Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Conservative MP and MEP whose ferociously hard work enabled her to stand proud on the right wing of the party

She mixed politics with dairy and arable farming as well as practising at the Bar

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The Independent Online

There is a tendency to patronise the women who became MPs before women were fashionable. Recognition is wanting of the qualities of determination and defiance which got Elaine Kellett into Westminster.

Originally Elaine Kay from St Anne’s, she had married Norman Kellett, who died in 1959; marriage to Edward Bowman, chemist, Conservative alderman and future MEP, came a year after she was elected for marginal Lancaster in 1970. If she showed a long-running concern for children’s issues, she had reasons. With three sons and a daughter by her first marriage, and three stepsons and a stepdaughter accompanying the second, she could talk about “the family” with some authority. But the elements of struggle and hard work, which the most scornful opponents never denied, were there from the start.

Although she came from a comfortably-off business family, the death of her husband left her under great economic compulsions. The ferocious worker and ardent self-improver chose to combine early forays into politics with farming (149 acres mixed dairy and arable in Norfolk) and reading for and practising at the Bar. She would later explain her ability à la Thatcher to manage on very little sleep in terms of her practice at this time of running the farm by day and reading law at night.

She was already an Oxford graduate with a qualification in social welfare, and she had been a social worker for a year before her first marriage. Upon these tasks was superimposed the damage inflicted in the car crash which killed her husband in 1959, after which for some time she lost her memory.

Politically, she could count herself unlucky. Efforts to enter parliament were heroic: Young Conservatives, local council (in Denbigh), candidacies in hopeless Nelson and Colne (1955), the South West Norfolk by-election (1959) and the general election of the same year, Buckingham against Robert Maxwell in 1964 and ’66, and co-option as Alderman to Camden Council before taking Lancaster in 1970.

Her scorn for feminists demanding seats by right seemed very much in order, but she went unrewarded by the Tory machine. She had shown great guts and had the abilities of, at any rate, a dedicated Minister of State, worrying and working hard. But she was a freshman when Ted Heath formed his government; and by 1979 she was 55 and relying upon a prime minister wholly without sisterly instincts. She was therefore, over 27 years, a full-time backbencher.

Given the need to work and the want of responsibility under a Tory government, she became an MEP for Cumbria from 1979 for four years. Characteristically, her chief relaxation was bridge, which is not a relaxation. But unlike so many full-time politicians, she was, to say the least of it, not an habitué of the bars.

The dedication to work reflected a nonconformist background. Like Mrs Thatcher she was brought up in Methodism, but she was not a natural Thatcherite. Having studied social welfare and seen something of the East End as a social worker, and of rural Wales as land girl, she was without the class-war enmities which spoiled the former prime minister, and though she was happy enough with free-market directions, they, especially not the money worship, were not her driving impulse.

She was first and foremost a moralist. She spoke a kind of conservatism which embarrasses the press and sophisticated opinion, including much Tory opinion. She would be the butt of a good deal of patronising and dismissive talk. “Tory lady in hat favouring the death penalty” was a comfortable stereotype, and it was enhanced by a voice naturally high in the soprano range.

But the cliché undervalues her. She would speak of “evil”, and she favoured the death penalty in the worst cases. But she was not one of those restorationists with an unwholesome taste for the act, simply a believer in evil and its retribution. She argued that there were terrible acts, and that the death penalty measured the wickedness of the crime and offered some protection to the innocent.

Like such notable non-Roman Catholics as Ian Paisley she joined the essentially Catholic lobby against abortion, supporting David Alton’s bill for its limitation and control and the later one sponsored by Ann Widdecombe. But this unsmart stance was four-square with her resolute support of child benefit when ministers attempted the authentically Thatcherite act of cutting it. She would break ranks again in support of low-priced rural housing. But she could be stubbornly conservative in ways without the usual moral underpinning: support for cricket tours of old-style South Africa, indignation at Lord Scarman’s observations about elements of racial prejudice within the police were among them. Her own prejudice was in favour of due authority and its servants, something which ran her into a degree of illiberalism.

But the courage was not in doubt. Like most Tories she took a robust view of all things nuclear, including waste-processing, but it took a rugged insouciance to live within a mile of Sellafield. She was more likeable than her rather grim style suggests. There was a dry sense of humour, as when she exploded a Welsh Nationalist MP by quoting to him what he had said in Welsh about her to a colleague – “What’s that scraggy old hen going on about?” – explaining that she had studied Welsh at night school.  It was typical. She was working in Wales; learning the language seemed a responsible thing, and besides it was more work. Very Methodist.

No one can be without a pleasing edge who, on hearing Theresa Gorman delivering her customary lecture about the glories of hormone replacement, says that brain replacement would be more useful. Her faults and virtues complementary – narrow, driven, honest, short of flair but not compassion – Elaine Kellett-Bowman was a credit to women and politics and altogether a better thing than she was given credit for.

Mary Elaine Kay, politician: born St Anne’s 8 July 1923; MP for Lancaster 1970-97, MEP for Cumbria 1979–84; DBE 1988; married 1945 Norman Kellett (died 1959; three sons, one daughter), 1971 Edward Bowman (three stepsons, one stepdaughter); died 4 March 2014.

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