WHEN Norah Phillips was created a life baroness in 1964 there were people ignorant enough to ascribe her elevation to Harold Wilson's kindness to widows and his acknowledgement of her husband Morgan Phillips's years holed up in the Transport House bunker as General Secretary of the Labour Party.
They could not have been more wrong. Norah Phillips had not been only a warming-pan wife, nor a little woman behind a big man. She had deliberately constructed her life so that the traditional role of family concern and home-making meshed with an independent career as a teacher and with her public concerns as a magistrate, and a busy innovative worker over a wide range of interests important to society. She was a totally committed socialist but saw a wider spectrum of concern for many contemporary problems that had to be tackled on a cross-party or non-party basis.
Her adaptability as she dealt with problems rather than parties accounted for her popularity inside and outside parliament. As the first woman Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London (1978-85) she could 'walk with kings nor lose the common touch'. She told me that she treasured a framed letter from the Prince of Wales of congratulations on her lieutenancy. But then she would hurry off to a committee of the National Association of Women's Clubs, of which she was president. Or perhaps to the campaign Fair Play for Children, or to the National Chamber of Trade, the Keep Fit Association or to the Association for Research into Restricted Growth. It is easy for members of either House to accumulate a list of organisations which want names on their letterheads. But Norah Phillips's was always a working, inquisitive and demanding role, and she expected staff and volunteers to do what they were supposed to do - or they were expendable.
None of these concerns interfered with her close family cares. Because of Morgan's job, over 30 years of marriage she had much responsibility for bringing up their son and their daughter, now Gwyneth Dunwoody MP. And for the sad time of Morgan's long cruel illness she devoted herself to him.
Her education at a Marist Convent may have sustained her lifelong devotion to Roman Catholicism, which could sometimes decide how she voted in the House of Lords. But she was always fair - if sometimes sharp - with the rest of us.
In recent years she was much occupied as Director of the Prevention of Theft in Shops Campaign. To her, shoplifting was a moral issue of right and wrong. It was stealing. She was impatient of alibis produced by 'do- gooders' about stress and pre-menstrual tension and children's deprivation of the good things seen on television. Her campaign did much practical research which established the prevalence of unseen co-ordination between dedicated shoplifters, of itchy-fingered staff, and of thrill-seeking greedy youngsters. Her principles might have been based on the old Spanish proverb ' 'Take what you want', says God, 'Take it and pay for it.' ' But nobody was more sympathetic in cases of genuine aberration.
Norah Phillips has died too soon for she was working on a Bill to outlaw ageism. She wanted to forbid advertisements for jobs which defined ages for applicants. She was especially angry to find that many European Community jobs were limited to applicants under 30. We agreed that the three score years and 10 allotted span was ordained not by God but by a loony poet: see Psalm 90.
Her inexhaustible mental and physical energy may have arisen from the luck of her genes and seemed to flourish in the sunshine of accumulated years, all the more notable because not every member of their lordships' House was so blessed. Recently, she had taken to walking with a stick, but this was due not to longevity but to an irreverent driver who had knocked her down outside the Palace of Westminster and caused a long stay in hospital.
She did not go in for long speeches in the House but her contributions were always original and alert and often punctured the ballooning pomposity of ministers. She was fearlessly brisk and confident and always shrewd. She was in lively attendance at the House of Lords until the end of the July adjournment, which she complained was, at three months, too long, and derived only from the Government 'not knowing what to do about anything'.
Norah's family and friends knew that she was writing a book about her life. It is to be hoped that it will appear, if only because she told me that it would 'make a lot of people shiver in their shoes'. I hope some of them are still alive.
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