At first we thought we could ride it out, but it was heart-rendingly difficult...
The time: October 15 1964 The place: Akergill Castle, Caithness and Sutherland The woman: Lady Olga Maitland, MP
Tuesday 07 January 1997
My mother is a very strong Serb, a very intelligent woman, and even when I go to have soup and a light lunch with them we always talk about politics. My father was elected to Parliament in 1951, and I was very young, and when you're a small child politics permeates the walls, permeates the atmosphere, and I was always tremendously excited by it. My father was Conservative MP for Lanark, in Scotland, and I used to love the times when we went up there, every holiday, and we became part of the campaigning scene, much the way my children are with me in Sutton and Cheam.
And then in 1959, when I was at boarding school, I remember so vividly, I was in the house common room and over the radio came the result of my father's election in Lanark. And it was terrible, because you hear the first figures given out and then as the second figures are given out the cheering goes up for the winner, and of course the winner wasn't my father. And then I had to go out on to the sports field and play games. I was very upset for him, I had lived through so much of what he had been through and I knew how much it had meant to him. It was the life-blood of my father, very much supported by my mother, and it was a great sadness because I felt he had so much to give in politics.
Then of course we went through all the business of trying to find another seat to fight - because he wasn't one who would ever give up willingly or easily - and all the emotional traumas of going for interviews, going to visit seats. All the things I went through later.
My father was selected for Caithness and Sutherland, and he spent four years nursing that seat, and tragedy then overtook us because the local Conservatives quarrelled and the retiring MP decided to back an independent candidate. The independent was a local chap, and the outgoing MP was vicious in the way he interfered. It would never be tolerated today. At first we thought we could ride it out, but it was heart-rendingly difficult.
I'd gone off to America, and when I heard about the election date I immediately telephoned home and said, right, I'm coming back, and managed to get a cheap flight on Reykjavik Airways. I arrived in Scotland full of enthusiasm to help my father.
It was tough going, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. We were based in the most magical house called Akergill Castle, a very ancient medieval keep which we rented for the campaign. It's poised just above the sea, the rocks below, the gulls whirling around. The landscape is totally treeless and flat, very dramatic, and it's been known for fish to come down the chimney when the storms have been too great - that's the story, anyway. It was a wonderful, romantic setting as we'd foray off on the day's journeys - there were huge distances to cover and this wild, craggy Scots keep was part of the whole drama of the election campaign. And of course in those days Dounreay was still very active so you had a lot of rather interesting scientists living in Caithness.
I had a wonderful cousin who came up to help, David Maitland-Titterton. He was in his seventies, and he and I used to go out at night with a ladder and a big pail of paste and stick posters in all sorts of wild places, flyposting very expertly. I did it with enormous enthusiasm, which I've never really lost, and he kept me going with little flasks of brandy and would steady the ladder as I toddled up lamp-posts.
I was with my father every step of the way and it was a great education, just learning how a candidate deals with the press, the association, the volunteer force. I learnt his speech off by heart and, in the evenings when we were unwinding with a whisky, I'd mercilessly tease him about it. It had a bit of Churchillian rhetoric about it but it worked alright. And in the last few days we began to realise that it was very doubtful we'd hold the seat.
And then that ghastly walk round the count, in a civic hall in Wick, and we immediately could see it wasn't going to happen because our piles of ballot papers were smaller than other people's piles. The inevitable result was declared and in fact a kinsman won it for the Liberals. I remember standing outside and I was really very upset for my father. I think we were all rather shocked, so much had gone into that campaign. It was quite a turning point.
The next day I flew off to America. When I came back and started my career in journalism, I never imagined that I could really pull it off myself and become a politician. But there comes a phase where you want to do the actions, not report on the actions of others. Once I had made the mental transition, in my late thirties, and my youngest child had just been born, I knew it would be possible for me to go for it.
When I told my father about it - he had inherited his peerage in 1968 and gone to the Lords - he was very nervous for me. But he knew I'd always had it in mind, he could see I was determined and he was so helpful.
The great day came and I was selected for Sutton and Cheam. I rang my father, and said, "Guess what? They even gave me a standing ovation." And he said, "Hmph, and that's the last one you'll ever have," which is dead right.
He supported me throughout the election campaign in 1992, which was marvellous. I learnt the art of door-stepping or cold-calling from my father and I realised there is no short-cut. I do it a lot in Sutton - it catches my constituents by surprise. Sutton is a pretty solid Conservative area. It's where John Major was born and brought up - he spent more of his life in Sutton than in Brixton. I'd say John Major is an absolutely archetypal Sutton success. The couple who live the bungalow he grew up in bought it from his parents and, after the Major-Balls moved out, the couple went to the loft and found a trunk. They opened it and found a whole set of clown silks. And do you know what they did? They burnt them. They tell this against themselves and say, "Can you imagine? Our future prime minister." They're so proud of him. Come the election there's a poster of John Major on every single window. And some of the gnomes are still in the garden.
My father will be 86 in March and although he won't be with me for the election, he's certainly fit enough for us to have regular conversations. We're the first father and daughter pair in Parliament at the same time - him in the Lords and me in the Commons. I think by the time I got in to Parliament the disappointment, the pain factor had faded for him. I think he was just very proud that I'd achieved something I wantedn
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