Joan Bakewell: “Who is leading the attack on Brexit?”
After a broadcasting career spanning more than half a century, Joan Bakewell has long been in national treasure territory. While the Labour peer is enjoying life in the Lords, she fears for a future in which ‘the rules of parliamentary behaviour’ are increasingly under threat from tribalism
Joan Bakewell isn’t easy to pigeonhole. A journalist, trailblazing broadcaster, champion of older people, campaigner and politician, she’s been part of British public life since she came to prominence as a BBC presenter in the early 1960s.
We meet at her north London home on a rather dull and rainy Monday. She welcomes me inside and, after bonding over our shared reluctance to ever throw out books, we take a cup of coffee to her office and sit down.
She may be turning 86 in April, but Bakewell’s broadcasting schedule shows no sign of abating. Watched over by the golden face of a Bafta, peeping out through piles of paperwork, she reels off her plans for 2019. A third series of her BBC Radio 4 series We Need to Talk About Death has just been transmitted. Two further series of Artist of the Year for Sky Arts are in the diary for the summer. She’s just finished an episode of a programme about the National Trust and frequently makes guest appearances on primetime shows like Have I Got News For You. Bakewell embodies the term ‘working peer’ more than most.
She says she must be the oldest female presenter on television. “I must be, mustn’t I? I’m in my mid-80s,” she replies. She and David Attenborough, her former “wonderful” boss at BBC2, are “pacing each other”. “When I see him, he says: ‘Are you still working?’ and I reply ‘I’m still working!’”
She insists she can’t go on broadcasting forever, but still enjoys it and sees no reason to stop just yet. She also accepts that her longevity has led to her being an obvious choice for certain topics. “People call me up to talk about being old because they can’t think of anyone else. I’m useful in many practical ways!” she laughs.
One of the ways Bakewell feels she can be most useful, she says, is by supporting the Labour party in the House of Lords.
Bakewell has been Labour on and off since her student days. An early meeting with Clement Attlee, when the Labour leader came to address the Cambridge Universities Labour Club, made a huge impression. “He was a presence,” she tells me. “A quiet, very assured presence. Very, very nice and steady. You trusted him, and he led a government that achieved everything didn’t it? There’s never been anyone to match them really.”
Her broadcasting work brought her into contact with some of the political giants of the age. Barbara Castle was “quite wonderful”, she recalls. Meticulously turned out, with hair like rock. She met Margaret Thatcher when the then-education secretary was known as the ‘milk snatcher’. “She was very self-possessed, very well groomed, and with a phalanx of young men in suits whom she insisted on bringing into the studio. She was obviously not as secure as she appeared to be.”
Her first official role in politics came in the later years of the Brown government when she was asked to be a tsar for the elderly by one of her political heroines Harriet Harman. “An amazing force of nature,” she says, “with a brain like a laser.” She became a vocal critic of the absence of older women on British television, warning that there was “a whole segment of the British population that does not see its equivalent in serious broadcasting”.
She finally joined the Lords in 2011 “when Ed Miliband thought I’d be good to have, as I speak about older people’s things”. Though Bakewell had to inform the then Labour leader that she hadn’t voted for his party in the 2005 election, after taking to the streets two years before to march against the Iraq war. “Tony Blair didn’t take any notice. And I didn’t forgive that.” Her protest vote was cast for the Green party instead.
Bakewell characterises herself as a “slightly wayward” peer and not a particularly political one at that. She’s full of praise for the Labour frontbench in the House of Lords, though, who she describes as hardworking, conscientious and likeable, and she sees it as her duty to attend and vote.
She sits on the Regenerating Seaside Towns Committee and the Advisory Panel on Works of Arts. Is there a statue or painting of Baroness Bakewell in the works, I joke? “Oh certainly not! We’re talking about great parliamentarians.”
Issues like further education, the elderly, breast cancer, and the Waspi women are some of the many subjects that concern her. You’ll find her in the chamber at least every Monday to Wednesday. “I give them as much of my allegiance as my conscience could cope with,” she tells me. “But if my conscience doesn’t, I have to explain it.”
One of those occasions came over Brexit: “I voted against Article 50, so none of this shambles is my fault. I just thought it was reckless. I went to see Angela Smith. We had a talk and I told her I was taking everything she said seriously. Then I said that I was sorry, but I’m voting against it. I wasn’t been frivolous, or agitprop or anything. I was thoughtful and I still am. And I’m worried sick.”
As a student of history, Bakewell admits to being addicted to watching the Brexit process play out in front of her eyes. She’s also pretty unforgiving of the Labour MPs who abstained or voted against the Cooper-Boles amendment that sought to give control back to parliament and delay the UK’s exit from the European Union. “It was a three-line whip and they’ve not been disciplined,” she adds, in contrast to the Labour MPs sacked from the frontbench for voting in favour of a pro-single market and customs union amendment back in 2017. “It’s all broken down. The rules of parliamentary behaviour are collapsing under feeble leadership. I watch it with appalled fascination.”
I ask if Bakewell thinks the problem is the party’s leadership. She says the party is “in crisis”, and adds cryptically: “I await developments.”
She continues: “The question is, how did we get here? The answer is, we didn’t take the right turning, further back. We needed a leader of the opposition who would oppose the government. Who is leading the attack on the Brexit plans?”
“It’s coming from all sorts of places, but obscure places. Dedicated people seem to belong to lots of little groups. I’m always sending them small donations.”
Someone whom Bakewell certainly does have a lot of time for is her local MP, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer. The pair met with before he first stood for election in 2015, and Bakewell helped with his campaign. She thinks, however, that he’s “struggling to hold the course”. “I was surprised that he wasn’t part of the group that went with Jeremy Corbyn to talk with Theresa May. He’s probably got the best mind of anyone who’d be in that room.”
Since that meeting between the prime minister and the Labour leader, a public exchange of letters has followed. Jeremy Corbyn has set out under what conditions his party would support a Brexit deal. Nobody can be certain how this all ends. Does she think her party will be blamed if it was seen to help facilitate Brexit? “I think in the long term, history will blame David Cameron. Then it will blame everybody,” she says. “Whatever the outcome, the Brexit issue will echo on now. It’s changed history.”
This week saw the first evidence of the major realignment in British politics that could be unleashed, as a number of Labour MPs tore up their membership cards, citing the leadership’s approach to Brexit and handling of anti-Semitism in the party as their reasons for leaving. They were joined a few days later by three Conservatives. All now sit as part of the new Independent Group on the Commons.
“Politics is moving through a really traumatic time, and a new form will emerge. Both of the main parties are becoming more like a narrow church,” Bakewell says. What it will lead to cannot be predicted, she continues. “Change doesn’t happen overnight. But this is another step.”
Speculation is also rife that a number of Labour peers could be considering leaving the party as well. Could she be tempted?
“I’ve got no idea about that. But they wouldn’t be telling me! I just get on with the job I’ve got to do. I’m almost a routine member of the Labour party, without giving it any thought’,” she says.
“I’m interested in the debate, as a listener. I’m not sure that I’ve got much to contribute, except that I do remember Clement Attlee. How ever did we get from there to here?”