The true blue feminist: PROFILE: Baroness Young

Her stance against lowering the age of consent for gays has sparked both scorn and regard.
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The Independent Online
hen William Hague sacked Lord Cranborne for doing a deal with Tony Blair over the hereditary peers, the Tory leader faced the biggest crisis since he took over the party. His policy on the House of Lords was in tatters, his authority perhaps fatally undermined and his entire frontbench in the Upper Chamber had threatened to resign. But his first telephone call on leaving the comfortable red leather armchairs of Lord Cranborne's office was not to his loyal judo partner Sebastian Coe, nor to his thrusting policy wonk Danny Finkelstein, nor even to his spin doctor at the time, Gregor Mackay.

In fact, the Tory leader telephoned a 74-year-old bluestocking with a penchant for pearl earrings. He knew that Baroness Young of Falmouth - the House of Lords' very own Miss Marple - was the only person who could help. And she did. Despite disagreeing vigorously with his decision to sack Lord Cranborne, Lady Young rushed straight over to Hague's office in the Commons and sorted out the crisis. This surprising backroom fixer headed off a mass rebellion in the Lords by persuading the Tory leader to adopt the deal and appoint a close Cranborne ally, Lord Strathclyde, as his successor. Then she told their lordships to give Hague another chance.

This level of political sophistication will come as a surprise to those who see Lady Young only as the reactionary bigot who blocked the Government's attempt to lower the gay age of consent last week. Behind the scenes this ferocious grande dame has been a powerful operator for decades. She has been leader of the Lords, Tory deputy chairman, a director of NatWest and of Marks & Spencer - and not only that, she was the first woman to do any of these jobs. Now she is the first female chairman (she would never call herself "chair") of the Association of Tory Peers, a woman and life peer elected to represent a group that tends to believe in the hereditary principle and in male primogeniture. This blue Baroness has actually been something of a revolutionary, blazing a trail for women through her life. She would shudder if you called her a feminist but is proud of having had "a lot of firsts" in her life. Anyone brave enough to discuss "Blair babes" or to suggest that Baroness Jay is the first woman to lead the Lords gets one of Lady Young's infamous Paddington Bear "disapproving stares".

But there are some things which are just not negotiable - and "legalising buggery for 16-year-olds" is one of them. When it comes to family values, Old Tin Knickers, as the more daring public schoolboys in the Lords call her when she is out of earshot, is deeply traditional. She forced the last Conservative government to water down its proposals for making divorce easier, she won a concession from Lord Irvine of Lairg which exempted the Churches from the Lord Chancellor's human rights legislation. Now she has delayed the equalisation of the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals by at least a year. "I'm not homophobic - I think that's the word that's used nowadays. I don't think there's a moral equivalence between heterosexuals and homosexuals."

Her stance has led to a series of vitriolic personal attacks. Stonewall, the gay rights lobby group, published an advertisement in the Times asking readers whether they would prefer to align themselves with the forces of good (child care groups, the House of Commons and so on) or the force of evil (Lady Young). The peer says she plans to hang a framed copy of the ad (signed by everybody who supported her in the debate) in her Oxfordshire house - but she was shaken by the intensity of abuse and had sleepless nights about the issue. "She is actually a lost soul," one friend said, "somebody who is very frightened of everybody deserting her and nobody caring for her; she thrives on persecution but responds to kindness."

Those who know Lady Young well say she is not a bigot, although she is utterly blinkered on certain issues - even her supporters think she is unwise to use researchers paid for by the Christian Institute, a right- wing organisation which has been linked to the Rutherford Institute, the fundamentalist US outfit which funded the Paula Jones case against Bill Clinton. "She's a devout Christian and doesn't realise that this code of values isn't shared by everybody," one friend said. "There are occasionally places where her vision is so limited that people think she is being dishonest and trying to mislead, but if she is she doesn't know it."

This is perhaps why Lady Young has managed to acquire an extraordinarily eclectic band of fans. The Liberal Democrat peer, Earl Russell, argued against her attempt to block the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill but still describes her as a "genuine friend". "She is a person of total integrity and great determination who stands up for what she believes in and has deep respect for the right of other people to do the same." Lord Strathclyde, leader of the Tory peers, says she she is "highly respected" on all sides of the House of Lords. "She expects a lot from the backbenchers and most people like to please her." Even Angela Mason, head of Stonewall, could not help admiring "the old bird" when they met for tea a few weeks ago to discuss their differences. "Nobody should underestimate Lady Young," she said. "She is one of those older women who have made it in public life when that was not easy, and she has great strength."

The daughter of a bursar of Jesus College, Oxford, Janet Baker was always determined to succeed. When she and her sister were evacuated to the US during the war, her mother told her never to get separated from her sibling, her father told her she must "never give up Maths or Latin". This liberal country seemed like "paradise" to the young Janet, but she did not go off the rails because, as she puts it, "life was pretty real during the war and rebellion was not one of the big issues". On her return to England, she went up to St Anne's, Oxford to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. There she met a young chemist called Geoffrey Young, a Fellow at her father's college, and married him three years later. They had three daughters and now have five grandchildren, all still devoted churchgoers. But unlike her mother, she was determined that there was more to life for women than marriage and babies. She stood for the local council in Oxford and became leader of the Conservative Group.

At that point - as now - the Tories were trying to recruit more women MPs and Janet Young was persuaded to put her name forward for a safe seat. She failed to get selected but she had been noticed, and some time in 1971 a letter arrived out of the blue from the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, offering her a peerage. She was so surprised, she likes to repeat, that she dropped the egg she was cooking her husband for breakfast. But she accepted and soon rose up the ministerial ranks until she became leader of the Lords in 1981.

Lady Young was the only woman Margaret Thatcher ever appointed to her Cabinet, but the job did not last long. The two had terrible rows - blamed by colleagues on the Prime Minister's determination to handbag the only female rival out of the way - and Lady Young was moved to a junior ministerial post in the Foreign Office.

It is typical of this peer, however, that there were no signs of animosity when the women sat next to each other during the age of consent debates in the House of Lords. With her clipped Queen's English and knee- length tweed skirts, Lady Young is a throwback to a previous era, someone for whom "courtesy" as one acquaintance put it "is the sign of a civilised society". Tory peers rush to their feet when she enters the room just because they know she expects it ("she doesn't have to say anything," one nervous earl said, "we just know to do it.") Friends think her Conservatism, like her faith, is as much to do with tradition as ideology. "There is a blend of Christianity and respectability in the English upper classes and she is an extreme example," one said.

But there is a tension in Lady Young because this old-fashioned grandmother is also in some ways a thoroughly modern feminist. On the one hand, her speech to the Lords made clear she aspires to a previous, more innocent age. "We are in a different world," she said, "a world in which we have never been before, in which we are witnessing the break- up of society. This is a tragedy." On the other, she has broken away from this old world order by having a successful career. Some acquaintances detect an uneasiness about this discrepancy - according to one family friend, Lady Young's father was a deeply traditional man who thought women should devote themselves to bringing up children and saw his daughter's appointment to the Cabinet as her greatest failure. There is a theory at Westminster that this is why she is so wedded to "family values." "Her father thought that by having a career she was bringing about that different world which she so hates," one friend said. "She's still trying to prove she isn't."