Champion of the citizens of Liverpool against central government
Thursday 29 July 2004
"I am my own visual aid," wrote Margaret Simey in her last published book, which came out when she was 90.
The Disinherited Society was subtitled "A Personal View of Social Responsibility in Liverpool During the Twentieth Century". Few other lives have been so entwined for so long with Liverpool's fortunes and politics.
Margaret Bayne Todd, social scientist, politician and community activist: born Glasgow 4 January 1906; married 1935 Thomas Simey (created 1965 Baron Simey, died 1969; one son); died Liverpool 27 July 2004.
"I am my own visual aid," wrote Margaret Simey in her last published book, which came out when she was 90. The Disinherited Society was subtitled "A Personal View of Social Responsibility in Liverpool During the Twentieth Century". Few other lives have been so entwined for so long with Liverpool's fortunes and politics.
As a councillor, campaigner, writer and community activist, Simey spent her life agitating for the rights of those she saw as disinherited by centralised government and bureaucratic control by both of the main political parties. She believed passionately in the right of people to participate in decisions and take greater responsibility for their own lives and institutions.
She was born Margaret Todd in 1906, not in Liverpool but in Glasgow, into a comfortable Scottish Presbyterian family (she still retained more than a hint of her native accent). Her parents moved to London when Margaret was small, and she was educated at St Paul's Girls' School, where she received a first-class education but never felt at home. The family moved to Liverpool in the early 1920s when her father was appointed head of a further education college. Something "clicked into place" for Margaret and the city became her home for the rest of her life.
Liverpool at that time was still a place of handsome terraces occupied by the merchant classes, Unitarian high-mindedness, civic endeavour and pride, as well as gaunt Roman Catholic churches, tenements, pawnshops, terrible poverty, religious conflict, and huggermugger living conditions. Despite all the changes since, what has never changed is the polyglot nature of the city in which Margaret revelled. From 1945 she lived in Toxteth in a tall, handsome, rickety house which, she liked to boast, was part of Liverpool's last privately owned Georgian terrace.
She had a long association with Liverpool University. Margaret Todd was one of the first cohort of "graduates" from the Social Science course at Liverpool University in 1928; for its first 20 years, the department awarded diplomas not degrees. In old age she was appointed an Honorary - but intellectually active - Senior Fellow, and was given an honorary doctorate in 1988. When she became too incapacitated to leave her home on her own, the university sent students to her for informal tutorials.
It was at a university folk dance that she met the young lecturer Tom Simey, who in 1939 became Charles Booth Professor of Social Science, and was made a life peer in 1965. They were married in 1935. Tom Simey was the chairman of the Merseyside Refugee Committee during the 1930s: at one point the Simeys had eight German Jewish refugees staying in their house. During the Second World War, she and her husband went to the West Indies as consultants, looking at, advising on, and, importantly, learning from emerging ways of governance.
Margaret Simey had fallen early under the influence of Eleanor Rathbone, scion of the well-known Liverpool philanthropic family, who was the first woman elected to Liverpool City Council and later a campaigning Labour MP. Simey became involved in the explosion of voluntary activity, particularly the girls' clubs and university settlement movement, which coincided with her formative years. She took up politics and served as a councillor on Liverpool City Council from 1963 and on (the now defunct) Merseyside County Council from 1974. She represented the Granby ward on both councils over a period of 23 years.
Race, unemployment and the police service occupied her time in the chair of Merseyside's County Police Committee. She came to national prominence during the Toxteth riots of 1981, when she said (much to Margaret Thatcher's chagrin) that people would have been mad if they hadn't rioted. It was she who engaged in long tussles with the then Chief Constable, Kenneth Oxford, with whom, ironically, she was at first much taken.
Critics who saw this (as it was often portrayed) as a loony left-wing attempt to undermine the police could not have misunderstood Margaret Simey more. For her, accountability was all of a piece and the police could be no more immune from it than anyone else, herself, as a politician and community activist, included.
Simey produced a steady flow of books - from Charles Booth (1960), a life of the social researcher and anti-poverty campaigner, written with her husband, to Government by Consent (1985), exploring the principle and practice of accountability in local government, Democracy Rediscovered: a study in police accountability (1988), Charity Rediscovered: a study of philanthropic effort in nineteenth-century Liverpool (1992) and The Disinherited Society (1996). There were also countless papers, articles, lectures and reviews. Her last book, From Rhetoric to Reality, a study of the life and work of Frederick D'Aeth, the founding lecturer in Social Science at Liverpool University, will be published in March 2005.
Much of what she wrote showed an angry, passionate, concerned and committed woman. She took pride in being "a thoroughly awkward customer" - a criticism once made of her which she took as a badge of pride. If she were not, who else would have been so cussed on behalf of Liverpool and other people disinherited by centralised government, among whom she included herself?
Simey always spoke of Liverpool and its citizens as "us" - if their voice was not listened to, then neither was hers. The big problem, she said once, was not unemployment, race or the police - it was "us" not being listened to. Whitehall, she complained, wanted to impose its own solutions on the city, whether run by Michael Heseltine as Environment Secretary or New Labour.
In a letter in 1999 she wrote:
I survive, being the surviving kind, but I don't grow old gracefully. I'm engaged in a battle with Millbank [the Labour Party HQ] - not against change and reform but against the ham-handed way they set about it. This is exactly what we encountered in the West Indies all those years ago. The kind Colonial Office smothered them [the West Indians] with good intentions just as Tony et al now treat us in Liverpool. They are hell bent on turning our polyglot population into nice Middle England types. What folly!
Her son, Iliffe, an award-winning architect, lived for some years in Lesotho. In her eighties, Simey became passionately interested in the communal living patterns of Africa, in which she divined something of what she looked for in community life in Britain: mutuality.
Margaret Simey was a person of great physical presence. Possessed of large amounts of physical and emotional energy, she was notable in her tall, angular build, topped by a bun of silver hair. Yet she was someone who was also very physically graceful.
In old age she railed against her exclusion and that of her contemporaries from a society she believed had no use for them but that did not stop her constantly elbowing a place for herself. She didn't want "them" doing good to "us". One of the last articles she wrote stated:
Elderly people must be emancipated from their present state of helpless dependence.
They must be allowed their fair share of responsibility for their own well-being and that of the community to which they belong. Here is the last cause I mean to fight!
When she was 90 I heard her tell an audience that, when Charles Booth, in his other guise as Liverpool shipowner, organised 1,000-mile trips up the Amazon, he counselled his passengers to avoid seasickness by keeping their eyes on the horizon. It was on that distant (but, to her, reachable point) that Simey's sharp, blue eyes were for so long focused.
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