An interview that former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith gave to the BBC World Service has gone largely unnoticed by commentators online. In the interview, Smith talks about the reasons for her resignation earlier this month. For the next few days, you can listen to the whole interview here but we’re also publishing the transcript of the discussion below:
Carrie Gracie: “We’ll come back to you and the government in a moment, but first the reputation of Westminster around the world. I mean, this is something that for hundreds of years has claimed to be the mother of parliament, just how much damage has Westminster and British politics sustained internationally?”
Jacqui Smith: “I think that’s a very interesting question. I think there is no doubt that there has been considerable damage in the UK. There’s been considerable damage to individual politicians’ reputations and more significantly actually to the nature of our parliamentary democracy, to Westminster as you say and there is a lot of work to be done to put that right and you know it’s started and I think the election of a new Speaker, I think the announcements made yesterday by the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman, about the Parliamentary Standards Bill that’s being brought forward, setting up an independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to take decisions about behaviour and allowances out of the hands of MPs and make them independent in the system. All of those things are important” .
Carrie Gracie: “Yes but that’s not dealing with the question which is the international damage. If you’re sitting in Nigeria or you’re sitting in China and you’ve been berated endlessly by various little parliamentary missions from Westminster coming and telling you how to run your democracy, what do you feel when you see all of this going on?”
Jacqui Smith: “I’ve never been on a parliamentary mission but I’m pretty clear they don’t berate other people. I mean I hope what they do is actually talk to people about the lessons that we’ve learned from having had a pretty long democracy but I was going to come on to the point that just before I resigned I was at a G8 Justice and Home Affairs meeting and what was interesting to me, yes these are politicians from developed countries, but all of them said they were amazed at the way in which the British media was addressing the issue of expenses “.
Carrie Gracie: “Was their point basically that their systems are far worse and that actually you came out smelling of roses?”
Jacqui Smith: “I don’t think that their systems are far worse. I think they said that they felt that the way that individuals had been picked off, the general…you know, almost hysterical approach to the expenses issue, was something that they were surprised at. They felt the behaviour from what they’d seen didn’t warrant it and actually they did and this comes back to your question – they did think that it was damaging probably of the UK’s reputation in a way that perhaps it didn’t deserve to be”.
Carrie Gracie: “So that’s the international dimension. What about the historical dimension? Several hundred years of Westminster democracy. We’re now seeing, you mentioned a moment ago, these new rules to change the system as Gordon Brown put it in a momentous way in terms of parliamentary history, do you feel ashamed to be part of a generation which has brought parliament to this?”
Jacqui Smith: “No, because I don’t believe, with one exception, that I acted in a way that didn’t fulfil the high standards that I set myself, I think that we should set ourselves as parliamentarians, so I don’t feel personally ashamed. I feel frustrated that perhaps in everything that I’ve sort of turned my mind to over the last twelve years as an MP I didn’t think to myself well perhaps we should be reforming the system, because I think and all of us have said this, we knew if we thought about it that it wasn’t a good system so I think there’s frustration with hindsight that perhaps we didn’t choose this as a priority but let’s not forget the point at which perhaps when I was Chief Whip I might have had more to say about it, actually there were lots of other things going on in government that I suspect at the time my constituents thought were more important. You know, the reforms that we were making to schools and hospitals, the way in which we were dealing with public services, the international work that we were doing and when you… you know, it’s easy in hindsight to say we should have done something about it, at the time it didn’t seem like the top priority.”
Carrie Gracie: “Now you said there was one exception about your expenses that you weren’t happy about, did require apology. What was that?”
Jacqui Smith: “That was when I mistakenly claimed for a television package that involved films that shouldn’t have been claimed for by the taxpayer. It was just wrong, it shouldn’t have come within a million miles of being claimed for ” .
Carrie Gracie: “Now for some of our audience who may not be familiar with this story, this was your husband, who also works for you in your constituency office and he had claimed for two adult or pornographic films under this package? “
Jacqui Smith: “Hm. A TV package in which you can get pay per view films in which yes, well in actual fact there were four of them, the excitement was about the two that were adult features, there were another two which equally I don’t think I should have claimed for which my kids watched, “Surf’s Up” and some other Disney film. Basically what we did is we claimed for the whole of the broadband and TV package in that month and in my view we shouldn’t have done and that’s why I paid back all of the difference between the basic connection of broadband to my second home and the amount that included the films. “
Carrie Gracie: “And if he hadn’t done that you’d still be Home Secretary?”
Jacqui Smith: “I don’t know whether or not that’s the case. You know it’s the Prime Minister that would have determined whether or not I was still Home Secretary. It was intensely embarrassing, it did bring immense pressure on to my family. You know, as you say, my husband’s worked with me for the last twelve years, he gave up a career as a civil engineer to support me and the work I do in the constituency and to help bring up our children, one of whom I’ve had since I was an MP. He’s come under immense pressure and I… part of the decision that I took was the reason I’ve been able to do my job I hope as effectively as I have done over the last twelve years is because I’ve had the support of my family. When they came under pressure it was right for me actually to give back them support as well”.
Carrie Gracie: “He made a public apology. Was that experience humiliating for you, both publicly and privately?”
Jacqui Smith: “Yes and for him, it was horrible.”
Carrie Gracie: “And presumably he apologised to you privately and to the children? “
Jacqui Smith: “Yes he did. Yes”.
Carrie Gracie: “And you’d already endured all these attacks over your public competence, your policies and your political judgement, but when you private life as you suggest is dragged into the public spotlight for savage criticism and indeed ridicule, just describe what that feels like because it’s an experience that most of us have not had and obviously would not wish to have. “
Jacqui Smith: “Well, having to fight your way out through TV cameras when you go out of your house in the morning, having press photographers outside your house for weeks on end is a real intrusion. It’s horrible. I could have coped with it on my own but my oldest son was doing, has just finished in fact, his GCSE’s, his quite important public examinations at sixteen in the UK and I just felt that it was not fair on all of them. After a while you know having your wife or your mum or your daughter or your sister called a liar and a thief by national newspapers and having to face that degree of scrutiny gets a bit wearing on the family and in many ways they’re less protected than I am. I had my office, I had my… I was engrossed in the work that I was doing that I thought was important. It’s much harder for them ” .
Carrie Gracie: “Now you are the first woman to have served as Home Secretary in this country, a notoriously macho department of government. Do you hope to be a role model for young women to follow? “
Jacqui Smith: “Yes I’ve always throughout the whole of my political career I’ve wanted to do that and I’ve wanted to support other women in coming into politics. Incidentally I always said about the role of Home Secretary that I thought it was amazing that there hadn’t been a woman in that job before because you know this is a job as I said that is about protecting our communities, our borders, our families, if that’s not women’s work then I’m not quite sure what is. I hope that there will be other women Home Secretaries and senior women wanting to come into politics. I think incidentally what’s happened in the last six months has probably made that more difficult “.
Carrie Gracie: “Not just that but quite a lot of women resigned from the front bench as you or just after you”.
Jacqui Smith: “Yes and I think that’s bad for the government and therefore bad for the country actually”.
Carrie Gracie: “Do you think it’s still a sexist politics in this country and I’m just thinking back to when you made your first appearance at the despatch box in the Commons as Home Secretary and there was more written about your cleavage and your appearance than about what you actually had to say? “
Jacqui Smith: “You know, I always used to say that I hadn’t myself suffered directly from it, I have actually in the last six months and I suppose I’ve become more….. When your colleagues on one of the sort of flagship political programmes, the Today programme, described me as being stroppy I think there’s something, dare I say it, gendered about that description “.
Carrie Gracie: “What, men are allowed to be stroppy, as in argumentative, feisty?”
Jacqui Smith: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man described as stroppy actually. I think that’s something about are you getting above yourself actually. a lot of language that has been used not only about me but about other women politicians as well that I just don’t think would be used about men actually and as I say, this isn’t sort of me whingeing “Oh it’s so difficult for me because I’m a women”, but I am worried that we have a politics and a political system in which women might be put off from standing because if you felt I’m not sure whether I want to put my family through what Jacqui Smith’s family has been through, that would be a bad thing because in this country we need a legislature, we need a government that is a team that represents a range of experiences and a range of talents, a range of life, that can be brought to that task” .
Carrie Gracie: “You talked earlier about being badly treated so it wasn’t badly treated by Number Ten, could you just…”
Jacqui Smith: “No, absolutely not”.
Carrie Gracie: “Could you just elucidate. Was it the media we’re talking about effectively or other parts of the political establishment?
Jacqui Smith: “I think I’ve had a harder time than some for less sin, let me put it that way, because I was the first person for which there were questions about my expenses”.