Glenda Jackson, once an actor, was treated as either an "airhead" or a "diva" upon entering parliament. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Glenda Jackson: “Britain is in danger of being governed by pensioners like me”

The Hampstead MP and former Oscar-winning actor on why people her age shouldn’t run politics, coming close to “castrating" her male colleagues, and being an “anti-sociable socialist”.

It’s hard to imagine Glenda Jackson being scared of anything. A firecracker in the Commons, she has reduced Iain Duncan Smith to slumping in his seat like a guilty schoolboy and she stunned the House with her blistering “tribute” following Margaret Thatcher’s death last year. She wasn’t always so comfortable in the chamber. Of her maiden speech in 1992, she tell me: “It was the most frightening experience of my life. [I was] absolutely petrified . . . It suddenly struck me that here I was, representing a constituency synonymous with some of the world’s greatest exponents of the English language. I mean, the name Keats suddenly came steaming into my head. God! It was very frightening.”

Jackson’s performance anxiety is even more unlikely when you remember that, before becoming MP for Hampstead and Highgate (now Hampstead and Kilburn), she had been an actor, starring in Ken Russell’s Women in Love and memorably giving a deadpan turn as Cleopatra on The Morecambe and Wise Show.

The daughter of a bricklayer, Jackson was born on Merseyside in 1936 and worked at Boots after leaving school at 16. She went on to train at Rada in London and began her acting career on stage. Was her maiden speech more nerve-racking than any of her star turns? “Infinitely . . . [Stage fright] is something that grew every performance but, once the curtain went up, you couldn’t afford that indulgence. Well, no curtain went up that particular evening.”

As she talks, Jackson puts her feet up on the cavernous bottom drawer of her wooden desk, contorting her face in thought and occasionally flashing a pixie-like grin. A map of Hampstead and Kilburn is neatly pinned on the noticeboard of her Commons office and hangs next to a few books, but there is no hint of her unusual history. She smiles and says: “[I’m] not big on the past.”

Were her colleagues star-struck when she first arrived? “No,” she says, her smile vanishing. “I was treated either as an airhead who would fall flat on her face or as some unconscionably egotistical diva who would demand treatment different to everybody else. Neither of those assessments bears any relation to me whatsoever.”

She recalls a subcommittee in which a female colleague’s suggestion was dismissed. Then, she says, “Five minutes later a man came up with exactly the same proposal and all his colleagues said, ‘What a marvellous idea.’ And I said, ‘But she said that ten minutes ago.’ And it was as though we had attempted – what do you call it when you cut a man’s balls off?”

“Castration?” I venture.

“Thank you!” Jackson cries. “It was as though we had attempted some kind of castration.” She continues: “It is never, ever a level playing field. No man will go to his death and have an obituary which will refer to his tiger-skin, kitten-heeled shoes.”

Yet there is one woman whom Jackson makes no secret of disliking. Amid gushing Commons tributes to Thatcher in April last year, she gave a speech that accused the former prime minister of “wreaking . . . the most heinous social, economic and spiritual damage on this country” and concluded: “A woman? Not on my terms.”

Does Jackson ever scare her fellow parliamentarians? “I wouldn’t think so. We hardly ever speak to each other . . . Opportunities to be sociable are quite limited. But then, I’m an anti-sociable socialist.” Quaking Tories may be relieved that she will stand down in 2015. Her decision is “entirely age-driven”. “I shall be almost 80 . . . You need somebody younger. This country is in danger of being governed by pensioners like me. I don’t think that’s the best way forward.”

The only moment Jackson shows her age in our interview is when she admits that she is “IT-illiterate”. She doesn’t even have a computer on her desk. This puts her at odds with her son, Dan Hodges, a Labour commentator and Telegraph blogger, who is a prolific user of Twitter – and a constant critic of Ed Miliband. How does Jackson, who voted for the younger Miliband to become Labour leader, feel about her son’s writing?

“On one side, I’m sick of it!” she says, laughing. “I told him that Conservative MPs keep coming up to me and saying, ‘Ooh, I do enjoy what your son writes and he does make me laugh,’ and my Labour colleagues don’t seem to say anything. But I think you’ve done quite well as a parent if your kid holds positions totally opposite to your own. Then again, there are criticisms with which I agree. For far too long, we didn’t have a policy to bless ourselves with and we still have this inherent problem that we do have policies but still aren’t selling them strongly enough. It’s not playing out there . . . You do wonder who’s advising him [Miliband], sometimes.”

What does she think of his vision for a “one-nation” Britain? “I don’t like visionaries,” she shrugs. “I was taught the only path a leader will take is up the garden path.”

Jackson doesn’t have time to argue with her son about Labour. “I don’t see him enough to be able to. The hours here are funny. You’ve got too much on. He’s a grown-up and I’m a grown-up, so you have to learn to live with your differences.”

Perhaps she’ll have that time after she leaves parliament next year – or maybe she’ll find she’s too busy being the “appalling old lady” she promises to become in the final paragraph of Chris Bryant’s 1999 biography of her. Another part it would be worth watching her play.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

Show Hide image

Leader: Mourning in Manchester

Yet another attack shows we are going to have to get to used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state.

Children are murdered and maimed by a suicide bomber as they are leaving a pop concert in Manchester. As a consequence, the government raises the terror threat to “critical”, which implies that another attack is imminent, and the army is sent out on to the streets of our cities in an attempt to reassure and encourage all good citizens to carry on as normal. The general election campaign is suspended. Islamic State gleefully denounces the murdered and wounded as “crusaders” and “polytheists”.

Meanwhile, the usual questions are asked, as they are after each new Islamist terrorist atrocity. Why do they hate us so much? Have they no conscience or pity or sense of fellow feeling? We hear, too, the same platitudes: there is more that unites us than divides us, and so on. And so we wait for the next attack on innocent civilians, the next assault on the free and open society, the next demonstration that Islamism is the world’s most malignant and dangerous ideology.

The truth of the matter is that the Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was born and educated in Britain. He was 22 when he chose to end his own life. He had grown up among us: indeed, like the London bombers of 7 July 2005, you could call him, however reluctantly, one of us. The son of Libyan refugees, he supported Manchester United, studied business management at Salford University and worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. Yet he hated this country and its people so viscerally that he was prepared to blow himself up in an attempt to murder and wound as many of his fellow citizens as possible.

The Manchester massacre was an act of nihilism by a wicked man. It was also sadly inevitable. “The bomb was,” writes the Mancunian cultural commentator Stuart Maconie on page 26, “as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on ‘boyfs’ and ‘bezzies’ and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.”

We understand the geopolitical context for the atrocity. IS is under assault and in retreat in its former strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. Instead of urging recruits to migrate to the “caliphate”, IS has been urging its sympathisers and operatives in Europe to carry out attacks in their countries of residence. As our contributing writer and terrorism expert, Shiraz Maher, explains on page 22, these attacks are considered to be acts of revenge by the foot soldiers and fellow-travellers of the caliphate. There have been Western interventions in Muslim lands and so, in their view, all civilians in Western countries are legitimate targets for retaliatory violence.

An ever-present threat of terrorism is the new reality of our lives in Europe. If these zealots can murder children at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there is no action that they would not consider unconscionable. And in this country there are many thousands – perhaps even tens of thousands – who are in thrall to Islamist ideology. “Terror makes the new future possible,” the American Don DeLillo wrote in his novel Mao II, long before the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. The main work of terrorists “involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.”

Immediately after the Paris attacks in November 2015, John Gray reminded us in these pages of how “peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind”. We are going to have to get used to the idea that our liberalism and our freedoms can only be preserved by a strong state. “The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility,” John Gray wrote. Liberals may not like it, but a strong state is the precondition of any civilised social order. Certain cherished freedoms may have to be compromised. This is the new tragic narrative.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496