In the age of the identikit politician, Edwina Currie is anything but bland. Generous both with her time and anecdotes in this phone conversation with Palatinate, the former government minister turned novelist, broadcaster and reality television show star talks enthusiastically about everything from her childhood in Liverpool to a recent weekend spent watching Shrek with her granddaughter: “I was absolutely entranced”, she says of the film, clearly relishing immensely her “precious” role as a grandmother.
A self-confessed “socially liberal” Conservative, Currie’s view on the importance of family nevertheless remains entrenched in traditional values. Being a mother is a choice and one that is, in her opinion, being “seriously undermined” in modern society. “Motherhood is not imposed on us. It is the pattern of life for billions of women worldwide. The most militant feminists really misunderstand the nature of women’s lives.”
Having succeeded in a male-dominated environment, Currie has little time for those who indulge in self-pity. She argues that the advancement of women’s rights (or anyone’s rights for that matter) has “nothing to do with movements that say ‘it’s somebody else’s fault that I fail’”.
That antipathy towards feminism, particularly the radical strand that appeared during Currie’s formative years, is one she shared with the dominant political figure of the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher. Currie speaks with genuine admiration of the Prime Minister under whom she served as Health minister, pinpointing the miners’ strike, which became an issue in her own constituency, as the moment Thatcher came into her element. “She was absolutely steadfast. Nobody else would have stood up to the unions in the way that she did.”
There are obvious and important similarities between the two. Thatcher also studied at Oxford, came from an ordinary background, and had a father who ran a shop. Currie identifies their shared “outsider” status and, with a nod to Little Britain, jokingly likens being a Conservative MP from Liverpool to “being the only gay in the village”.
Currie, who spoke at the Union Society on Friday after our telephone conversation, is on safe ground when making quips like that. Ahead of her time in terms of gay rights, she sought to frame the 1994 debate about lowering the age of homosexual consent around removing government interference in people’s private affairs. Yet it was also an equality issue for her: “adults should be able to consent in exactly the same way and at the same age whether gay or straight”. Anything else, in her view, was tantamount to discrimination enforced by “unpleasant fools” opposing equality.
Given her relatively socially liberal outlook, it seems quite legitimate to ask how this “outsider” became a Conservative. Currie describes at length seeing “the worst of trade unionism up close” during her childhood in Liverpool, and the prevailing consensus that union leaders could “close down the docks and factories any time they liked”. It was a consensus that riled Currie, who acknowledges her own “naturally rebellious” disposition, intensely. She felt that the Labour politicians in the city “lost an important part of equality, which is excellence”. Meanwhile, “the Tory Party seemed to be in favour of all the progressive, forward-looking, encouraging things. I was a Tory by the time I was 14”.
Only after going to university, where Currie discovered that she could hold her own among the brightest students in the country, did she consider a career in Westminster. “I found fairly quickly that I could stand up and make an argument. I’d read the same books, gone to the same lectures, but I’d come from a much rougher background, and I knew what I was talking about rather more.” That “belief and self-confidence”, which Currie identifies as absolutely essential for success, then led her to parliament in 1983.
The manner in which her fledgling ministerial career ended abruptly five years later remains the cause of considerable regret. She quotes Enoch Powell, typically referenced for his distasteful views on immigration, for his “wise” observation that “all ministerial careers end in tears”. Currie’s ended when she provoked outraged by stating that most of Britain’s egg production was infected with the salmonella bacteria. Despite angering the entire farming industry, her assertion was vindicated when the government cover-up was exposed. “I wish I had managed to convince my colleagues about eggs, because I was right, and the nation knew it. She [Thatcher] should have moved me to education, or local government, and promoted me. That’s what should have happened, but I got scrambled instead!” she says, half-joking, half wistful. “All political life is frustrating”, she continues: “if you’ve achieved everything you set out to do, then you’re bereft. If, however, you still feel as though there are things that still need your attention, you’re distraught.”
With fewer regrets, Currie reflects on Thatcher’s tearful exit from Downing Street in November 1990. “She was in office too long. By the time Margaret left she had gone a bit bonkers and was extremely difficult to deal with. I voted for her to leave because we knew that if we wanted to keep Thatcherism, we had to get rid of Thatcher.” Was it the right decision in hindsight? “The result [in 1992] showed we were right. We had to defeat Kinnock, and that meant a change of leadership. Unfortunately the next leader did not turn out to be a very good Prime Minister.”
The affair with Thatcher’s successor, for which Currie is arguably most famous, does not come up directly in our conversation. However, she delivers an extended critique of John Major’s premiership, arguing ruefully that “he didn’t have leadership qualities”, suggesting also that many of the problems faced by the Conservative Party today originate from his failure to quell its Eurosceptic fringe whilst it was still relatively weak. She highlights the “argument about privatising the rail industry” and the “row over Maastricht and the EU” as being Major’s abiding legacy.
Although it is nearly a quarter of a century since the Conservatives last won a general election outright, Currie rejects any notion that there is a crisis of conservatism in Britain. “At the last election he [David Cameron] won a hundred seats, but we were starting from an extremely low base, which is why we got so close but not quite close enough to form a government.” Her vision is of an electoral system that would be “streamlined”, “less expensive to run” and “more responsive to the electorate”. With more than a hint of mischief, she argues that “if we did have it, the Tories would win hands down, and that’s why we haven’t got it”. That aside, she concedes that the Tories face a battle to restore trust with swathes of the electorate, and feels that going ahead with HS2 will help in that respect up north.
Just as our conversation is drawing to a close, Edwina Currie has one final thing to say: “politics should be an honourable profession”, she insists persuasively, “and it will be if honourable people join in. My lot are too old… the next generation are still blotting their copybooks by getting drunk and messing up their expenses. So your generation have got to take over and I hope you do a better job. Politics will only work if the best people are prepared to come and have a go.”