Baroness Trumpington interview: Being very outspoken comes naturally to me
At the age of 95 – and nearly four decades after she first sat on the red benches – Lady Trumpington is standing down from the Lords. But, true to style, the plain-speaking baroness is not going quietly.
The House of Lords is a less colourful place this week after the retirement of one of its greatest characters and national celebrities, the redoubtable Baroness Trumpingon, who chose to stand down on her 95th birthday. Why? “Because I’m so bloody old!”
The former wartime Land Girl on Lloyd George’s farm, and translator of German naval ciphers for the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, went out in suitable style, however: throwing a farewell lunch party for 50 friends including Sir John Major in the Palace of Westminster – where she regaled guests with a song – before a final, majestic, pearls and fur-clad appearance in the Lords chamber to take the oath one last time, to warm cheers from her peers. As one lordly wag suggested, she is probably better-known for swearing the occasional unparliamentary oath, with sometime-fruity language aimed at any hapless peer with whose views she violently disagrees. And then, of course, there’s that notorious V-sign, but we’ll get to that…
As her grand-daughter, Gigi Barker, remarks, everyone in the Lords seems to know Lady Trumpington. And she has mixed feelings about retiring: “I feel very, very sad. I shall miss it frightfully. I shall miss the people who look after me, who are so kind to me, as well as my fellow peers. Most of all, I shall miss the companionship. They are my part of my family.”
But 95 seemed a reasonable moment to retire, she adds: “It also gives me a bit of time when I can say exactly what I think without any responsibilities.” Like what? “Ooh, I don’t know yet!”
After an extraordinary life, Jean Barker came late to national politics, granted a peerage by Margaret Thatcher in 1980 after becoming a local councillor – “by accident” she says – and then mayor of Cambridge. She made up for lost time, serving as a health minister under Norman Fowler (now Lord Speaker) despite her being a heavy smoker, and then at the Ministry of Agriculture in torrid times under John Gummer (now Lord Deben), weathering the political storms that raged around salmonella in eggs and mad cow disease. While Mrs Thatcher was not known for favouring other female politicians as prime minister, it seems these two strong women hit it off from the start.
“The thing about Margaret Thatcher was she used me, because she and I would fight and if she said something was black, I would say: ‘No no no, it is white!’ The reason was to give her a feeling of what people were going to say when they reacted to something she said. By arguing with me she had an answer for a lot of people. She didn’t get cross, though we had terrible fights. One poor man who sat between us at a dinner thought we were going to kill each other, but in fact we were very happy!”
Lady Trumpington never expected to become a minister: “It hadn’t occurred to me. I thought I was just going to be a perfectly quiet and normal peer, instead of which I saw so much I would never have seen.” She hints at major rows and disagreements with fellow ministers but is studiously discreet about her former colleagues, except one – the former health minister, Edwina Currie. “I think she is the most terrible woman, a woman who made publicity out of private things, which is unforgiveable. I really, really dislike her.”
Jean Trumpington is well-known for her plain-speaking and certainly doesn’t feel that male politicians talked down to her: “No, I never had any feelings of that at all. I am very outspoken for a woman – because it comes naturally to me.”
That plain-speaking extends to her 37 years in the House of Lords. “I don’t think I have ever got terribly angry in politics, but I got bored and irritated at the stupid things people said.” She put it rather more graphically when discussing the fellow-peers she has encountered in a recent BBC interview: “There are some near-geniuses there, and some bloody awful idiots!”
Hers has been a long and extraordinary life that has been well-chronicled but still demands a whistle-stop tour: born Jean Alys Campbell-Harris in 1922, the daughter of a major in the Bengal Lancers and an American heiress, her early life was extremely wealthy and privileged. That changed when her mother lost her fortune in the Great Crash of 1929, and so had to find work, turning her hand to interior design for the houses of the family’s many rich friends. It was, she recalls, a rather unhappy childhood: “Our nanny liked my two little brothers very much and didn’t much care for me so it wasn’t a very happy time. I was the odd one out and I thought I was very ugly.”
She was homesick at boarding school and left at 15 and was sent to finish her education in Paris, where she says she learnt to speak perfect French, while also picking up German and learning the rousing marching song of the German army.
When war came, she was sent first to be a Land Girl on the Sussex farm of a family friend, the by then ageing ex-prime minister David Lloyd George. She lived in what she calls “a very nice bungalow” belonging to Lloyd George’s former private secretary and long-term lover, Frances Stevenson, who later became his second wife. “She was very nice to me, though the Lloyd George family hated her of course. And yes, he did like young girls.” She confirms the story that the former PM once stood her against a wall and measured her up – though nothing else happened.
She moved to Bletchley Park later in the war, using her German to work on top secret translations of German naval messages for the code-breakers to decipher. The work was detailed and arduous, the shift pattern disjointed. But there was all-night dancing in London between shifts. “We were all young and used to think up ridiculous things to do when we weren’t busy.”
After the war, she worked for an advertising company in Madison Avenue, though she concedes not much work was done as she had “an absolute ball”. She learnt to water-ski and was known occasionally to tap-dance on tables. While in the States she met her future husband – William Barker, a teacher – and they returned to Britain and had one son, Adam. Her husband became headmaster of the Leys School in Cambridge, where her foray into local politics was to begin, though she failed to be selected for a parliamentary seat in 1974.
When Mrs Thatcher offered her a peerage, choosing a lordly title proved a bit of a puzzle. Known already for her strong opinions and unmistakeable husky tones, it was suggested that ‘Baroness Barker’ might be misconstrued. She decided to choose her name from a town or village of particular significance and, since her family had lived near the villages of Trumpington and Six Mile Bottom, the choice rather made itself, though she recalls that friends used to rag her at the enticing prospect of what political impact the pronouncements of ‘Lady Six Mile Bottom’ might have achieved.
But the lady known affectionately as ‘Trumpers’ to friends and strangers alike, is still looking forward to staying touch with friends and former colleagues in the Lords. Widowed in the 1980s, she considers the House of Lords a crucial part of her family and is delighted she will still have the right to listen to debates from the steps of the Throne and to dine in the Palace of Westminster.
So, finally, that notorious V-sign directed at the former cabinet minister and fellow Tory peer Tom King. Very unparliamentary behaviour, surely, by an octogenerian baroness, even in 2011. So how did it happen? “He was making a speech and being frightfully rude about survivors of the Second World War looking their age and he referred to me. He was insufferable. I was not going to stand for that, of course. There was no point in trying to stop him so I put my hand behind his shoulder and did the V-sign. Of course, I was not thinking about the press at all. I don’t think I would have done that to Margaret Thatcher!”
The V-sign went viral and turned her almost overnight into a media personality. She memorably protested on Have I Got News For You? asking why, in her 90s, she had been asked to fill in a questionnaire before she appeared which included the intrusive query as to whether she was pregnant.
While she may quietly revel in her profile as a media celebrity, she does draw the line at one tabloid headline which dubbed her “Baroness Battleaxe”. “I think it is bloody awful and not true.” So how does she see herself? “As a charming old bird!”
A charming, but still wily, old bird at that. Lady Trumpington still follows the news avidly but is diplomatic on her views of Brexit and how Theresa May is doing as prime minister: “You wouldn’t expect me to answer that…”