Unparliamentary Language: Emily Thornberry

Posted On: 
11th July 2019

Marie Le Conte sits down with MPs and peers to find out more about the human side of politics. This week, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry on her upbringing, her annoying habits and looking after pet rats

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry pictured as female members of the Shadow Cabinet and Labour politicians launch a campaign celebrating 100 years of women's suffrage
Credit: 
PA Images

What were you like at school?

I went to a terrible school; expectations on us were really low. I remember my careers teacher; I asked him ‘what do you see me doing with myself?’ and he said ‘you can always visit people in prison’. I mean, it was really bad. And so I was quite bolshie, and cheeky. And I was a bit of a ragamuffin, I think my mum had quite a lot of difficulties coping with three kids. There was one time, I was probably about 11, and I went into the math class, and the teacher taught the lesson, but did it all standing behind me combing all the knots out of my hair. It was a bit miserable, because I had problems with people picking on me and getting bullied. To get to my estate you could climb through the hole in the fence and get back directly or you had to walk all the way around, and it was a good half mile if you walked all the way around. A gang of girls would wait for me by the hole in the fence, but I would always go through the hole because I wasn't going to let them and I used to fight back, which I think probably meant that it was that much more fun for them. It was pretty hard, but I got through it.

What's your earliest childhood memory?

My parents split up when I was quite young, but I do remember my dad had his favourite food, he used to make white Mother's Pride bread, put butter on it, and then granulated sugar. I think it's a Northern Ireland delicacy. I remember him making me that. 

What did you want to be when you grew up? 

I didn't really know. Life was pretty chaotic, and it was just a question of getting through. I think I wanted to go to university, but I wasn't really sure how, and I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I wanted to make a difference in the world, but I didn't know how I was ever going to do that. I moved up to live with my dad when I was 15 or 16, and then when I was 17, my dad went away to New York for the weekend and didn't come back. I was always kind of short of money, so I did lots of different jobs; I worked at the Hammersmith Palais as a barmaid, I worked in a factory making folding cards and stacking boxes, and so on. I think jobs like that made me realise I just didn't want to do that, but I didn't know what I did want to do. In the end, I did a law degree largely to keep my options open. I couldn't even think of a path of how I was going to get out of where I was and the low expectations of where I was being brought up and what was expected of me, and whether I was going to spend my life visiting people in prison. I just knew I wasn't. Well, in the end I did, because I became criminal barrister and I did visit people in prison, but probably not in the way the careers teacher expected it.

What's the best present you've ever received?

Every morning, my husband makes me tea and we put a tea cosy on it, and it was made by my Irish grandmother. She went blind towards the end of her life, and this was the last tea cosy she made before she lost her sight. And we used to go and see her, and she would make a big hullabaloo because she always used to think "oh I'm about to die, I'm about to die!" so she'd ladle you up with all sorts of clobber, just in case. And so that tea cosy, I see every morning and think of my grandmother. 

What's a habit that annoys you in other people?

When they lie to me. I can't bear it. I tend to be fairly straightforward and I don't like it when people lie to me, and even worse when they're lying to me, and they know that they're lying to me, and they know that I know that they're lying to me. 

What's your most annoying habit?

I'm sure that my staff would say my smoking and insisting that I go outside with them in freezing cold weathers to smoke, I suspect that's an annoying habit.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given? 

I think a lot of it depends on when you get it. So I think the advice that made a big difference to me was when things have been difficult. So when I was first trying to be a barrister, and I was finding it difficult to get a permanent place in some chambers, or when my seat's been marginal, and it's been really hard, or in 2014 when Ed sacked me. The advice that I kept being given was “you're much stronger than you think you are. Just keep going. Just remember what you need to do. And don't give up”.  

What's the worst piece of advice you've ever been given?

I will take any opportunity to sing, and I can think of a few times when I have sung and some people did not advise me strongly enough to shut up.

What's something your colleagues don't know about you?

We've got four pet rats buried in the garden. I nursed them; my children had pet rats, and I really liked them actually, I mean after getting over the shock of the tails and all that. They were responsive, they knew their names and they were affectionate. I did one great big case and I had a lot of files on a desk in front of me; it was a Saturday and I just been handed all these files and I had to get my head around them before getting to court on the Monday, and I had this rat wrapped in a towel because it wasn't very well. I was having to feed it sugar water through a syringe while reading through my files. My children taught them to ride on their shoulder and sit in their pockets, they used to take them to school. Once we went to John Lewis, and one of them escaped in the ladies changing room. It was quite an adventure, having pet rats.

Do you have an unusual talent or party trick?

I can sing Evita from beginning to end, because I worked on Evita selling ice creams for quite a long time. All the ice cream girls used to go to the pub, and we would sing Evita from beginning to end. 

What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?

Yeah, I don't think I'm going to say.

Maybe the fifth most embarrassing thing you've ever done?

Not even the tenth.

Have you ever broken the law?

Well if I had I wouldn't say.

Who would play you in a movie about your life? 

If I was being completely honest, it will probably be somebody like Imelda Staunton, who's about my age and my height, but I would prefer my inner six foot goddess to be released; maybe the woman from Thelma and Louise, Geena Davis. 

If you could go back in time and give one piece of advice to younger self, what would it be? 

To have the confidence to stand for elected office before I did, because I didn't until I was 45. I kind of wish I'd done it 10 years before, but I didn't have the confidence to do it. I should have – it's the best job I've ever done, and it's a shame I didn't start younger. I mean, I really liked being barrister, but this is so much better. This is amazing.