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The Gillian Keegan interview: "People have the right to their own identity"

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (Photography by Louise Haywood Schiefer)

12 min read

Gillian Keegan is not your typical Tory. A Liverpudlian who left school at 16, she has moved on from a successful career in business to become the Education Secretary. She talks to Tali Fraser about strikes, gender identity and how to disagree agreeably. Photography by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Gillian Keegan has never fallen out with anyone over politics. A Liverpudlian, from Huyton, born into a “dyed in the wool Labour” family, it was quite the adjustment when, aged 19, she decided to vote Conservative. But she always found ways to disagree agreeably.

“It is just ridiculous that you would fall out with someone over politics. I mean, this whole idea of ‘I wouldn’t kiss a Tory’. I’m like, how the hell would you know?... I always try to find something you agree on and it may not be politics, but you’ll find something else you agree on. Politics does not define a human being.”

The Education Secretary, 55, might not want politics to define her, but it does play a big part of her life now – and her family’s life back in Liverpool. Keegan’s great grandmother’s lifelong membership of the Derby West Labour party is currently being framed to hang in her parliamentary office, and she has her grandfather’s mining lamp sitting in pride of place.

Does she actually have any Conservative memorabilia hanging around? “I don’t think so,” she says, but after a little look around the office she finds a few things, including a memento from Lord Young (“one of my political heroes”), Nigel Lawson’s biography and  hanging on her wall – a moving sight – is the last note she received from the late Sir David Amess MP.

Keegan, MP for Chichester since 2017, is “very proud” of the fact she came to her Conservativism when “everybody around me had a different political viewpoint”. Pictures of her family visiting her in the Commons are littered across her Instagram account, but their embrace of her political career was not always forthcoming.

“They couldn’t understand my move into politics because I was earning really good money and I’d worked a lot to get myself up the corporate ladder… they couldn’t understand why you’d go and change that for something where you’d earn less money and people would hate you,” she says. Keegan made her move into politics, leaving her successful 30-year long business career, with her work taking her to Japan and Madrid, after a chance meeting at the theatre with Women2Win cofounder Baroness Anne Jenkin, who encourages women to become MPs.

Not only did her parents find the choice “irrational”, when Keegan was putting up a campaign poster in their house – during an unsuccessful campaign in 2015 as Conservative candidate in St Helens, Merseyside – her dad, she says laughing, asked if being an MP came with insurance. “I said: ‘No, no, I don’t think so. Why are you asking that?’ He said: ‘Someone’s going to stove the window and put something through.’”

Tali Fraser and Gillian Keegan in her parliamentary office
Tali Fraser and Gillian Keegan in her parliamentary office (Photography by Louise Haywood Schiefer)

“One of the problems right now,” she says, is with finding people “who will put themselves forward to be politicians” and what is stopping a lot of business people – as a former member of that group  herself – is “the thought of being inhibited from expressing a political view or having a different political view”.

She cannot understand why people would try to shut down the opinions of others: “Why would you do that? People are entitled to their own views, let them have it!”

Candid, with a soft Scouse accent that comes out more as she relaxes, Keegan is a keen advocate of open debate. One area where this has arguably become more difficult, on both sides, is around gender identity and trans rights.

The Education Secretary, who has been in the role since October last year, suggests that the approach taken by “actors not speaking to the writers who made them” – with the likes of Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson distancing themselves from the writer JK Rowling over her comments on trans rights – is helping to fuel a “toxic debate”.

“You’ve got people being cancelled, people losing their jobs, actors not speaking to the writers who made them, it’s really become quite a highly charged, toxic debate. We need to take the heat down.”

She says teachers are ultimately having to deal with the backlash and, in terms of handling the topic in schools, she adds: “We have to be sensitive and do the right thing.”

Keegan has been working on the gender and trans guidance schools will soon receive, and previously said that 16-year-olds were not too young to decide to change their gender, stating that she was working, paying taxes and making her own decisions aged 16. Does she stand by that view? It seems so, but this time parental consent is key. 

“The question is whether a 16/17 year old, in a school setting, wants to change their pronouns with their parental consent and whether that’s something they should be allowed to do – and we think the answer to that is: yes.”

Amid criticism from her fellow Conservative MPs, Miriam Cates and Nick Fletcher, who have argued for a complete ban on social transitioning, i.e. using alternative pronouns and names, the Education Secretary says: “People have the right to their own identity. It is a tricky subject but at 18 you can do what you want, so I think it would be unreasonable to say: ‘No, you can’t do anything.’ That would be a very unreasonable position.”

It has really become quite a highly charged, toxic debate. We need to take the heat down

She emphasises that “parental consent is at the heart” of the schools guidance, but would that mean that any child even questioning their gender in school would see that reported to their parents?

Here she gives her strongest indication yet that it would not be the case – and the conversation around gender would remain open until a formal change is requested. She emphasises that it is “right and sensitive” that “you can have a conversation with somebody, questioning it”.

Keegan adds: “I think that’s the concern, that pupils can’t have that conversation without their parents being told so we do deal with that. We recognise that as an issue and deal with that in the guidance. I hope in a way that is seen as the right approach and a balance.”

Part of the overarching approach, she says, is that “we need to make sure that children are children”, taught in age appropriate ways, with age-appropriate content. The guidance will rely heavily on the independent review into gender identity services being led by Dr Hilary Cass, and Keegan suggests that schools’ advice shouldn’t drift into the clinical space: “We shouldn’t be having medical interventions until somebody is an adult.” 

It is Keegan and her Conservative party colleague, minister for women and equalities, Kemi Badenoch who have been developing the schools guidance. Badenoch is self-proclaimed as “anti-woke” while Keegan once identified herself as being a member of the Conservative party’s “normal wing”.

Would she still put herself in this category? “You’re always inclined to think of yourself as normal,” she says. “But what I mean by that is, when people say to me: ‘You come across as really normal.’ Well that’s because I am really normal.”

She adds: “I haven’t wanted to be a politician since I was a young age. I never thought about politics apart from voting. I didn’t spend my teenage years and early twenties debating politics in the Student Union.”

Her husband, Michael, a former Conservative councillor and the son of former Tory MP Denis Keegan, she says, is the one aware of which student clubs people belonged to and the groups they identify with.

Although she may not reach for political philosophy, Keegan has a personal philosophy, shaped by her time as a degree apprentice in a Kirkby car factory, owned by a subsidiary of General Motors, while studying on day release for her bachelor’s degree in business studies. 

Gillian Keegan (Photography by Louise Haywood Schiefer)
Gillian Keegan (Photography by Louise Haywood Schiefer)

Like all her friends growing up, she left school at 16 – having gained 10 O-levels at her local comprehensive, supported by her teacher, Fred Ashcroft, who stayed after hours at St Augustine of Canterbury School (nicknamed St Disgusting) to tutor her – to start work. It was at the time of Derek Hatton’s Militant movement, which took control of Liverpool City Council, and she was fed up with the union politics that dominated her workplace.

The union man, she says, would come to see her every week at work to strongarm her into joining. “If anybody is simultaneously asking you to join something and threatening you with what will happen if you don’t join, I think my life’s advice would be to ignore that,” Keegan adds.

She was told during her apprenticeship, having not joined the union, that if there was strike action, she would be the first one out and that she would have no job security without them: “I said: ‘I’ll protect my job by trying to be good at it, trying to learn as much as I can and trying to get qualifications.”

Could university students, who may not receive their results amid an ongoing staff marking boycott, learn something from how she handled union pressure as a teenager? Students and parents, she says, are getting “angrier” – and the Education Secretary brands the ongoing strikes “outrageous”.

“I mean, all of that money, all of that hard work – and the graduating class now have actually missed quite a bit through Covid – so this is one of the first years they get their graduation, they can have a party, and now they’re not getting the degree. I think it’s very wrong.”

Strikes are a common theme across the education sector, including schools, with the latest set to take place on 5 and 7 July over pay disputes. “I think our teachers do an amazing job,” the Education Secretary says, “but they can’t do an amazing job if they are not there.”

The first thing Keegan did when she got her role was to secure the, on average, 5.4 per cent pay increase, she says the teaching unions requested, in the Autumn Budget. “The reality is they’ve been on strike ever since. So they got what they wanted,” she says, laughing, bemusedly, “and then, you know, it didn’t stop.”

One of her cousins is a National Education Union rep, while she has other cousins who are teachers, including one that has started recently: “It means that you can see a different viewpoint and we have talked about it… it’s a bit more of an open conversation, which isn’t assuming that I’ve been put on earth to upset every teacher.”

I didn’t spend my teenage years and early twenties debating politics in the Student Union

A recurring issue facing schools is the difficulty in recruiting for specific subjects, with Keegan flagging computer science, physics, maths and modern foreign languages as key areas.

To tackle that, she is developing one of her favourite things: a degree apprenticeship. “As many people know, the answer to most questions when I try to look into how you can resolve it, quite often comes back to an apprenticeship of some sort. Why do I say that? Because it means that you are working from the get go in the environment that you want while also doing your training and education,” she says. “I just think it’s a win-win.”

The Education Secretary adds that the prospect will be “really attractive”, especially because of the student debt that someone going into teaching faces. She also opens the door, when questioned, to implementing differential pay amongst teachers to deal with subject specific staff shortages.

“I am open to that,” Keegan says, “because at the moment there’s no difference in pay between subjects, but if you consistently have subjects that are short, then one lever you have is to look at what it is they are competing with”. 

She flags that there are bursaries and a levelling up payment, for certain subjects in certain parts of the country – like for maths teachers in Knowsley, where Keegan grew up – but adds: “The question is whether we need to go further, and whether that would solve the systemic issue.”

Most of her “massive family” – her father is one of 13, with 11 surviving to adulthood – are still back in Huyton. Although they aren’t Conservative voters, they have supported her in typical Liverpudlian fashion.

When she first stood as a candidate, she says: “I wasn’t sure many of them would be persuaded to vote for me. However, they could be helpful. So I got these sweatshirts made that were blue and they said ‘A Woman’s place is in the House of Commons’ and on the back it said ‘Vote Gillian Keegan’. They would wear them because it was me and blood is thicker than water. They’d come out, they’d campaign, they’d knock on doors: ‘You’re gonna vote for our Gillian?...’ 

“One particular day, a couple of my cousins turned up and they had the rollers in! That is the side of a big night out... anyway, they went around knocking on doors with the rollers and it’s quite normal!”

She never embraced that as her campaigning look, and as we wrap up our photoshoot, admits that she has had the same hairstyle for 30 years after a terrible perm, aged 16, from her grandma’s hairdresser, which didn’t grow out until her 20s. That was after she suffered through a period of alopecia as a young girl aged 13.

“When everyone always says: ‘Oh, you’ve got nice hair.’ I always think yeah, it could have been different,” Keegan says. “I wasn’t vain as a kid but there were bits missing and I thought: ‘Bloody hell’ – and as I felt around I found a patch which has never grown back.”

“I do thank the Lord that I still have my hair.” She jokes, if it had been worse, she would have a “wonderful collection of wigs, different hair every day” – and replicate Labour MP Carolyn Harris in styling her hair colour with her outfits.

The first colour she jumps to is red; Keegan can’t leave her roots behind her in more ways than one.

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