IN 1974, Joan Vickers suffered a bitter disappointment. The Boundary Commissioners so arranged things that her seat in the House of Commons (Plymouth, Devonport) ceased to exist, and she could find no alternative Conservative home. The following year she was raised to the peerage: 'A consolation,' she told me at the time, 'but only a little consolation.'
In appearance, Dame Joan (one never learned to use her title of nobility, because 'Dame' suited her so perfectly) was the stereotypical Tory lady, even down to the blue- rinsed hair. But - and this amazed colleagues and journalists alike in an age before we became familiar with powerful women in politics - she had an incisive mind as well. During her time in the House of Commons she was the only woman to contribute regularly, and often brilliantly, to defence debates. Her special subject was the Royal Navy, and she discomfited both Labour and Conservative ministers with the accurate nature of her questions. It was not thought right then for a female to know about ships and guns, and suchlike things.
But it would be wrong to think of Joan Vickers just as a stylish lady who could see the men off on their special subjects. Her work in South East Asia won her the MBE. Her work for the Netherlands Red Cross at the close of the war earned her a medal. She addressed herself with great effect to the affairs of a little-known charity, the International Bureau for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons (effectively an anti-slavery body). She concerned herself with the problems of the deaf, and was probably the most potent force in persuading political parties to provide hand- signalled interpretations for the hard of hearing at party conferences (this in her capacity as chairman of the National Centre for Cued Speech for the Deaf).
She was an effective and hard- hitting member of the old London County Council, and even Herbert Morrison feared her. She was feared, too, by male colleagues who were less considerate of their secretaries - she was, after all, founder-president of the Institute of Qualified Private Secretaries. Add to this her chairmanship (she would never have used the phrases 'chair' or 'chairperson' - she did not need to) of the European- China Association and the Anglo- Indonesian Society, and you begin to get an idea of her range.
Joan Vickers presented a beautifully tailored face of flint to the world, and her formidability was such that she was never given government office. Those of us lucky enough to have worked with her, however, saw a kind soul beneath the armour. Nonetheless, it would be silly to pretend she was other than tough. After a somewhat bibulous lunch with her in 1975 I made bold enough to ask her why she had never married. 'Because,' she said, 'I never met a man big enough for me.'
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