Dame Margaret Mary Beckett, DBE (born 15 January 1943) is a British Labour Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Derby South since 1983. She was the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party under John Smith 1992 to 1994, and briefly served as Leader of the Labour Party following Smith's sudden death. She later served in the Cabinet under Prime Minister Tony Blair in a number of roles, most notably becoming Britain's first ever female Foreign Secretary in 2006.
Beckett was first elected to Parliament in 1974 for Lincoln and held junior positions in the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. She lost her seat in 1979, but returned to the House of Commons in 1983, this time representing Derby South. She was appointed to Neil Kinnock's Shadow Cabinet shortly afterwards, ultimately being elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1992, becoming the first woman ever to hold that role. Following the premature death of John Smith in 1994, she also technically became the first woman to lead the Labour Party, although Tony Blair won the election to replace Smith shortly afterwards to assume the substantive leadership.
After Labour's victory in 1997, Beckett became a member of Tony Blair's Cabinet initially as the President of the Board of Trade. She was later the Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, before in 2006 becoming Foreign Secretary, making her the first woman to hold that position, and—after Margaret Thatcher—the second woman to hold one of the Great Offices of State. After Blair resigned as Prime Minister in 2007, Beckett was not initially given a position by new Prime Minister Gordon Brown. After some time, Brown appointed her Minister of State for Housing and Planning in 2008, before she left the government for the final time in 2009.
She is the longest-serving female MP in the House of Commons, as well as being one of the longest-serving ministers in government history. She is also one of the few remaining MPs who served in the Labour governments of the 1970s. She was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2013 New Year Honours for public and political service.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Member of Parliament
- 3 References
- 4 External links
Margaret Beckett was born Margaret Jackson in 1943, in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire into a working-class family. She had two sisters, one a nun, the other a doctor and mother of 3. She was educated at the Notre Dame High School for Girls in Norwich (a Roman Catholic direct grant grammar school which subsequently became a voluntary aided Catholic comprehensive in 1979), then at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, where she qualified as a metallurgist. She was an active member of the Students' Union and served on its Council as Associate Member rep.
In 1961, Beckett joined Associated Electrical Industries as a student apprentice in metallurgy. She joined the Transport and General Workers Union in 1964 and remains a member to this day. She joined the University of Manchester in 1966 as an experiment officer in its metallurgy department. In 1970 Beckett went to work for the Labour Party as a researcher in industrial policy.
She married the chairman of her local Constituency Labour Party, Lionel "Leo" Beckett in 1979. Leo works as Beckett's agent and aide, travelling with her and working in her private office. He is paid from Margaret Beckett's staff allowance, one of the largest staff expenses. Leo has two sons from a previous marriage, and three grandchildren.
Member of Parliament
In 1973, she was selected as Labour candidate for Lincoln, which the party wanted to win back from dissident ex-Labour MP Dick Taverne. Beckett lost to Taverne at the February 1974 general election by 1,297 votes. After the election she went to work as a researcher for Judith Hart, the Minister for Overseas Development at the Foreign Office. Harold Wilson called another general election in October 1974, and Beckett again went to fight Taverne at Lincoln in the October 1974 general election. This time Beckett was elected, by just 984 votes.
Almost immediately after her election she was appointed as Judith Hart's Parliamentary Private Secretary. Harold Wilson made her a Whip in 1975, and she was promoted in 1976 by James Callaghan to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Education and Science, replacing Joan Lestor, who had resigned in protest over spending cuts. She remained in that position until she lost her seat at the 1979 general election. The Conservative candidate Kenneth Carlisle narrowly won the seat with a 602 vote majority, the first time the Conservatives had won at Lincoln since 1935.
She joined Granada Television as a researcher in 1979. Out of Parliament, and now Margaret Beckett, she was elected to Labour's National Executive Committee in 1980, and supported left-winger Tony Benn in the 1981 Labour deputy leadership election won by Denis Healey. She was the subject of a vociferous attack from Joan Lestor at the conference.
Beckett was chosen to fight the parliamentary seat of Derby South after the retirement of the sitting MP, Walter Johnson. At the 1983 general election she won the seat only very narrowly; the Labour majority was 421.
Shadow Cabinet and Deputy Leader, 1984–94
Returning to the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett gradually moved away from the hard left, supporting incumbent leader Neil Kinnock against Benn in 1988. By this time she was a front bencher, as a spokeswoman on Social Security since 1984, becoming a member of the Shadow Cabinet in 1989 as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Following the 1992 general election she was elected Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and served under John Smith as Shadow Leader of the House of Commons. She became a Member of the Privy Council in 1993. She was the first woman to serve as deputy leader of the Labour Party.
Following the sudden death of John Smith from a heart attack on 12 May 1994, Margaret Beckett became Labour leader, the Party's constitution providing for the automatic succession of the deputy leader for the remainder of the leadership term, upon the death or resignation of an incumbent leader in opposition. Labour leaders are subject to annual re-election at the time of the annual party conference while the party is in opposition. Accordingly, Beckett was constitutionally entitled to remain in office as leader until the 1994 Conference, but the party's National Executive Committee (NEC) decided to bring forward the election for Leader and Deputy Leader to July 1994.
Although her tenure as acting Labour leader was brief, Beckett led Labour to a commanding victory at a national level in the 1994 European parliament elections. This remains Labour's best result in any of the eight European elections held since 1979. As of 2015, Beckett is the last Labour leader to have secured first place for Labour in a European parliamentary election.
She came third in the subsequent leadership election, behind Tony Blair and John Prescott. The Deputy Leadership was contested at the same time; Beckett, standing in this election as well, was defeated, coming second behind Prescott. She was however kept in the shadow cabinet by Tony Blair as Shadow Health Secretary.
Under Tony Blair's leadership, Margaret Beckett was the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, and then from 1995 the shadow President of the Board of Trade. She was one of the leading critics of the government when the Scott Report published its findings into the Arms-to-Iraq scandal in 1996.
In government, 1997–2001
The Labour party won a landslide victory in the 1997 general election and despite her connections to the old left of the party and the trade union movement, with which Tony Blair has an uneasy relationship, Margaret Beckett held a number of important positions in the Blair government. After the election she was appointed President of the Board of Trade (a position the title of which would later revert to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry); the first woman to have held the post. She was succeeded by Peter Mandelson in July 1998.
Beckett was then Leader of the House of Commons from 1998 until her replacement by Robin Cook in June 2001. Her tenure saw the introduction of Westminster Hall debates, which are debates held in a small chamber near Westminster Hall on topics of interest to individual MPs, committee reports, and other matters that would not ordinarily be debated in the Commons chamber. Debates that take place in Westminster Hall are often more consensual and informal, and can address the concerns of backbenchers. She received admiration for her work as Leader of the House,[not in citation given] working on this and a number of other elements of the Labour government's modernisation agenda for Parliament.
Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 2001–06
After the 2001 general election, Beckett became Secretary of State at the new Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, created after the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was abolished in the wake of perceived mismanagement of the foot and mouth disease epidemic in 2001. The new department also incorporated some of the functions of the former Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), and was known by its initials, "DEFRA".
For legal reasons, she was also appointed formally as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which appointment she held until MAFF was finally dissolved on 27 March 2002 and the remaining functions of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were transferred to the Secretary of State at large.
She held the position of Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until May 2006, when she was succeeded by David Miliband. Beckett would be on the front line of the government's efforts to tackle climate change, and attended international conferences on the matter.
During her tenure at Defra, Beckett was re-elected to Parliament for Derby South at the 2005 general election with a reduced majority.
In a report published on 29 March 2007 by the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee select committee, she was criticised for her role in the failures of the Rural Payments Agency when she had been Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Foreign Secretary, 2006–07
Following the 2006 local elections, Tony Blair demoted Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, and appointed Margaret Beckett as his successor. She was the first woman to hold the post, and only the second woman to hold one of the great offices of state (after Margaret Thatcher). Beckett's appointment came as something of a surprise, for the media and for Beckett herself. She admitted reacting to the news with a four letter word.
Some commentators claim that she was promoted to Foreign Secretary because she was considered to be a 'safe pair of hands' and a loyal member of the Cabinet. Her experience at Defra in dealing with international climate change issues has also been cited as a factor in the move.
Margaret Beckett had to adapt quickly to her diplomatic role and within a few hours of her appointment as Foreign Secretary she flew to the United Nations in New York City for an urgent meeting of foreign ministers to discuss the Iran nuclear weapons crisis. About a month later, Beckett came under fire for not responding quickly enough to the 2006 Lebanon war, which saw Israel invade the country, although some reports suggested that the delay was caused by Cabinet division rather than Mrs Beckett's reluctance to make a public statement on the matter.
Beckett is understood to have delegated European issues to the Foreign Office minister responsible for Europe, Geoff Hoon who, following his demotion as Defence Secretary, continued to attend Cabinet meetings. Hoon and Beckett were said to have a difficult ministerial relationship.
As Foreign Secretary, Beckett came in for some trenchant criticism. According to The Times, she did not stand up well in comparison with the previous Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. The Spectator described her as, "at heart, an old, isolationist, pacifist Leftist" and called on her to resign, and the New Statesman accused her of allowing the Foreign Office to become subservient to 10 Downing Street after the tenures of Jack Straw and Robin Cook.
In August 2006, 37 Labour Party members in her Derby South constituency left the party and joined the Liberal Democrats, criticising her approach to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Two weeks earlier, Beckett's successor, David Miliband, openly criticised Blair and Beckett during a full cabinet meeting for failing to call for an immediate ceasefire. Jack Straw and Hilary Benn, then International Development Secretary, later came out against Blair and Beckett as well.
Upon taking office, Gordon Brown made it known that Margaret Beckett would not continue as Foreign Secretary. On 28 June 2007, Brown selected David Miliband as her replacement and Beckett returned to the back benches.
It was announced on 29 January 2008 that Beckett would become the new head of the Prime Minister's Intelligence and Security Committee, replacing Paul Murphy, who became the Secretary of State for Wales.
Having been tipped for a possible return to the front bench in July 2008, due to her reputation as a solid media performer, Beckett returned to government in the reshuffle on 3 October 2008 as the Minister of State for Housing in the Department for Communities and Local Government. She attended Cabinet meetings, but was not a full member and was not to be entitled to vote on collective decisions. She ultimately was allowed to come back due to her cabinet experience and her economic management in the past.
Beckett is currently a member of the Top Level Group of UK Parliamentarians for Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation, established in October 2009.
MP expenses scandal
Beckett was found to have claimed £600 for hanging baskets and pot plants by The Daily Telegraph in the 2009 expenses scandal. As she had no mortgage or rent outstanding it was queried how she managed to claim £72,537 between 2004 and 2008 on a house in her constituency when she was renting out her London flat and living in a grace and favour flat.
Bid to become Speaker
On 10 June 2009, Beckett announced that she wished to replace Michael Martin as Speaker of the House of Commons. Mrs Beckett said: "I think at the moment we have got very considerable problems in Parliament. We have got to make changes.... After the next election, if we have a more finely balanced chamber than we have had in the recent past, it will be a very different ball game.... I hope I can help us deal with that." Beckett received 70 votes in the first round and 74 votes in the second rounds of the 2009 Speaker election. She withdrew following the second round of voting.
In August 2009, Beckett wrote to Sir Christopher Kelly, Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life which is currently investigating MPs' Expenses. In the letter, Beckett says the allowances do not adequately cover MPs' costs, which include political campaigns. The Telegraph criticised the "self-pitying" letter, saying it will fuel "concern that some MPs are not genuinely committed to reform".
Alternative Vote referendum
On 26 November 2010, Beckett was announced as the President of the NO2AV campaign, which campaigned to retain the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system at the 2011 United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum. She led the campaign to success and FPTP remains the system used in UK parliamentary elections.
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- Profile at Parliament of the United Kingdom
- Contributions in Parliament at Hansard 1803–2005
- Current session contributions in Parliament at Hansard
- Electoral history and profile at The Guardian
- Voting record at Public Whip
- Record in Parliament at TheyWorkForYou
- Profile at Westminster Parliamentary Record
- Profile at BBC News Democracy Live
- Articles authored at Journalisted
- Bridget Kendall (10 February 2007). "Day in the Life: Margaret Beckett". BBC News. Archived from the original on 12 February 2007.
- "Margaret Beckett". C-SPAN.
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