The Passionate Politician Mike Smith talks to Edwina Currie
PUBLISHED: 13:21 24 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:53 20 February 2013
Speaking to me in the garden of the beautiful Derbyshire long house where she lives with her second husband, John Jones, Edwina told me that she was brought up in Liverpool by Orthodox Jewish parents ...
Edwina Currie has been called the most outspoken and sexually interesting woman of her political generation by political commentator Nick Assinder, but an unexpected and touching moment during my interview with the former Member of Parliament for South Derbyshire revealed that there is a very different side to this remarkable woman. Our conversation also shed fresh light on her writing of A Parliamentary Affair, a novel that is remembered for fruity scenes involving strawberries and cream, and it even put a surprising slant on her motives for appearing on celebrity television programmes.
Speaking to me in the garden of the beautiful Derbyshire long house where she lives with her second husband, John Jones, Edwina told me that she was brought up in Liverpool by Orthodox Jewish parents who gave her a strong sense of family, community and God. The first two of these principles still resonate strongly with her, but she has always found it hard to take the exclusivity of her parents faith. Neither of them attended her non-Jewish wedding and her father even refused to see his first grandchild.
Edwina certainly benefited from the tremendous respect for scholarship in the Jewish community. She loved reading, enjoyed studying and, with Marie Curie as an inspiration, obtained a place at Oxford to read Chemistry. However, she is prepared to admit that she also chose Chemistry as a subject because it was easier for a female applicant to obtain a place at Oxbridge to read sciences rather than arts. In order to widen the CV on her application form, she had got involved in local politics and had become so hooked that she engineered a change of course to Philosophy, Politics and Economics as soon as she arrived in Oxford.
Edwina took part in debates at the Oxford Union and held various posts in the society, but narrowly missed out to Gyles Brandreth in the election for the presidency. She also narrowly missed out on a First without realizing that she was in the running for one. Although Edwina knew that she would want to pursue a political career at some stage, she obtained a job after graduating as an accountant at Arthur Andersens offices in London. It was there that she met Ray Currie, whom she married in 1972.
As married couples were forbidden to work in the same offices at Andersens in those days, one or other of the newly-weds was required to leave. Ray resolved that he would continue to pursue his ambitions as an accountant, while Edwina opted to leave the firm to follow a political career. The couple also made another tactical choice. Knowing that there was fierce competition for jobs in London, they decided that Ray should seek a transfer. He was moved to Birmingham, where Edwina became a very successful councillor, chairing committees for health, housing and social services during her eleven-year stint.
Summing up her passion for politics, Edwina said: I liken the work of a politician to the job of a signalman who can make trains go this way or that. Politics is the mechanism that makes society work better and enables people to achieve their potential. In 1983, she became the Member of Parliament for South Derbyshire, where she worked hard to bring Toyota to Burnaston, not only because the local coal industry was in decline, but also because she had quickly come to realise that her constituents were very adaptable and fully aware that there are better things in life than working in the pits. She illustrated this by telling me about an elderly lady who could remember her mother carrying home her 11-year-old brother over her shoulder after his first day of working in the pits, which had left him utterly filthy and totally exhausted. As Edwina recounted this story, tears came into her eyes, which suddenly made me aware that there is a surprisingly soft centre beneath that tough exterior.
During her 14 years as an MP, Edwina did an enormous amount of work in her constituency that went unrecognized in the national press, which was far more interested in her appearances on television and in the House of Commons, where she quickly made an impression. When the new Member of Parliament first arrived at Westminster, as one of 23 women out of 656 MPs, she found an intensely macho atmosphere, but she soon made her mark in this mans world, becoming Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Keith Joseph just two years after her arrival and a Junior Health Minister one year later.
As Health Minister, she did much to improve the life of the nation, introducing breast cancer screening, the MMR triple vaccine and joint working between the NHS and hospices. She also did everything possible to stem the spread of AIDS and, knowing that health workers were at risk of breaking the law by giving safe-sex advice to under-age gay males and driven by a lifelong hatred of inequality, she campaigned for the lowering of the age of consent for gays. Unfortunately, she is best remembered for her declaration that most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected by salmonella. Recalling those words, she said: We had 500 cases of salmonella poisoning per week in our hospitals. I had tried everything to reduce the risk, but the egg industry was simply not dealing with the problem.
Edwina remains unrepentant about telling the truth. The only concession that she is prepared to make about the statement which brought about her ministerial downfall is that it might have been wiser to use the term much rather than most. The ending of her time in government did not diminish her campaigning zeal in any way and she continued to champion many causes, particularly patients rights, gay rights, support for witnesses and the proper care of Gulf War veterans. In 1992, she finally had a chance to return to government in the Home Office, but turned down the offer because she knew that she could not bring herself to work in the same team as Ken Clarke. She also realized that he intended to saddle her with the entire responsibility for the almost impossible task of improving the prison service.
No sooner had she refused an opportunity to resume ministerial responsibilities than she began a second career as a writer. I was surprised to earn that Edwina had already published some short stories and even more surprised to hear that she had studied Leo Tolstoys Anna Karenina, Anthony Trollopes The Way We Live Now and George Eliots Middlemarch before penning her first blockbuster, provocatively titled A Parliamentary Affair. After reminding me that this was the very first book by a new novelist to reach the top of the bestseller lists in this country, she said, I also got my own back on those reviewers who were scathingly critical of my literary efforts, because not one of them recognised that the names of several characters in the book were taken from Middlemarch.
It is not difficult for anyone to notice that the characters who conduct a clandestine relationship in A Parliamentary Affair, new MP Elaine Stalker and Chief Whip Roger Dickson, bear a close resemblance to the author and John Major. Edwinas diaries, published in 2002, reveal that she had indeed conducted an affair with John when he was at the Whips Office. She has fond memories of their relationship and is angry that the former Prime Minister chose to say it was the most shameful thing he had ever done.
Edwina has written ten books in all, embracing parliamentary novels, a book about growing up in Liverpool, non-fiction, middle-age chick-lit and even science fiction. Writing filled a gap in her life when her marriage had broken up and she was living alone, but yet another career was about to begin when she became the host of a BBC Five Live phone-in programme called Late Night Currie, which ran for five successful years. One of her guests on the show was retired detective John Jones. Although he was at the end of a telephone in London and Edwina was in a studio in Birmingham, the interview marked the beginning of a relationship that culminated in their marriage and their living happily ever after.
Since leaving BBC Five Live, she has appeared in lots of other programmes on both radio and television, including several celebrity shows, most notably Celebrity Mastermind, which she won with Marie Curie as her specialist subject, All Star Family Fortunes, when she roped in her husband, brother, daughter and niece as members of her team, and Celebrity Wife Swap, when she had to endure a week with racing tipster John McCririck her husband John had a rather better time with Mrs McCririck.
Suspecting that Edwina finds it difficult to refuse any chance to be in the limelight, I asked her why she has appeared on so many celebrity shows. She replied, Its fun and it beats stacking shelves in Tesco as a means of earning a living, but it also means that I can be a lively representative of older people. There are 12 million people over 65 in this country and they are shamefully under-represented on television. As she said this, the passion that has always driven her as a politician was clearly in evidence yet again.