My Biggest Mistake: Lady Anson

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Lady Anson, 62, is chairman of the Association of District Councils, deputy chairman of the Local Government Management Board, and a vice-president of the Institute of Environmental Health Officers. After reading law at King's College, University of London, she was called to the Bar in 1953 and subsequently worked as an immigration adjudicator. She has been a district councillor with Waverley Borough Council since 1974 and was Mayor from 1987-1988. Lady Anson is also a magistrate and a deputy lieutenant of Surrey. She joined the ADC in 1983 and became chairman in 1991.

MY BIGGEST mistake was giving up the chance to go to Oxford or Cambridge in order to go to King's College, London University, so that I could have a wonderful year with my parents in Malta first.

At the time, it didn't seem to matter much. It was only years later I realised I had fallen by the wayside on the network of Oxbridge people.

In my career as a barrister it wasn't a problem. There is no absence of people from King's College on the legal network - and, in law, it is pure ability that gets you promotion.

But it is different once you start in the political world. Do you realise one fifth of all public expenditure goes on quangos? It's who you know that gets you on to a quango, and the Oxbridge network makes all the difference.

Having left the world of work for 15 years to raise my children, I started as a councillor in quite a small area, and it took me a further 10 years to become part of the Association of District Councils.

Since 1983, I have been trying to persuade people that local government is not all bad. It has a lot going for it; it is full of dedicated, hard- working people, both elected members and officers.

It can help to revitalise the economy of this country, and there is a vast potential for partnership schemes with the private sector.

The present Secretary of State for the Environment and his ministers work very hard to show us that they recognise the way in which local government can help the economy and the country as a whole.

But back in the 1980s, local government was rather despised. It was therefore terribly important for the leaders of local government to be known and recognised across the country.

The best way to achieve this was through your contacts and your networks, and that is where I came unstuck.

When I was at university, we all thought the world was changing, and that Oxbridge wouldn't be so important in the years to come. Yet even today, the City, the statutory bodies and, of course, the Civil Service, are absolutely dominated by people from Oxford or Cambridge.

With the exception of dear John Major, who became Prime Minister without having been to university at all, you only need to look at the present Cabinet to see that.

Funnily enough, about 10 years ago I remember talking to Lord Young, who was just coming into the Cabinet, and who had been to London University, about this very subject. His view was that those in power were increasingly coming from outside the old network of Oxbridge.

But how long did he stay in the Cabinet?

I'm not saying the lack of an Oxbridge network is an insurmountable problem. These days I meet everyone in politics anyway, not only because I am chairman of the ADC, but also because I am on the National Union Executive for the Conservative Party, so that has compensated enormously.

It was just that much more difficult, being a recycled woman. It would have been quite all right if I had worked throughout my career, but if you leave this world for 15 years and then come back into it, you have to start building up your contacts all over again.

(Photograph omitted)