British Labour Politician
Born 1949 Died 2005
Marjorie Mowlam, commonly known as 'Mo Mowlam' was the Member of Parliament for Redcar between 1987 and 2001, who also served as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1997 to 1999 during the first Blair administration, but later retired from the House of Commons in 2001 and became one of Tony Blair's more vocal critics before her death in 2005.
Marjorie Mowlam was born in Watford on the 18th September 1949 into a family she later described as "classic lower-middle class". Her father Frank William Mowlam worked for the Post Office and rose to become Coventry's assistant postmaster, but later became an alcoholic forcing her mother, Bettina Mary or 'Tina' to work as a telephonist to maintain the family income. The second of three children, Mowlam passed the eleven plus examination and began her education at Chiswick Girls' Grammar School in West London, but later attended the Coundon Court Comprehensive School in Coventry (one of the first such schools in the country) where she eventually became head girl. In 1968 she went to study sociology and anthropology at Durham University, where she joined the Labour Party in her first year. After graduating from Durham she briefly worked for Tony Benn in London as his research assistant from 1971 to 1972, before deciding to accompany her English boyfriend, who was reading American Literature, across the Atlantic. Once there she worked for the writer Alvin Toffler in New York, before deciding to do study for a doctorate in political science at the University of Iowa.
Whilst working on her doctorate, she taught briefly at the University of Wisconsin and then at the political science department at Florida State University. She was later to admit that during this period in her life that she "was pretty wild", explaining that she "was a child of the 60s and did everything that went with that". In response to a statement by a former colleague at Iowa that she had been seen handling drugs at a party in the early 1970s, she admitted that "yes, I did take dope. And unlike President Clinton, I inhaled". By the time she got to Florida she had dispensed with her English boyfriend and taken up with a new American boyfriend. She was later to describe him as "the love of her life", but he was tragically drowned while swimming in a lake, an event which appears to have triggered Mowlam's decision to return home. (1)
In 1979 she returned to the United Kingdom to take up a teaching position at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. She soon became active in local Labour politics, joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and organised a set of 'alternative Reith Lectures' in 1981. (The university vice chancellor, Professor Laurence Martin, was BBC Radio's official Reith lecturer for that year). Oddly enough her political ambitions were however frustrated by a persistent rumour that she was a spy working either for British intelligence or the CIA. In an attempt to shake off such accusations she spent the summer of 1983 working as the treasurer for Neil Kinnock's campaign for the party leadership, and to gain some further credibility she accepted an administration post at the trade union sponsored Northern College near Barnsley in 1984.
For much of this time she had been searching for a constituency willing to accept her as the Labour candidate but without much success, until an opportunity presented itself when James Tinn, who held the safe seat of Redcar, suddenly decided to resign. In a closely fought selection contest Mowlam narrowly came out ahead and was duly returned to the House of Commons in the 1987 General Election.
Within ten months of her election, Kevin McNamara, the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, chose her as the junior opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland, making her the first of the 1987 intake of new MPs to be promoted to front bench status. In 1989 she was transferred to Trade and Industry, where she was given responsibility for City and Corporate Affairs. This did not prove to be a success as she did not get on at all well with Gordon Brown, and the two established a mutual dislike that persisted thereafter. Mowlam was however popular within the broader party and won election to the shadow cabinet in 1992, much to the discomfort of the party leader John Smith, who viewed her with a certain amount of disdain, and gave her the responsibility for the Citizens' Charter and Women before appointing her as Shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage in the following year. Following Smith's unexpected death in 1994 she was the first Labour front bencher to come out in favour of Tony Blair, having apparently concluded that Gordon Brown was "temperamentally unsuited" to become leader of the Labour Party. She offered to run Blair's leadership campaign, but he declined her offer and picked Jack Straw instead, fearing that Mowlam might alienate some of Brown's supporters given their pre-existing antipathy. In the circumstances she appears to have been somewhat disappointed when Blair subsequently appointed her as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1994, as she felt she was due a more senior post.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
With the election of the Labour government in May 1997 Mowlam therefore became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and was duly faced with the problem of reviving the peace process, as although the previous Conservative administration of John Major had made great strides towards the goal of peace in Northern Ireland, the process had since become bogged down. Mowlam therefore took the extraordinary political risk of visiting the Maze prison and talking to both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in a bid to restart the peace process, and within months of her appointment she had achieved her initial objectives of persuading the Provisional IRA to restore its ceasefire and ensuring the inclusion of Sinn Fein in the multi-party talks. With her easy-going manner and unpretentious attitude, she was credited with playing a major role in achieving the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, whilst the fact that she proclaimed herself an atheist was regarded as distinct advantage in the context of Ulster sectarianism, given that both sides regarded this as preferable to professing the religion of the other. (2)
However it was said that Unionist politicians came to dislike her 'touchy-feely approach' and felt that her sympathies were with the Nationalist cause. She apparently once told Ian Paisley to "fuck off" and although Mowlam herself denied this, claiming that she had only told him to "pee-off", and since it later emerged that she had called Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, a "babe", so it is understandable how the Unionists might have gained this impression.
Subsequent talks over the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement made slow progress, particularly as the Unionists were unhappy with her decision to release IRA prisoners without there being any parallel surrender of arms. The Unionists began to ignore Mowlam, preferring to talk to Blair either directly or through his Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell. Similarly the Nationalists, fearing that they might otherwise be disadvantaged, began insisting on dealing with the government on the same basis. As Blair began to take personal charge of Northern Ireland affairs, Mowlam was left feeling marginalised; as she told Bill Clinton during one of his visits, "Didn't you know? I'm the new tea lady around here". Thus whilst Mowlam remained the public face of government in Northern Ireland, Blair was left to do much of the work, leaving him frustrated that so much of his time was being taken up with Northern Ireland.
By June 1999 the Unionist leader David Trimble was calling for her to be sacked, and although his call wasn't heeded at the time, a few months later in October Blair decided to appoint Peter Mandelson to replace her as Secretary of State. Ian Paisley claimed that she had been a "failure" whilst David Trimble made no comment.
After Northern Ireland
Having decided to move her from Northern Ireland, Tony Blair offered her the job of Secretary of State for Health(which she turned down because it was an "equally difficult" job), and also suggested that she consider becoming the party's candidate for the office of London mayor. Neither suited her ambitions as she apparently wanted to become Foreign Secretary, but was willing to accept the post of Secretary of State for Defence in the meantime. Mowlam therefore found herself appointed Cabinet Office Minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster; the official line was that she was to be Tony Blair's 'cabinet enforcer', which in practice appeared to mean that she was expected to make regular media appearances defending the latest government line. This appointment soon became nothing more than a political cul de sac, leading Mowlan to refer to her new role rather dismissively as being the "Minister for the Today programme". Disappointed in her new role she changed her mind and said that after all she was interested in the job of Mayor of London, but by that time it was too late as the party had already picked Frank Dobson as its candidate.
Although she was then given the job of heading the Government's anti-drugs campaign, she became increasingly disillusioned with parliamentary politics and in 2000 announced her intention to stand down from the Commons at the next election. She insisted that this did not mean that her political career was over; "I feel that I've had a very lucky life. I don't know what will come next, but it will be in politics. I may have left Parliament but I have not left politics."
The Revenge of Saint Mo
Despite leaving the House of Commons Mowlam did not disappear from public view. She toured with her own one-woman show 'An Audience with Mo Mowlam', and wrote an agony column for the weekly 'lads' magazine Zoo. However having once one of Blair's key allies, she now came forward to express her disaffection with his government. In 2001 she appeared on the BBC2 documentary Cabinet Confidential, claiming that the Labour administration had been "crippled" by the feud between Blair and Brown and criticised Blair's "presidential" style of government, arguing that he had failed to consult the Cabinet about a single big decision since Labour came to power. More revelations followed in 2002 as the result of the publication of her autobiography Momentum, (for which she reputedly received an advance of £350,000), which was also serialised in the Daily Mail and was promoted by her appearance in the two-part Channel 4 documentary Inside New Labour.
In particular she began to claim that she had been pushed out of the Labour Party by the "boys' club in politics" and that, in her own words, "They thought I was getting above myself. People wanted me out". Mowlam claimed that her problems began when Tony Blair referred to her as "our one and only Mo" at the Labour Party conference in 1998, and the assembled delegates responded by giving her an entirely unscripted standing ovation. Her popularity within the party (and indeed the country) resulted in her being viewed as a threat, and therefore inaccurate stories were planted in the press about the state of her health, together with allegations that she was a political "lightweight" who didn't read her official briefs. Asked to name names, she obligingly
named Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Gordon Brown as the principal culprits.
She therefore came to seen as amongst the foremost critics of the New Labour project and by April 2002 Peter Kilfoyle was urging her to challenge Tony Blair for the Labour party leadership. Mowlam however, dismissed such talk saying that she could see "nothing attractive" in being Prime Minister, and although she nevertheless emerged as a vocal opponent of Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq, she preferred to concentrate her efforts on promoting her own MoMo Helps charity. (3)
Earlier in January 1997 Mowlam had been diagnosed with a brain tumour, and although this was non-cancerous, from about January to mid-March of that year she received radiation treatment for the tumour. Although no announcement was made at the time it was evident from her cropped hair and her rapid weight gain that there was some kind of problem, although she deflected all enquiries by blaming it all on her decision to quit smoking and her husband's over-generous breakfasts. It was only when the Daily Mail rather uncharitably described her as looking like a "slightly feminine Geordie trucker" that she decided to make the matter public.
Although she appeared to have made a full recovery, the tumour later returned in 2005 and she had to undergo a further course of radiation treatment, as a result of which she suffered balance problems. It was this latter side effect that appears to have been the root cause of the fall that she suffered at her home on the 3rd August 2005. She was admitted to King's College Hospital in London, but never regained consciousness. On the 12th August she was moved to Pilgrim House Hospice at Canterbury in Kent where, in accordance with her prior instructions (she had made a living will), food and water were withdrawn and she later died on the 19th August 2005.
Mowlam was certainly one of the most popular of the New Labour politicians who emerged from Blair's first administration, indeed it was said that when she appeared on a Labour Party political broadcast, she inspired a record number of membership applications. With her reputation for plain speaking and her disregard for the politics of spin she came to be regarded as the public's favourite politician, or as she put it herself; "I'm popular, because I think the brain tumour and my determination to handle it made me human, particularly with women. People liked the courage, liked the guts. I think that success in Northern Ireland gave people a hope, a belief, that something could be achieved." On the other hand her critics saw her as self-important and even paranoid, whilst it was noted that some of the more scathing criticisms of her character that appeared in the media were the result of her own rather mishandled press briefings.
Nevertheless, she always appeared to be regarded with some suspicion amongst many of her peers in the Labour Party, the reasons for which were surprisingly prosaic. It has been said that the British Labour Party owes more to Methodism than it does to Marxism, and there has always been a strong streak of puritanical moralism within the party. Although Mowlam married the merchant banker Jon Norton in 1995, by her own admission she had been rather promiscuous during her youth, and never made any secret of her numerous past lovers, whilst she was well-known for her deployment of what her biographer Julia Langdon diplomatically referred to as "industrial language". The likes of Tony Benn, John Smith and Gordon Brown simply regarded her as being rather vulgar, and such honest admissions as that of a two-year "fun relationship" with Laurie Taylor, then professor of sociology at York University, after her return to Britain in 1979, only served to emphasise how she did not fit the profile of the typical Blair Babe.
(1) Whilst she was at Florida State University she was stalked by man who broke into her apartment while she was there. Although she escaped unhurt, Mowlam was always convinced that the man in quesion was non other than Ted Bundy.
(2) When Scarman arrived in Northern Ireland in 1969 to conduct an inquiry into the cause of the recent troubles, he was asked by one local journalist whether he was a Protestant or Catholic. Scarman replied that he was an agnostic. "That's not good enough," the journalist retorted, "Are you a Protestant agnostic or a Catholic agnostic?"
(3) MoMo Helps sought to help drug users who are successfully completing their rehabilitation and provide support for the parents or carers of disabled children.
- Julia Langdon, Obituary of Marjorie Mowlam, The Guardian, August 19, 2005
- Richard Mills, Obituary of Marjorie Mowlam, The Times, August 19, 2005
- Obituary of Marjorie Mowlam, The Daily Telegraph, 20/08/2005
- Obituary: Mo Mowlam , BBC News, 19 August 2005
- Peter Kilfoyle, Instinctive empathy of Mo, BBC News, 19 August 2005
The following reports from the Daily Telegraph;
- Philip Johnston, Mo Mowlam praised after revealing her brain tumour battle, 14 April 1997
- Joe Murphy and David Cracknell, Mo Mowlam to be ousted from Ulster, 4 July 1999
- Robert Shrimsley, Mowlam admits 'experimenting' with cannabis, 17 January 2000
- Mowlam breaks ranks on Blair-Brown feuds, 17/11/2001)
- Andy McSmith, Mowlam accused over 'revenge' attack on Brown, 15/04/2002
- Rachel Sylvester, The charming and churlish Saint Mo is recast as villain, 27/04/2002
- Andy McSmith, Mowlam 'pressed to unseat Blair', 23/04/2002
- Tom Peterkin,owlam comes clean on that four-letter word, 13/05/2002
- Benedict Brogan, Mo Mowlam called IRA leader 'babe' in taped call, 01/05/2003
- George Jones Mo Mowlam fights for life, 04/08/2005