Margaret Beckett: “If you want to be at the table, you have to be in politics”

Natasa Pantelic
© Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

One of the great joys in life is spending time with remarkable people who inspire you and give you a new perspective on the world. Dame Margaret Beckett MP is such a person. I recently spoke with her to reflect on some of her greatest achievements in frontline politics to mark 15 years since she was appointed Britain’s first female Foreign Secretary by Tony Blair. It’s impossible to cover everything about Margaret here, but I hope it gives you a flavour of why she commands huge respect in the Labour Party.

I ring Margaret with a mix of nerves and excitement. I’ve only ever met her once after a Parliamentary Labour Party meeting where, an insider tells me, “you can hear a pin drop” when she speaks. She’s warm, funny and pragmatic and smiles as I list the glass ceilings she’s broken in her time in politics that so far spans over 40 years. She tells me she doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but I think it’s important not to forget those achievements.

Margaret entered parliament in 1974 as Margaret Jackson to represent the Lincoln constituency and in 1975 was appointed a government whip by Harold Wilson. She was later, in 1976, parliamentary under-secretary of state for education and science under James Callaghan. She is the only remaining direct link the Labour Party has with its time in government during this decade. After losing her seat in the 1979 general election, she was elected as MP for Derby South in 1983 as Margaret Beckett following her marriage to Lionel (Leo) Beckett, a Labour activist in his own right and very much still by her side.

I ask Margaret what her first memory was, walking into the House of Commons, as a newly elected MP. She recalls: “I can tell you that quite precisely because by then I had been working at [Labour] party headquarters for about four years. I’d been in and out of the House of Commons, if not daily, very frequently, and I basically knew my way around and I knew a lot of the people. Bear in mind at that time there were very few women so I knew a lot of the policemen. I walked up to the St Stephen’s entrance, and the guy who was on duty there was one of the people I knew, and he pulled the door open and said ‘welcome in ma’am!’ and he and I both giggled.”

After the 1992 general election, Margaret was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party (the first woman to hold the post) and served under John Smith as shadow leader of the House of Commons. She became the first woman to lead the Labour Party after his sudden death from a heart attack in 1994, before Tony Blair won the leadership election later that year. Watching back a snippet of her questions to the Prime Minister at the time, John Major, she’s calm, sharp and passionate. It was a master class in how to do House of Commons set pieces well.

We spend some time reflecting on how the party changed during the 1990s and, with some trepidation, Margaret said: “I’ve always been grateful to Peter [Mandelson], for what he did to make the party conscious that it actually really wasn’t good enough. If we wanted to be seen as a potential government, it really wasn’t good enough. And I remember going to a rally in Northampton, when Neil [Kinnock] was leader with a very old friend who’d been active in the Labour Party for a long time. We got towards the end of the rally and he turned to us [Margaret and Leo] and said ‘now I know it’s New Labour, nothing fell down!’ It was well run, well-staged – it was an excellent meeting.” The party gained the confidence, vision and policies to win the 1997 general election by a landslide and more Labour women than ever before were elected to parliament at the time.

Margaret held a number of important positions in the New Labour government before being appointed Foreign Secretary, including the first ever Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It’s worth noting that as Trade Secretary (again, the first woman to hold the post), she steered Labour’s key manifesto pledge for a national minimum wage through parliament, which introduced a legal floor for the wages many of us enjoy today. She stressed for it to be as universal as possible to ensure fairness and social justice. This is one of the best examples of why a Labour government matters.

I ask Margaret what we need to do from this point to get back to power. “We have to convince people that we can be a government, and that we are a government that they can trust to be on their side. I said a long time ago, in Gordon Brown’s cabinet I think, actually, that the question of trust is the big one in politics. In my view, the people will trust us again, more than they have done of late, when they think that the things that are most important to them are the things that are important to us.”

Tony Blair appointed Margaret Beckett as Britain’s first female Foreign Secretary in May 2006. While it wasn’t welcomed at first by some, including the press, it was a role in which Margaret shined. She is well-known as a politician that likes to get things done and she made a huge difference, not least by driving forward the Non-Proliferation Treaty on behalf of the United Kingdom, as someone who’s always been an advocate for a world free from nuclear weapons.

I ask her to describe taking on this task. She tells me: “We did it jointly with the MoD [Ministry of Defence] and the Foreign Office. We set up a group with the most senior civil servants, and set them the task of re-examining our nuclear policy from first principles. You know, should we have it, why should we have it, what’s your middle level, et cetera. They reported back to the cabinet and then we drafted the white paper.”

She continues: “We put in place a lot of practical steps to actually move the policy forward. Then, right at the end of my time as Foreign Secretary, I’d been asked to speak at this conference in Washington, and it was agreed I should go and pledge the Labour government to move to work for the complete removal of nuclear weapons everywhere in the world.”

Margaret delivered this pledge in June 2007 at the Carnegie International Non-proliferation Conference in Washington D.C., which, to this day, is remembered as one of the most important speeches rallying world leaders to take action. She said that day: “Weak action on disarmament, weak consensus on proliferation are in none of our interests. And any solution must be a dual one that sees movement on both proliferation and disarmament – a revitalisation, in other words, of the grand bargain struck in 1968, when the Non-Proliferation Treaty was established.”

Margaret emphasises to me (and I feel the weight of her words): “It was the first time that the government of an existing nuclear power, while in office, had made that commitment to pursue complete nuclear disarmament. Barack Obama did it afterwards but we were the first.”

The Non-Proliferation Treaty has seen the steady decline of the number of warheads worldwide, so it was shocking to see the present Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announcing this year that Britain would be increasing its nuclear stockpile. Margaret tells me “it’s concerning because it appears to be a complete reversal of policy” and says the government’s decision to reduce our aid budget target is “pandering to the worst instincts”. I couldn’t agree more.

Margaret was one of the first politicians to put climate change on the political map. As a new UN report outlines the changes we must make to avoid catastrophic, irreversible changes to our planet, it’s worth remembering what global action could achieve. Climate change is regarded as one of the key threats to the United Kingdom’s national security and is considered in parliament by the joint committee on the national security strategy, chaired by Margaret.

She describes what happened when Labour was in government: “A lot of people had been doing it before but we took it forward. Tony [Blair] was very much a believer. Tony did it more than probably any other world leader at that time, to promote the cause of tackling climate change. We made it a top issue for our presidency of the G8 and the European Union. Both presidencies were in 2005 and Tony had planned that from 2002. I was sitting in the hall at the Johannesburg Sustainability Summit and it was the day that the leaders had come over, and there was Tony and me and one of his officials and one of mine sitting in this hall. Tony said to me, ‘I’ve been thinking about the presidency of the G8 and the European Union, which both come in 2005. From now on, I want you to make that a top priority for the work of your department’. And we did.” 

Margaret tells me more about what she did when she chaired the UN Security Council as, just before our conversation, she’d just received a message of goodwill from a former UN Ambassador who was remembering “an occasion when we were in the chair at the Security Council when I insisted, and it was absolutely resisted including in the Foreign Office, that climate change was seen as a matter of peace and security”. 

She says: “To me, that was just elementary: if you can’t feed your kids, if you can’t grow your crops and so on, you’re going to move. And when lots of people need to move, that’s when you get wars. It had always been resisted, and the Americans didn’t want it and the Foreign Office didn’t want it, but I insisted, and we had the first ever debate in the Security Council on climate change, as a matter of peace and security.” Persistence and determination can really make a difference in politics, which Margaret continues to exemplify to this day. 

I ask Margaret if she would do anything differently as Foreign Secretary if she could do it all over again. She isn’t certain but reflects: “I did not cultivate the media as Foreign Secretary, the people I cultivated were the foreign ministers. The reason I did that was because I was very conscious of the tremendous expertise and experience there is in the Foreign Office. You’re thinking, ‘what can an individual minister who’s usually not in that job for more than a year or two, if that, contribute?’ and the more I thought about it the more I thought you could do that. What your department couldn’t substitute for was to build relationships and trust with your colleagues, with your peers. Because if you could do that, then you could make a difference. 

“So that’s what I concentrated on, and I think I felt I had achieved it to some degree. For example, the first time I met Condoleezza Rice and other people who were trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. I’d been in the job two days, I think. We had a very successful meeting in Washington and they asked me to chair the next meeting and also the German and French Foreign Ministers reported back to the EU Foreign Ministers, what a successful meeting it had been and so on. So, I think I did succeed in doing what I had wanted to do by the reaction of a lot of my colleagues when I left the job.”

My parting question to Margaret is what advice she’d give to anyone wanting to come into politics, particularly women. Margaret paused, then said: “The people sitting at the table are the politicians. That’s where you have to be, unless you’re born to wealth and power. If you want to be at the table, you have to be in politics.”

After putting the phone down to Margaret, I jumped in the air and messaged a few friends to tell them what a great conversation we had. I was filled with optimism and in awe of the extraordinary experiences she shared with me, driving forward change at home and on the world stage. Everyone needs to know about Britain’s longest-serving woman in parliament and I hope this piece gives you a small insight into why. I also hope we don’t have to wait too long for another Labour woman to lead the Foreign Office – if she’s anything like Margaret, they won’t know what’s hit them.

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