'An indomitable spirit': Baroness Fookes pays tribute to Baroness Knight of Collingtree
Baroness Knight of Collingtree, 9 July 1923 – 6 April 2022 | Alamy
Baroness Knight may have had a reputation for controversy but during her 50 years as as a backbencher she had more success than many a minister
I first remember seeing Jill Knight in the early 60s when she electrified the rather staid audience at a Conservative party conference in a bravura speech about trade union activities. I did not know then of her wartime experiences working for the British Forces Network in Hamburg or her acquisition of acting skills in The Girls’ Gang Show.
That confidence derived from dealing with an audience, combined with her own indomitable spirit, stood her in good stead as she fulfilled her dream as a 13 year-old of becoming an MP. She finally made it in 1966 when she was elected as MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, where she remained until her retirement in 1997 when she went to the House of Lords. Jill was immensely proud of having served 50 years as MP and peer. From first to last she fought for causes dear to her – particularly when it came to the protection of children and the importance of family life.
Jill was for me the epitome of a successful backbench MP. Indeed I can think of many a minister who achieved less than she did. Take, for example, her achievement in getting no less than five pieces of legislation on the statute book, usually by dint of introducing Ten Minute Rule Bills, and then persuading the government to take them on. One which particularly appeals to me was ending a piece of outright discrimination against a British woman marrying, for example, a German man and living in Germany and having a child to whom she could not transmit her British nationality. A British man in the same position had no such problem!
She had a warm and engaging personality with a mischievous sense of humour
I cannot of course deny that some of her views were highly controversial, and within a year of being elected she was fiercely opposing the legalisation on abortion proposed by a young David Steel. She felt that the rights of an unborn baby were being ignored and she forecast that the number of abortions would increase enormously, and it is a fact that they have – as she reminded everyone many years later. She never missed an opportunity to try to restrict the scope of the 1967 act in the years that followed.
Even more controversy and some hideously abusive comments were made about her when she succeeded in persuading the government to introduce the now infamous Clause 28 forbidding schools and councils from promoting homosexuality. As she explained in her book, About the House, her only intention was to prevent small children, some as young as four or five, being shown very explicit material and being taught that homosexuality was the norm.
Incidentally, I recommend anyone with an interest in politics to read her book. It is full of fascinating information about life as an MP, and she has wise and witty words on a range of subjects including the importance of speaking so an audience can actually hear you! It would convince any reader that far from being a stern-faced harridan she had a warm and engaging personality with a mischievous sense of humour. I also remember with pleasure her lovely singing voice which made her a star of many Parliamentary Reviews often in partnership with Ian (now Lord) Lang.
In our early years as MPs we shared an office, and then the wheel turned full circle and we again shared an office in the Lords. I recall one of her last campaigns conducted under my very nose when she tried to ban the Liverpool Care Pathway intended to ease the path of the terminally ill. At first she was met with total scepticism but typically she kept going and it became widely accepted that it was not fulfilling its original purpose and was becoming a way of death and it was discontinued in 2014.
I now say a fond farewell to a larger-than-life lady whose flamboyant style of dress and love of jewellery made her stand out among the ranks of those more drably attired. I also owe it to Jill that I was introduced early in my career to the modest shopfront of the jeweller’s McCarthy’s which held treasures and wonderful service within its walls!
Baroness Fookes is a Conservative peer
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