Obituary: Dame Guinevere Tilney
Saturday 05 April 1997
She displayed a resolution in her dealings with Lady Thatcher which few men could show. To Tilney was owed the deepening of the Thatcher voice, the softening of the hairstyle, and the simplicity of the clothes in Lady Thatcher's great electoral years. Yet, she was paid nothing for her pains and troubles, except, in 1984, in the form of what she, imitating the New Zealand novelist Ngaio Marsh, like to call "me damery".
Guinevere was a very apt baptismal name for her; for she had both the elegance and the resolution which is ascribed to King Arthur's legendary consort. Yet she had done much more with her life than being dresser to a famous prime minister.
She was the daughter of a family embedded in public life - her father, Sir Hamilton Grant, was a distinguished public servant. In 1944 she married a serving officer, Captain Lionel Hunter, who died three years later, and then in 1954 she married her beloved second husband, John Tilney. The Conservative MP for Wavertree, Liverpool from 1950 to 1974, he was a figure of considerable influence in Conservative Party politics. But it was his wife who did more public work.
From an early age, Guinevere determined to she would not be restricted to a conventional well-off rural English life. She became a champion of women's rights on the international stage; and a formidable advocate of human rights' causes at the United Nations. Yet, she never lost her sense of fun; and vastly enjoyed her own tale of going on the same diet as the Prime Minister, before then then Mrs Thatcher's first visit to China. "She had to slim down", said Lady Tilney, "so, I had to show her how to do it."
One of the most interesting things about Guinevere Tilney was that she usually looked flamboyant, but was the very reverse of flamboyant when she did what she regarded as serious business. She had a curious, though not, in her view, paternalistic, interest in the offshoots of the British Empire: she was, for some years, Chairman of the Empire Ladies Luncheon Club. Although in the last decade of this century, that organisation may sound preposterous, the fact is that it raised more money for indigent nations, without evident publicity, than any other private charity: most of this was due to Guinevere Tilney.
And when, at the United Nations, as UK Representative to the Commission on the Status of Women, 1970-73, sitting on various committees, she argued - fought would perhaps be a better word - for the rights of women she, as she once told me, had three things in mind. The first was to end female castration, especially in Africa. The second was to persuade non-Christian communities to end their systems of arranged marriage. "After all," she once said, "Denis and Margaret met by accident".
The third great cause of her life, always argued with aplomb, but also with charm, was to make Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher, as far as I know, had no woman of her own age in whom she could confide; and she did not trust the men of her own generation. Guinevere Tilney was always there. She was there to soothe, to encourage, and to support.
I was once walking down the Committee Room Corridor of the House of Commons with a friend who was a Labour MP. Coming towards us was a diminutive and elegant figure. "There", said my friend, "is your typical Tory MP, well-brushed, well-dressed, and rich. T hat's no advertisement for women in this House."
"Let me", I said, introducing Judith Hart to Guinevere Tilney, "explain that she is not an MP, that she is much more involved in Third World affairs than you are; and the fact that she looks nicer than you do is more a matter of taste than of wealth." The two women went off together. The only thing I heard thereafter was from Judith Hart: "She's a nice woman. That Tory."
Guinevere Grant, campaigner and political adviser: born 8 September 1916; Vice-President, National Council of Women of Great Britain 1958-61, President 1961-68; UK Representative on United Nations Commission on Status of Women 1970-73; Adviser to Margaret Thatcher MP 1975-83; DBE 1984; married 1944 Captain Lionel Hunter (died 1947; one son), 1954 Sir John Tilney (died 1994); died London 4 April 1997.
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