In her 10 years as a Cabinet Minister Virginia Bottomley was one of the most powerful women in British politics. But even she will admit she didn’t quite carry the clout of the woman who virtually ordered her to become a Member of Parliament – none other than former Prime Minister, ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher.
During her decade at the cutting edge of Government, and in all during her 21 years as a serving MP, Virginia never lost sight of the education of life and good values that were instilled into her as a young girl growing up, for the most part, here on the Island.
Despite being born in Scotland, simply because her father was working there at the time, she, along with numerous family members, calls the Island her home. She is here as often as she can be, despite now being an active member of the House of Lords as Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, as well as working as a head-hunter for a high-profile company in London. She chairs the Odgers Berndtson Board & CEO Practice, which conducts searches for Chairmen, CEOs and non-executive directors for plcs and private companies.
During a break away from life in the fast lane that she still enjoys, Virginia took time out to give ‘Island Life’ readers an insight into her interesting and rewarding career as an MP, and her love of the Island.
She revealed: “My great grandfather Sir Edward Poulton came to St Helens Cottage in about 1890, and in 1915 he gave St Helens Common to the National Trust. My other grandfather Dr. William Garnett bought a house in Seagrove Bay around 1900.
“My grandparents met playing hockey in Priory Bay, and we still play hockey there, so the family have been doing that for more than 100 years. All my family were quite academic and very involved in public policies. Dr William Garnett was involved in introducing education to London as one of the original signatories of the London School of Economics where I studied, so I am very proud of him.”
Her family bought half of Priory Bay in 1926, and the family home was built the following year. Since then the whole family has been down here constantly, with often as many as 100 relations gathering in the summer.
Virginia points out: “We all share a passion for the Island. As a young girl I remember we had these appalling traditions, so every Easter Monday we would walk from Horestone Point to Whitecliff Bay – again a walk that was started by my great grandfather in 1890. The other tradition is swimming to St Helens Fort. My great uncles who were killed in the First World War did it, and I swam to the Fort when I was 10 years old.
“Another childhood memory was when we loaded up the dinghies and drove to Freshwater and then rowed around and had a picnic in Scratchells Bay. Another time we had a running race from Freshwater to home. We really went for it, and couldn’t move for a week afterwards. It was a competitive environment.
“When we were young Priory Bay was quite distant from Ryde because people didn’t have cars and we went everywhere by boat. I think we learned a great resilience. Sometimes the tide and wind are against you and you make no progress. On other occasions you have the tide and wind with you, and even though you don’t make much effort you travel like a rocket. I think that is the most wonderful lesson for life – sometimes you work so hard and it doesn’t happen, but other times you just sail through it.”
Virginia recalls one of the most influential people in her life was her ‘very special’ aunt Peggy Jay. She said: “She was in politics and had a massive influence on me, and I say my husband Peter only married me because he thought I would turn out like Peggy Jay. She was a member of the Greater London Council, and was forceful. She was a great reformer and campaigner. She was brought up on the Island, and was a wonderful mentor.”
Despite being married to a Tory MP, Virginia had never given much thought to joining him in the Commons. Then one day her whole life changed when she received a call from 10 Downing Street, on the orders of PM Margaret Thatcher, saying more female MPs were required, and she was on the ‘wanted list’.
She continued: “I decided Peggy Jay should have been an MP, but she wasn’t so I would be. I wanted Peter to be the MP for the Isle of Wight long ago, and then in 1982 it came up for the following year’s General Election. I worked so hard and actually got 34,900 votes – only five people in the country got more votes than I did, but one of those was Liberal Stephen Ross, the sitting MP, who beat me.
“I was devastated. The campaign was ‘Turn Wight Blue’ and Mrs. Thatcher even came over to visit. The day after I had lost she rang me to say ‘what bad luck’ and I burst into tears. But it made me realise much more about the Island; the huge delights, but also some of the difficulties and dilemmas.
“I learned how hugely entrepreneurial and creative the Island is with lots of small businesses and so many dedicated people. We all hope it can become an Island of real enterprise and creativity in small businesses. With modern technology, distance working and IT, my senses are that it is going to become ever more possible to realise this vision. The Island really has everything going for it.
“Whatever I have done, I have always felt part of my energy was put into developing and promoting the Island in any way I could. The Island needs all the help it can get to make people realise what a wonderful and exciting place it is.”
Virginia became MP for South West Surrey in 1984. There were 365 applicants to be the Tory candidate, but she was chosen and subsequently won the seat. She said: “At the time there were just 23 women MPs in a House of Commons of more than 600, so we were like an endangered species. Now the ratio is about one in four. I loved the constituency life and being involved in every aspect.”
Initially she served under Margaret Thatcher and then John Major, and received her first ministerial position in 1988 as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment. She was appointed Minister of State at the Department of Health in 1989, and was appointed a member of the Privy Council upon joining Major’s Cabinet as Secretary of State for Health in 1992, serving until 1995.
She then served as Secretary of State for National Heritage until 1997. After the 1997 General Election, she returned to the back benches, saying: “I had been working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and returning to the back benches enabled me to re-connect with my family. After 10 years I felt I had done my time and needed my life back.”
Looking back on her 10 years as a Minister, Virginia recalls: “Mrs. Thatcher called me one day to see her on a Monday, which was unusual. I said I was busy and could it be later in the week. But I was summoned and she offered me a job as a Minister. I was so surprised. She wanted me to go to Environment, but I had only ever spoken about Defence, Agriculture or transport, and knew nothing about it.
“She replied very smartly that I would have to read up on it! It was very interesting getting people to use unleaded petrol, and recycle. But I loved being Secretary of State for Health because it was so demanding and intense. It was a job where I had a real role with serious responsibilities. I had to take difficult decisions, so I had to be courageous and tenacious to survive.“When I first became a Minister I had a very bright young man in Central Office. He was 23 and used to coach and brief me when I went on television’s ‘Question Time’. He was a very clever, positive person, and his name was David Cameron!”
That is one of the main reasons why Virginia is very supportive of the present team, even though she believes coalition must be ‘incredibly frustrating, compromising and complex’.
After quitting the Cabinet Virginia continued to work closely with Tory leaders William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. It was Howard who put her in the House of Lords in 2005. She said: “I was absolutely delighted, and it was unexpected. Some of the debates in the Lords are phenomenal, and it will be a great loss if it goes. But I accept it is hard to justify.”
Virginia added: “I am someone who is constantly restless, so I am never really satisfied. I have been married coming up 45 years to the same person, and that is something that gives great strength. But if you can find a role in life that in your way plays to your strengths and minimises your many failings then you are privileged.”