An Ode to Mo Mowlam
I love Mo Mowlam. Of all the Labour MPs that ever were, I love Mo Mowlam the most.
There is an obvious reason for this ardent love of Mo Mowlam. The job of secretary of state for northern Ireland is widely acknowledged as one of the most difficult, and indeed dangerous, roles in British politics, a poisoned chalice forever ringing with Reginald Maudling’s infamous comment upon returning from a first trip to Belfast, “for god’s sake, someone bring me a large scotch. What a bloody awful country” (Yes, yes, I know he was Home secretary at the time, don’t @ me). Mowlam did the job with grace and aplomb, without treating it like the political equivalent of being sent to the wall (for ten points, what role did a newly defeated Owen Smith take up in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet?) and was instrumental in the peace process. It is neither unwise nor unheard of to suggest that the peace process would simply not have happened without her unique brand of politics, energy and intellect; however, as an article by her step daughter, published shortly after the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement makes clear, Mowlam has been all too often left out of histories and commemorations of the peace process, already being edged out of stories not yet written. While Adams and Blair and Paisley and McGuinness take centre stage, this woman has been allowed to slip into the historical background. As a party, and as a culture, we have not done enough for Mo Mowlam; we should remember her with Bevan and Jenkins, as quite simply one of the most effective Labour cabinet ministers there has ever been, someone whose work materially improved the lives of everyone in this country. We do not do this, and that we do not shames our party every day, tells us things we do not want to hear about how we view the achievements of women, about how flippantly and how little we consider Northern Ireland in our vision of the future.
I can tell you all this, and believe it to my very core; but in truth, there is another more arcane and personal reason why I love Mo Mowlam most of all. I am a nice, university educated, middle class white girl from the Dublin commuter belt; I might not be a middle aged white man named John, but I am not, in any meaningful way, politically underserved or underrepresented. That being said, representation is a funny thing; I started loosing my hair when I was about 12, and have spent decent swathes of my teenage and adult years being Quite noticeably Quite bald. This bothers me less, I think, than it might bother other people- or perhaps that’s just what I tell myself- but on the whole, I would rather not have had to tell strangers that I am not dying on a regular basis for the last decade. Mo Mowlam was not just the only prominent bald woman in politics; she was and remains pretty much the only prominent bald woman in British cultural life. And for this reason I have always carried a particular personal torch for Mo Mowlam, the at one point “owner of the most famous wig in Britain”.
Female politicians are endlessly weighted on their physical appearance, on whether or not they meet some hard to define and even harder to attain standard of presentable, decorous, blandly attractive. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, as so much of my love for Mo Mowlam is grounded in how she looked- or perhaps more charitably, how she handled how she looked. Nonetheless, researching this article, I swore aloud at my computer screen after reading a particularly choice line in her obituary; “nothing would ever really compensate her for the loss of her good looks”. It’s quite possible that this is true; I didn’t know her, after all, and perhaps she did mourn the loss of her hair keenly, and yes, obituaries are places for honesty and not simply hagiography. But something about the finality of this, the idea of having been forever struck off by ugliness or unconventionality, that it might constitute some core sadness that hums behind all other achivements, tainting them; it riled me. Mo Mowlam had a career as an academic in the states; she escaped Ted Bundy (no, really); she became the most respected secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the post war period, was more beloved than Blair before he, y’know, did war crimes and being more beloved than Blair actually meant something. And whenever an obnoxious man grabs my wig at the bar in Wetherspoons, I think of Mo Mowlam, patron saint of bald women hacks, somewhat in irony and somewhat not, and take heart.