Social worker who became the fair-minded and popular MP for Dunfermline West
Saturday 07 January 2006
Rachel Anne Squire, social worker, trade union official and politician: born London 13 July 1954; Education Officer for Scotland, Nupe 1985-92; MP (Labour) for Dunfermline West (later Dunfermline and West Fife) 1992-2006; married 1984 Allan Mason; died Saline, Fife 5 January 2006.
The working relationship between an MP and his or her constituency party chairman is crucial. If there is friction, or even a tinge of edginess, there can be trouble for the MP. For six years before she herself became MP for Dunfermline West in 1992, Rachel Squire was the chairman of the Linlithgow Constituency Labour Party. In that politically turbulent time, we never had a bad word between us, although there were some deep policy differences, notably on the rights and wrongs of the proposed Scottish devolution.
She stuck to her own opinion, calm and determined that there should be a Scottish Parliament, while being the first to defend my entitlement as a Member of Parliament to entertain a different opinion. This was characteristic of Rachel Squire - generous and fair-minded. As her colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party were to find over 13 years, Squire was one of the nicest and most straightforward people in political life.
She was born in London in 1954 and brought up by her mother, Louise Binder, and her stepfather, Percy Garfield Squire. They sent her to Godolphin and Latymer Girls' School, to which she was always grateful for excellent teaching and a broad outlook. At Durham University, she opted for Archaeology and Anthropology and, like many other students, came under the spell of the Professor of Archaeology, Rosemary Cramp. Professor Cramp says, "Rachel was an excellent and outstanding student, who dug for me on my excavations at Jarrow." Apart from being a serious academic discipline, this particular study encouraged a "can do" approach to life which was a hallmark of Squire's career. Problems were there to be solved; it was no good wringing one's hands and wondering what on earth one could do about it.
It was a pleasure to her in later life when she and her husband Allan were living in Bathgate, West Lothian, that they should be within a couple of miles of Cairnpapple Hill, reckoned by Historic Scotland to be the most important Bronze Age site on the Scottish mainland. Squire was also very knowledgeable about the archaeology of Scandinavian countries.
Her first job was with the Birmingham City Council as a social worker. In her first three years in Birmingham, 1975-78, she studied at the university to gain qualifications. Her particular interest was the most effective help which could be given to dysfunctional families and particularly where difficult children were being brought up by a single parent. She had a deserved reputation for insight into the difficulties faced by immigrant families and would say gently - she spoke very gently, deliberately and slowly - that perhaps a degree in anthropology was an optimum discipline for her calling.
Spotted as a considerable talent by the National Union of Public Employees (Nupe), she became a full-time officer in Liverpool in 1981-82. That was a dramatic period when Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and Felicity Dowling were in the process of being expelled from the Labour Party. It was a baptism in rough politics which Squire told me had served her well. "If you were in Liverpool in the early 1980s, nothing after that would astonish you in political life," she said. She was transferred on promotion in the union to Ayrshire, 1982-83, and then to Renfrewshire, 1983-85, before becoming Education Officer for Nupe in Scotland, 1985-92. Rodney Bickerstaffe, who was then general secretary of Nupe, describes her as
decent, honourable, and not a pushy woman. Nupe members thought she was wonderful and a good representative of working people.
Rachel Squire combined this demanding job with being chairman of the Linlithgow Constituency Labour Party. Having been MP for Linlithgow for 43 years, I am quite a connoisseur of CLP chairmen. Squire, ever calm and listening more than politely to what CLP delegates actually said, and then drawing a fair summary of the meeting, was among the best. We in Linlithgow were not the least surprised - although she herself most genuinely was - when Squire was chosen by the newly created Dunfermline West constituency to be their standard bearer.
It was before all women shortlists and she got there on merit, which was quite an achievement for an Englishwoman in a vituperatively Scottish nationalistic atmosphere of the time. It was perhaps an indication of the change in the world that the grandchildren of those who had sent the Communist Willie Gallagher to the House of Commons should choose an English rose as their representative.
Within a week of her being elected in 1992, I suggested to my friend Derek Foster, the Labour Party chief whip, that Rachel Squire would be the ideal new member to be put on the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons. For five years she proved to be a most valuable and sensible member of the committee, not going to extreme positions on the working hours of the house, but concentrating on improvements in the effectiveness of the work of MPs.
Later, from 1997 to 1999, she was to be on the Modernisation Committee and worked closely with the new chief whip Nick Brown to bring Parliament into what they thought was the 21st century. I was against cutting corners and thought that some of the old "mumbo jumbo" helped dissenters put legitimate opinions. Squire, albeit an absolute government loyalist, did recognise that dissenters, too, should have their opportunities and expressed that opinion in quarters where it was not always popular.
She served as PPS to the education ministers Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris throughout the 1997 parliament, but returned to the backbenches in 2001.
Partly, though in my view only partly, because she represented the Naval dockyard at Rosyth on the northern shores of the Firth of Forth, Squire immersed herself in defence problems to such an extent that some of my friends and I who were critical of Labour Party defence policies were happy to acquiesce in her becoming in 2001 the first woman chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party backbench defence group. However, asking questions about Rosyth and obtaining adjournment debates, she was typically concerned about fairness to Devonport and to Chatham. She made every use of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme and was welcomed by the Navy when she went to sea on warships.
Rachel Squire was a gutsy girl - and never more so than in the face of a serious tumour in her head. In April 2005, the Dunfermline West Constituency Labour Party invited me to be the guest speaker at Rachel Squire's adoption meeting in Dunfermline Town Hall. I put quietly to three of the officers of her party a question: "Is it really wise, given her medical situation, that Rachel stands again?" I got a very sharp answer. "You should know that she's done a great deal for us in West Fife and we want her." That was the tribute, from those in the best position to know, for a Member who was immensely popular in the Parliamentary Labour Party and an asset to the House of Commons.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, MP for neighbouring Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, says,
Rachel Squire was a wonderful MP and a caring friend and colleague, a great servant of the people she represented and a woman who showed quiet concern and compassion for others, even amid her own suffering. Even when she knew she was dying, her first thoughts were for others. Her service for Dunfermline over two decades was huge and her dedication to our people, our dockyards, our many communities and our hospitals was remarkable, and will never be forgotten.
Rachel Squire rendered great service to fostering relations between Italian and British politicians, as an officer of the All-Party Italian Group. So it was her last great pleasure on Columbus Day, 12 October 2005, to be presented by the Italian consul in Edinburgh with the high honour of Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarietà Italiana.
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