Justine Greening: me and my rise to the heights of British politics


When I spoke to Justine Greening over the pre-event dinner at Hotel Indigo before her address at the Durham Union, I was struck by how much her personal story intertwines with her political vision, especially with regards to social mobility, or levelling up, as it has been rebranded, which occupied a large portion of any political conversation we had.

Although Greening was not particularly politically active throughout childhood, her background is, as she is keen to point out, remarkably political. Growing up in Rotherham in the 1980s, “it was a huge period of change. You had the steel industry, the coal industry. My dad and grandad worked in the steel industry. My dad ended up losing his job when it all transformed and wasn’t competitive anymore. And I suppose there was a huge public debate about why that had happened. And whose fault it was. Why were people losing their jobs?” Greening saw the raw effects of politics on her local community, and this is what gave her such a rich political education.

I think we won the argument that levelling up […] is now at the top of the agenda

This was the fertile soil from which Greening’s enthusiasm for social mobility could grow. She saw her father, a smart man, but without an education, lose his job, and felt a deep sense of injustice that some people are born into a situation with fewer opportunities. For Greening, social mobility was not merely an abstract theory that appealed to her, but something that was grounded in her lived experience.

Greening never had grand political ambitions, because “no one in my family was ever involved in politics […] it just wasn’t something that people like us did. We watched the news; other people did politics.” She remarks how “crazy” a thought it would have sounded to her and her family when she was young, that one day she would be sat on the Cabinet table. It was never a thought that crossed her mind, and she jokes how this was in stark contrast to a certain man called Boris Johnson who sat opposite her on the Cabinet table and wanted to be ‘world king’ since he was a toddler. According to Greening, “Where you start shapes where you think you can get.”

But Greening took advantage of the opportunities she was offered, attending the University of Southampton as the first member of her family to go to university. Still, Greening did not feel a pull towards politics. It seems to me that Greening almost fell naturally into politics. Bit by bit she came under its spell, starting with leafleting, to being a councillor, to being an MP, to being one of the foremost politicians in Britain. In this way, Greening is a model example of what social mobility can do. “Social mobility has defined my own life,” as she sums it up.

When I speak with politicians, I always ask them how they learn the skill of being a good MP. There is no job like it, so how does one work out how to be an effective MP? “Most of it is really just having some common sense. Being effective and I think dealing with people who get in touch with you in a way that you would want your own family to be dealt with.” Here again, Greening’s grounding in lived experience is clear. She thinks in terms of how politics impacts people in the here and now, rather than in a dreamland of ideas. Regardless of what you think about her and her party’s approach to issues, at least her approach is grounded in a genuine desire to help people.

Rotherham and Putney (Greening’s former constituency) are two very different places, I contend, and I wonder how it was dealing with this. To my surprise, “both communities were disconnected from opportunity but in different ways […] They have much more in common than they realised, and I remember thinking I don’t really have to be a different person when I’m in Putney when I go to Rotherham and that’s because I fit in at both places.”

Greening enjoyed representing Putney, and this was a springboard for higher office. She held shadow cabinet positions before serving in roles including Secretary of State for Transport, then International Development, and then Education. Her proudest achievement comes from her time at education. “We put social mobility at the heart of the department’s mission and its purpose and I think what we’re proud of is that I think we won the argument that levelling up […] is now at the top of the agenda and that is fundamentally what I wanted to achieve.” Again, it is social mobility that she cares about. She is also proud of working out logistically how the 2012 Olympics would work, and her response to Ebola.

Social mobility was not always at the top of the agenda. “I remember being in a debate in parliament in maybe 2018 and it was on social mobility, and it was in the chamber of the House of Commons, and there were literally just four or five Conservative MPs in there, hardly any Labour, and I remember thinking I think this is one of the most fundamental challenges facing Britain. The fact that people’s access to opportunity is so driven by their circumstances and where they start in life. Couldn’t understand why the chamber wasn’t full. So my mission was to get it to the top of the agenda and I think I did.” Perhaps, in Greening’s eyes, this is the overall crowning achievement of her time as a politician, for ‘levelling up’ is central to political discussion in this country. Now, it is not the care of a few MPs here and there, but it is one of the most major subjects of the day. Greening played a big part in making that the case.

Greening is also known as a prominent opponent of Brexit, and found herself as one of the Conservative MPs who had the whip withdrawn after opposing Boris Johnson over Brexit and Greening became an independent MP.

The history student in me leaped for joy when she mentioned her fascination with history, and, how, during Brexit, she became interested in the big turning points of the past: the English Civil War, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, and so on. For her, these were moments at which nations took one of two clear paths. And so, Greening found it to be interesting background reading.

Being kicked out of a party Greening had built her career around must have been hard. But Greening is adamant that she did the right thing, especially as a representative of Putney constituents. “My job as an MP is to represent my community […] my [constituency] was really clearly Remain-focused. And my job was to represent them on probably the most important national strategic question Britain faced.” For her, “my choice was really simple,” so she made it, and she accepts that the party was heading in a different direction.

I think there can only really be one guiding principle and that’s equality of opportunity

But Brexit is over, Greening emphasises, and the Conservatives must find a way forward. Again, Greening returns to levelling up, to make her final point of the interview. Levelling up “needs to stay at the core of the message, and so we’re beyond that Brexit time now in a way, so the big question facing the party is what’s that guiding principle and guiding mission now, and I think there really can only be one guiding principle and that’s equality of opportunity.”

It is clear that Greening has found and pursued a passion for levelling up. After she left Parliament in 2019, she has continued to campaign for social mobility, for example hosting the Fit For Purpose podcast, which looks out how business can level up Britain.

Soon, we tuck into some lovely steak, before Greening’s address at the Union. Throughout my time with Greening, I found her to be thoroughly kind and interested in Durham, and the newspaper (even taking home a past copy of Palatinate that I had brought along!). Driven by a vision for the country, levelling up will continue to define her political legacy, just as it has defined her life.

Image: Chris McAndrew via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Justine Greening: me and my rise to the heights of British politics

  • Yes, the education is very important. We need high qualified teachers for levelling up.
    We had some, but they run away. Unfortunately, more important are schools’ reports than the real results.
    Children from our area need good guidance and learning to respect the knowledge.


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