Leading article: A modern politician, an effective critic and a loss to our public life

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The Independent Online

The former MP for Redcar was a one-off. By contemporary standards, she came to national politics relatively late in life after a career in academia. She brought with her to Westminster a confidence born of experience and a character fully formed. At ease with herself, she rejoiced in shattering stereotypes and breaking taboos. As the Prime Minister noted in his tribute, she was also a natural politician "with one of the shrewdest political minds he had encountered". Perhaps it takes one to know one.

As an outspoken woman MP before there were even as many women in Parliament as there are now, Mo Mowlam was a conspicuous and hugely beneficial addition to Westminster. She was a trail-blazer with a modern lifestyle and modern attitudes and whose appointment to the front bench encouraged other women to believe that female politicians were making headway and that they, too, could succeed. The matter-of-fact courage she showed when diagnosed with a brain tumour while in public office and her subsequent decision to leave a "living will" were the marks of her strength of character.

Many will regard her stint as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as the climax of her achievement. Before the hagiography has gone too far to be challenged, however, it is probably also true to say that Mr Blair was right to transfer her when he did. The Good Friday Agreement might well have been impossible without the risks she took to convince republican leaders of her good faith. In so doing, however, she lost the confidence of the loyalists. How much of a liability that was - and remained - can be judged by the guarded judgements offered yesterday from senior Unionists, even as the personal appreciation was warm.

Her early death is nonetheless a singular loss to British public life. After she left Parliament, disenchanted with many of the policies pursued by the Prime Minister she had helped to office, she continued to speak and write as trenchantly as she had done while at Westminster. And she had no difficulty obtaining a forum. At a time when politicians were increasingly losing public confidence, she was that rare phenomenon: a politician non-politicians felt instinctively they could trust.

As such, her departure is a loss not only to public life but also to the Prime Minister and his Government. Any administration, especially one that is as unused to effective Opposition as this one and as deaf to public criticism, needs articulate critics as well as loyal supporters. With the sudden death of the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook, and now that of Ms Mowlam, the Blair Government has lost two of its most authoritative critics. Ms Mowlam appealed to the heart; Mr Cook to the head. The country - and Labour's uneasy, but less courageous, backbenchers - will miss them.

It is the greatest compliment to Mo Mowlam to say that she would probably have been as astounded as touched by the outpouring of posthumous tributes, and by their warmth and respect. With her many virtues and flaws, she was a genuine politician for our time - the like of which, alas, we have seen all too rarely.