectual and more privileged Fabian wing of the emerging socialist movement. Her mother was the distinguished novelist Vera Brittain.
Vera and Shirley graduated from Somerville College, Oxford (as did Margaret Thatcher).

Gwyneth, The Skoda; Shirley, perhaps like some car out of a movie fantasy, maybe on of the most famous of all, Genevieve herself.

Genevieve is fondly remembered for symbolising some gentle unself-conscious former beauty. Quintessentially English, of course. Except Genevieve in the film was actually not what we always believed. Genevieve, unlike Shirley Williams, was in truth of distinctly non-English heritage (a veteran twin-cylinder Darracq).

Shirley Williams was also a rather glamorous and romantic figure in an earlier era. Not that you’d think so from the rather prim version available on her current web-site.

She became a more notable political figure in British politics for her membership of the gang of four now demonized for its contribution to the decline of the traditional Labour party, and eventually to the formation of today’s Liberal Democrat party. Her break was with the values of Old Labour to which Dunwoody remained faithful to the end of her days.

In contrast to Gwyneth, Shirley has shown an intellectual pragmatism throughout her career. Quite recently she accepted Gordon Brown’s invitation to work within his ‘Government of all the talents’ while retaining the Lib-Debs whip in House of Lords.

Gwyneth has always demonstrated her convictions as unshakably as did Margaret Thatcher. That is not to suggest that Williams is less genuine or firm in her beliefs. Rather, her upbringing, and scholarly professonal career shaped a more nuanced political philosophy.

This One is Personal

Bloggers tend towards the detached or the involved. In general I have favoured the detached style, dealing with people and issues which I nevertheless find personally important.

This one is different. Gwyneth died on the day I shared with my family in South Wales services of thanksgiving for Mabel Goldsworthy Rickards.

‘… In loving memory of Mabel, devoted wife of Tom; much loved mother and mother-in-law of Tudor and Susan, Philip and Kathryn; proud nan of Lloyd and Catherine, Paul and Theresa; adoring great-grandmother of Morgan, Alun, Joanna, Evan and Freddie.’

That’s why this is a very personal blog, and utterly influenced by not one, but two remarkable women.

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