Barnes, Rosie (1 of 1). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee's home, London
Barnes, Rosie, 1946- (speaker, female)
Hertz, Andrea, 1953- (speaker, female)
Part 1: Rosemary Susan Barnes, born 16 May 1946 in Nottingham. [00:01] Parents and early life in Nottingham: Both parents worked in Players cigarette factory. [00.30] Earliest memory at Players recreation ground. Father played cricket. One younger brother. [01:30] Lived in Nottingham until University in Birmingham, and then London. [01:40] Father served in Navy during World War II. Food and money scarce while she was growing up. [03:08] Parents not very religious but sent RB to Sunday School. RB became religious as a teenager, but is now an atheist. [03:45] First school was old and crowded, with large classes. Subsequent schools—junior school and grammar school—were brand new. Remembers one teacher who taught her to love classical music, and some other teachers. Best subjects at secondary school were English and history. Concentrated on Henry VIII and the Reformation. [08:25] Studied at Birmingham University: accepted to do a new course in Social Sciences and History, but the professor in charge of the course became ill and “nobody knew what to do with us”. Ended up studying six social sciences, including social and economic history; interested in “lives of ordinary people”. [10:15:00] Parents did not discuss politics much. Mother voted Conservative and father voted Labour. They met when father was a maintenance mechanic at Players and mother was sent to work on his machine at age 13. Mother’s mother refused to let her daughter work in the office and made her work in the factory. RB herself worked for Players during her summer holidays; it was a “paternalistic firm”. Worked in the canteen. Memories of girl she worked with who was not going on to university, but stayed at the firm for her career. “That was her life mapped out for her forever”. Food for staff at Players was cheap and good. They had a convalescent home for workers, but there was no sick pay. [15:40] Father was sick for a while, so they lived hand-to-mouth. Father returned to work, but later developed heart problems and had one of the first operations for open-heart surgery in the country at age 56. Later died a “broken man in many ways”; would have been proud of RB’s career. Mother was proud of RB, but, as a “typical northerner”, did not say so. [18:00] Trade unions at Players. [19:10] Black workers at Players: some had “tribal markings”. Race riots in Nottingham when she was growing up. [20:40] Other aspects of university life. Angry about a professor who liked and praised Communist China. Only later did she learn that Mao’s China was a terrible place to live. Chinese people in Greenwich who worked at their embassy were “frogmarched” around the park for exercise and not allowed to roam around freely. [23:05] How RB met her husband Graham. Knew each other from school days, but only got together later on. He studied metallurgy at University of London. Got married because it was not acceptable to live together without being married. First lived in Balham, then in Streatham, then in Highgate. Got her first job as management trainee at Unilever. Eventually moved to Greenwich because husband got a job managing Greenwich Theatre. [26:54] Worked for market research arm of Unilever. Liked qualitative research better than quantitative; switched to a job at Yardley. Decided to retrain as a primary school teacher because she wanted to have children and the commute to Yardley was too long. But she “couldn’t bear the staff room” so didn’t continue teaching career. [29:30] Had first son and started a market research business from home. That expanded and went on for the next 13 years, until she became an MP. Many of her clients were big companies, and some issues were political, such as housing in multiple occupation. [33:40} Always had a large social conscience. Discusses the education of her three children. Became a school governor. Believes in equality of opportunity—especially in schools, housing and health service. [35:40] Had always voted Labour, but the London Labour Party went way to the left. Got disillusioned with Labour and didn’t like Tories, so when SDP was formed, she thought it was the “perfect encapsulation of my views”. Never wanted to join the Liberal Party, which she thought was “quirky” and didn’t understand the economics of public spending. Discusses funding of the health service. [41:43] How she came to join the SDP on the same day as her husband. Became a founder member. Fought an ILEA seat for the SDP, her first time as candidate. Husband was John Cartwright’s agent; he later became her agent. For 1987 election, regional SDP branch planned to put most of their resources into helping John Cartwright in Woolwich rather than into Greenwich, so former SDP candidate for Greenwich stood down in 1986. RB was asked to take his place as candidate for Greenwich. She didn’t think the seat was winnable but agreed to be the candidate on the basis that she was a token candidate, “keeping the SDP’s name alive in Greenwich”. [47:00] Greenwich By-election: Unexpected death of the Labour MP Guy Barnett. “It was a bit of a shock to the system”. Had never had an ambition to be an MP, but aimed to win. Liberals were helpful in campaigning for her. It was “a very harmonious relationship” between the two Alliance parties. Insisted on seeing all the leaflets before they went out. [50:10] Liked the Alliance, but didn’t know that there were discussions going on about merging the two parties. Thought the parties might merge “organically” in the fullness of time, but hadn’t expected or desired a formal merger at that time. Was “shocked and outraged” when she heard about the merger talks after the 1987 general election. [51:10] Never knew she was going to win by-election, even on polling day. At about 5pm on that day, her minder called to say she had won. The press came in force even before the result was announced. Didn’t write an acceptance speech. Campaign had regular hustings, which she found “nerve-wracking” and “frightening”. She had become “fair game” for people who were “aggressive” and “unreasonable”. The by-election campaign was “the most intensive period of work in my life” because, while she also had three children including a baby, she was canvassing, speaking in meetings and appearing at press conferences all day and in the evenings. Studied all aspects of party policy so she wouldn’t get caught out. Benefitted from the poor quality of her opponents. Journalists were “tough but fair” and some put bets on her to win. [58:25] At first, RB didn’t know if she’d be the by-election candidate, because the party could impose a new candidate from the centre for by-elections. Because of Christmas, “I couldn’t get hold of anybody to say, ‘Am I the candidate?’” The leadership didn’t contact her until after Christmas. Anecdote about Vincent Hanna at a press conference. Other comments about journalists and newspapers during the campaign. [1:01:30] In January, the party leaders finally confirmed that she would be the candidate. Went to see David Owen in Limehouse to discuss campaign. Helpful people in SDP and Liberals. Liked Roy Jenkins, “but he never made a point of engaging with me”; but David Owen was friendly. Became friends with Liberal MPs such as Alan Beith, Alex Carlile and Simon Hughes when she arrived in Parliament, but the general election was so close, and everybody was too busy campaigning and plotting, “so I was rather abandoned”. Had no idea how to be an MP, and had to learn on the job “with very little help”. [1:03:53] First day in Parliament, swearing in. Mixed reaction from Labour MPs: some were pleased because they didn’t like the London Labour Party. [1:05:42] Anecdote about Neil Kinnock congratulating and kissing the wrong woman--Elizabeth Shields, who was the only other female Alliance MP at the time. “Finding where the ladies’ loo was was a major issue”. Difficult for women, especially from a small party. Didn’t know where to turn for advice about any aspect of the job. [1:08:30] Anecdote about Mrs Thatcher. [1:11:20] Anecdote about a woman MP whose life was chaotic because of all her responsibilities. RB felt lucky that she was a London MP so could regularly see her children and didn’t have to move house to a far-flung constituency. Friendship with Emma Nicholson MP, who had hearing problems. RB’s son also had severe hearing problems. [1:12:50] Because SDP was a small party, “I had to be a spokesman on everything” after the merger. During the short period before the general election, was a health spokesman for the Alliance parties. Anecdotes about being asked to speak on a variety of subjects at the last minute. [1:15:25] Office at the Commons. Briefly shared with Mike Hancock. Police helped her retain her office after 1987 general election. Later moved to Norman Shaw North next door to David Owen. [1:18:45] Only three SDP MPs remained after Charles Kennedy and Bob Maclennan merged with Liberals. Neither side (merger or anti-merger) had tried to woo her over. The first person to speak to her about it was Tom McNally, but by then she had already made public statements against merging. [1:20:38] Meetings of Alliance MPs before merger were intimidating: they had “their own language” which had to be learned. People were courteous without being friendly. David Owen was the only one to offer help. “I was largely left to my own devices” and often had to invent policy on the hoof. Labour MPs “couldn’t believe the freedom I had” in broadcast interviews, but that freedom could be daunting. [1:23:25] Conversation with Tom McNally about whether to merge. At the time, RB viewed the merger as a “take-over” of the SDP by the Liberals and thought the merging process was “jumping the gun”. Accepts that the Liberal Democrats went on to be a successful party, and was “very sorry” about what happened to them in the 2015 election. Approved of them joining the coalition government, which she thought was a brave decision. [1:26:05] Legislative accomplishments as MP. Introduced two private member’s bills, and one—on stillborn births— was accepted into law. The other was on NHS no-fault compensation. Discusses the process of drafting the Bills, the help she received from outside and how they proceeded through Parliament. Also tabled many amendments to government bills which were sometimes accepted “in spirit” later on. [1:31:00] Work on child abuse scandal. Promoted an amendment to the Children Bill to give children in care an independent complaints procedure outside of social services. This was accepted by the Government. [1:32:45] Atmosphere in the House of Commons. Maiden speech: “odd silence”. MPs from all sides polite, but that courtesy ended on the second speech, when Norman Tebbit “really savaged” her. Competing with Labour MPs, including Dennis Skinner, for seat on the front bench below the gangway. Innate sexism of male MPs—they “didn’t know what to do with” the women MPs. [1:35:45] Didn’t go home for dinner; ate in the Members’ Dining Room or cafeteria. Nobody told her where to go. “I just wandered about”. Anecdotes about sitting with Ian Paisley in the cafeteria and about Graham’s conversation with Mrs Paisley. [1:38:22] Relations with journalists: learned not to let her guard down. [1:39:45] Not ambitious to be a Minister. Salary satisfactory at the time, but thinks that MPs are now underpaid. Had huge childcare costs while MP. Two staff in the House of Commons; one constituency worker paid for by SDP. [1:42:30] Relationship with area party covering three constituencies. Six surgeries per month—no need for appointment; usually full. Saw the constituents on her own. Housing was biggest problem. Anecdotes about quirky problems. Immigration cases. “Felt quite worn out on Friday nights”. Extremely unpopular with local Greenwich Council, which was strongly Labour. Had to “shame them” into solving the constituents’ problems. [1:48:10] Discusses various aspects of MPs’ job. Learned from experience of her son with hearing problems. Criticised by some Labour MPs for behaving too much like a social worker, but she felt it was right to help constituents with any problem they brought to her. [1:51:50] Sat on some Committees on Bills. The ones on health and education were interesting. Always called late in debates in the Chamber, which led to problems. Nerves before speaking in Chamber. [1.54.37] Problems with being in a party with only three MPs: lonely and sometimes “rudderless”. Sometimes did not know which way to vote. But RB was glad that, unlike some back-benchers from big parties, she was able to keep busy and be responsible for big subjects like health and education. Glad she wasn’t an MP during Maastricht debate because her one vote might have made all the difference one way or the other and she wouldn’t have known what to do. Even now, she isn’t sure which way to vote in the EU referendum. [1:59:02] Political heroes: does not really have any from her period as MP. Admires people who get things done, even without noisy campaigns. In her charity jobs after being an MP, she could accomplish a lot through quiet conversations with Ministers. She was more of a pragmatist than a political philosopher. [2:02:30] Not fair to criticise people just because they went to Eton. Admired Barbara Castle for being pragmatic, feisty and attractive. Mixed feelings about Mrs Thatcher. Liked Tony Blair and voted Labour when he was leader. Thought he improved the NHS. Didn’t have confidence in Gordon Brown. Not much of a relationship with Shirley Williams: “I don’t think she knows who I am”. [2:08:20] Thought she had a chance of winning in 1992. Just she and John Cartwright standing for independent SDP. “Bitterly disappointed when I lost, but that didn’t last more than an hour or two”. The next day, she felt relieved that she “didn’t have to worry about it anymore” or work so hard. If she had got back in without John Cartwright, “that would have been a nightmare”. [2:11:30] Quickly found a new job. Was too high-profile to continue with market research. On the Sunday after the general election, she saw an ad for a job as director of Birthright, the charity of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Got the job and stayed for four years. Then moved to a job as chief executive of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. Thought she could really improve their campaign with her skills and contacts. Wrote to Tony Blair, who was helpful. John Reid was also helpful as Health Secretary. Describes those jobs. [2:16:46] Has only been back to the House of Commons about 6 times since losing her seat—mainly to events related to her new jobs in the health sector. “Felt a bit sad” when she went back in. Joined the ex-MPs’ group. The police don’t recognise her anymore, though they did at first. Would have accepted a peerage if offered.
Life story interview with Rosie Barnes (1946-), former Social Democrat Member of Parliament.