Frank Dobson: The minister who broke the mould

Could conventional wisdom be wrong and the public prefer people who say what they think?
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The Independent Online

The first time we met was at a Labour Party conference many years ago. Our conversation opened with her telling me a vulgar story. We got on with one another ever after - sharing many jokes and also sharing many serious discussions. Mo was Labour through and through, although her views were rather more conventional than her persona.

On education, her commitment to comprehensive schools was based on her personal experience. When people criticise the comprehensive system, I always think of Mo. I may be prejudiced, but I find it hard to believe she would have been a better person or a more effective Northern Ireland Secretary if she had been to a fee-paying school. We also shared views on the divisive nature of religious schools, which were of course bolstered by her experience in Northern Ireland.

Her first front-bench job was in the shadow Northern Ireland team. When her first question session was coming up, she sought me out.

"Dobbo", she said, "you know how to do things in the House. I've been advised to ask a long complicated question to demonstrate I've mastered my brief. Is that the right thing to do?"

"No," I said, "ask a short one. That way you will look and sound confident." She did, it worked and I was rewarded with a kiss behind the Speaker's Chair. A bit of credit to my advice, but more credit to Mo's intuitive suspicion about the earlier advice. She was always ready to seek advice, but then she made up her own mind.

Nothing in Mo's public life could possibly compare with her contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland. Inevitably, the Good Friday Agreement hasn't worked perfectly, but it represents the best hope for the future. And its existence has saved many lives, and the lives of nearly everyone in Northern Ireland have improved beyond recognition. That's not a bad legacy for Mo.

Knowing Mo as I did, I almost felt sorry for the Northern Ireland politicians. They are a pretty up-tight lot, perhaps with good reason. Just imagine their shock encountering a British Secretary of State who called them "babe" and picked chips off their plates while they were eating their meals. But this informality, combined with a willingness to reach out and talk and listen to anybody, whatever their point of view, helped change the climate and make the Agreement possible. The green-eyed miseries who carped about her approach and sought to play down her contribution were too stupid to notice that it worked. They didn't realise that you don't have to be sombre to be serious - that the pomposity of status is more often a handicap than an asset.

Her friends liked her approach. So did most of her colleagues and the people she dealt with. And the public certainly did. People who had never met her and only saw her on TV liked what they saw. Mo talked to interviewers like a normal human being, answering without hectoring or patronising. Most people start by sympathising with whoever is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She got that sympathy in shed loads.

And who could but admire the way she coped with her brain tumour. On top of that, she then endeared herself to millions more by taking off the wig that was supposed to cover up the fact that the chemotherapy had made her bald. As she said to me, "It's so hot and itchy and, you know Dobbo, it's not as if I looked like Marilyn Monroe to start with."

Isn't this one of the great political ironies of our times. According to the political pundits, no one can succeed in politics these days unless they fit a particular template of acceptability on TV. Yet none of the "on message beautiful people" will be mourned by millions as Mo and Robin are mourned.

Neither of them came out of the conventional mould. But the public took to them and took notice of what they said. Could it be that the conventional wisdom is wrong, and that the public actually prefer people who are a bit out of the ordinary and say what they think? Could it be that the smooth presentation is perceived as patronising and increasingly distrusted?

The writer was Health Secretary from 1997 to 1999