Mary Mandelson

Mother and daughter of politicians
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The Independent Online

Mary Joyce Morrison: born London 30 May 1921; married 1941 Bill Williams (marriage dissolved 1948), 1948 Tony Mandelson (died 1988; two sons); died St Helens, Merseyside 14 February 2006.

Mary Mandelson was the only child of Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister in Clement Attlee's government. She was also the earliest - and most important - political influence on her son Peter Mandelson, the former cabinet minister, close ally of Tony Blair and now European Commissioner for Trade.

Although a lifelong Labour Party member of strong political views, particularly as a champion of civil liberties and anti-racism, Mary inherited the distaste of her own mother, Margaret, for the exposure that went with public life. When Morrison made a speech on the eve of the 1929 election asking the voters of Hackney South to return him to Parliament as an "eighth birthday present for Mary", she told her father brusquely to keep her name out of "beastly politics".

Educated at state schools in Eltham, south London - where she was sometimes teased both by other children and Conservative-inclined teachers on account of her famous father - Mary Morrison moved to Hampstead Garden Suburb, where she would live for most of her life, working during the Second World War with a Quaker organisation helping refugees from Europe. She was married - briefly - to Bill Williams, the son of a junior agriculture minister, Tom Williams.

She was working as a secretary at the advertising agency Dorland after the war when she met and fell in with love with Tony Mandelson, with whom she had a long and happy marriage and brought up two sons, Miles, a clinical psychologist, and Peter. It was a romantic courtship. Both she and Tony Mandelson were unhappily married to other people. Photographs of the time show her as stunningly pretty; he was an equally handsome, witty, irreverent Jewish extrovert.

After Tony Mandelson died in 1988, the family found a tender love letter written to him in 1947 by Mary, accompanying her father on an official visit, from the British ambassador's residence in Paris, and containing, among much else, a lyrical description of a horse chestnut tree in the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré. In his diaries, the then ambassador, Duff Cooper, complained about sitting next to "Mrs Williams" at dinner during the same visit and her failure to respond to his conversational overtures. No doubt Cooper, a notorious philanderer, was irritated at making so little impact on such an attractive young woman.

But the contrast is illustrative; Mary Mandelson was very shy in public as well as notably unimpressed by fame. Well into the 1960s, for example, the Mandelsons were good friends of Harold and Mary Wilson, their neighbours in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Once Wilson was elected Prime Minister, Mary Mandelson, unlike her husband, had little interest in maintaining the connection. She refused to visit the House of Commons even for her son's maiden speech.

Yet within her family and among close friends she was a sharply perceptive conversationalist as well as a devoted wife and mother, giving her two sons the happy and secure home life she had somewhat lacked thanks to Herbert Morrison's long absences and his own not particularly happy marriage.

By Miles Mandelson's own account, his younger brother Peter, while in many ways resembling his father more, was in childhood and beyond the closer of the two brothers to his mother; Miles, more like his mother, was closer to his father. She was certainly attentive, putting record after record on the stereogram to ensure a soothing background of Vivaldi or Telemann for her younger son as he revised for his A levels.

Steve Howell, a schoolfriend of Peter Mandelson, wrote in the last issue of their Hendon Young Socialists magazine a warm tribute to Mary Mandelson for her patience in typing out the often indecipherable articles it contained, and has recorded how she supplied endless fried egg sandwiches and hot chocolate to Peter and his friends returning from school.

Peter Mandelson has said that his mother was "the more intellectually influential" of his two parents and that Mary was largely responsible for "making me into a fairly moderate mainstream middle-of-the-road Labour Party member". She was no Gaitskellite; Hugh Gaitskell had after all defeated Morrison for the Labour leadership in 1955. She joined in the highly sociable expeditions the family made in their Sunbeam Talbot, loaded with a roast chicken and wine picnic to meet friends on the last leg of the CND-organised Aldermaston marches in the early Sixties.

She was also an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Anti-Apartheid Movement as well as Amnesty International and the National Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty), contributing money - including, in the latter two cases, in her will - rather than attending meetings. Infuriated, however, by Enoch Powell's infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968, she took Peter on a local march to protest against it. But, when in the 1970s Tony Mandelson veered to the left, supporting Tony Benn and even adopting a tolerant attitude to the far-left Young Socialists, Mary Mandelson remained firmly in the Labour centre. It was to his mother that Peter turned to complain about his father's "immature" and "self indulgent" views.

To both Mandelson brothers, she was, for all her public reticence, a strong personality. Peter would talk of her "tremendous steel" and say that while there were no "histrionics" if "you incurred her disapproval you would be aware of it". His older brother Miles put it slightly differently: "The moral authority came from my mother; she taught us manners. My father taught us how to break the rules."

Donald Macintyre

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