The woman who makes a fuss

Observations on Hampstead Socialists

The death of Roy Jenkins not only robbed Oxford of its chancellor, and the House of Lords of one of its more baroque ornaments: it also left the organisers of Peggy Jay's 90th birthday party last Tuesday looking for another speaker. Jenkins had asked to make the speech. He was a Labour cabinet colleague of Jay's late ex-husband, Douglas Jay, as well as an old friend of hers.

But there was more to it than that. Peggy Jay embodies a spirit of public responsibility that characterises her extended family, which includes cabinet ministers past and present, such as Virginia Bottomley and Margaret Jay, the head of the diplomatic service, Sir Michael Jay, peers of all party colours, regulators and trustees - there is hardly a sector of public life in which one of her relations has not served.

It is an ideal of public service that is not very fashionable now, because it trails more than a whiff of noblesse oblige. Douglas Jay himself once wrote that "the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better". But we should not dismiss such people as patricians patronising the workers. They were born into privileged backgrounds (Peggy and Douglas were both raised in Hampstead), took a look at the less salubrious neighbourhoods down the hill, were shocked by what they saw, and grew determined to do something about it.

"I used to rush around saying: 'Who is responsible?'" says Peggy Jay, who was a member of the London County and Greater London Councils. "Barbara Castle made me chairman of a committee to sort out training for those working with the mentally handicapped, and she was attacked in the House when the report came out. She said: 'If I hadn't wanted a controversial report, I shouldn't have asked Peggy Jay to chair it.' I was quite pleased with that." Such was her reputation that it almost put off the City of London Corporation from taking over as custodian of Hampstead Heath. "They said: 'There's this awful woman, Peggy Jay, she makes such a fuss, she's so difficult.'"

She left Labour to join the SDP, now finds new Labour much more to her liking, but does not feel able to change parties again. "I can't stand hearing attacks on the Labour Party. I feel that I'm still a Labour person, even though I'm a Lib Dem."

A few will never forgive her, forgetting that the more important divide is between the progressive and the conservative parties. Why anyone should want to identify with the latter is a mystery to Jay. When her niece Virginia Bottomley became a Tory, she says: "I was really very shocked. I was very fond of her when she was growing up. I used to give her ice cream and syrup at County Hall."

We need the likes of Peggy Jay, those who grew up believing that their mission was "to make the world a better place" and were gloriously convinced of their ability to do so regardless of party. "We wanted to see if we could equalise things a bit," she says. It is a mark of how much we need her kind that that statement sounds more radical and straightforward than anything now coming from Westminster.

Sholto Byrnes writes for the Independent