Parliament is bereaved.
No more will we hear the beautifully expressive voice of Gwyneth Dunwoody, authoritative, acerbic, impassioned or persuasive. She employed all the skills of her past training as an actress to dominate the backbench and select committee stages.
Thoughts go to moments that I shared with her. She was waspish and wise at a meal I enjoyed with her and two other colleagues a month ago. There was no hint or sign of any illness. Her spirits were deflated by recent events but her barbed intelligence, as always, enlivened the evening.
She delighted in favourite stories. At the time of railway privatisation, the Transport Select Committee asked Richard Branson how he would make his trains better than British Rail. He answered that he would encourage his drivers to drive faster. ‘To overtake the train in front, perhaps?’ Gwyneth innocently inquired. Only rail-ignorant Branson could not see the joke.
She recalled Mitterand’s thanks to the John Major Government at the opening of the Channel Tunnel. He praised the might of French Engineering that allowed Eurostar to speed from Paris to Calais. Then he thanked the British for thoughtfully allowing passengers plenty of time to admire the beauty of the English countryside.
She was irritated and often contemptuous of the easy rise to cabinet of new women MPs. She thought they had it easy compared with her generation. One of the few repeatable comments is her claim that Pat Hewitt’s career faltered because ‘she spent too much time with her voice coach.’
Her own fall from the frontbench involved two incidents. One was bad publicity arising out of a £20,000 Commons refreshment bill. I understand she was a victim of her own generosity. MPs have to sign cheques for corporate hospitality for constituency companies, which is later reimbursed. Someone let her down.
At the Bournemouth Labour Party conference in 1985 there was a demonstration by animal rights protesters against her financial link with the fur trade. She was dropped from an opposition frontbench role. For years she assumed that I did not accompany her on a Transport Committee visit to Norway because she had said that she would wear her furs. It was a long time before I could correct her and explain my absence was unconnected with animal welfare. I saw little point in trying to find facts in Northern Norway in December when that had only a few hours of daylight.
On a flight from New York to Seattle in the early nineties, I sat next to Gwyneth in the forward seats of the plane. Some of our more excitable colleagues were sitting in the back. Before the plane took off, Gwyneth asked to see the Chief Steward. She introduced me as Doctor Flynn and herself as Professor Dunwoody. She pointed out two of our colleagues and explained “ Dr Flynn and I are carrying out an experiment on what we call in the United Kingdom ‘Care in the Community’. Those two people are from an institution and we are monitoring their behaviour on this experimental trip. Don’t worry they are not dangerous as long as they do not consume alcohol.’ The Chief Steward was aghast. ‘Give them drinks by all means’ Gwyneth urged ‘but no alcohol.’ She had an air of sublime authority that convinced the crew. Halfway into the journey we heard a British accent behind us complain ‘What’s this horse piss they’re serving us?’
Some of the tributes paid to her today are from those who went to great lengths to frustrate her work. It was parliament that restored her Committee Chair that the whips took away. It was her great friend the previous Speaker Betty Boothroyd who ensured she always had prime positions in debates and questions. It was her committee colleagues who supported her loyally.
She was the last of a generation of women MPs of exceptional talent who succeeded mainly because they were tougher than their male counterparts. Gwyneth was generously endowed with strength, guile, humour, courage and integrity.
Rest in Peace, Comrade.