Former Labour MP Glenda Jackson died, aged 87, on 15 June. This interview was first published in the New Statesman on 14 August 2014.
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.