Mo Mowlam 1949-2005

Peter Nicklin’s appreciation of Mo Mowlam which is below is intended to focus on her time in the North East, although it does cover other important aspects of her life. See links to two other obituaries that appeared at the time of her death: the Guardian and the New York Times.


Peter Nicklin, 19 October 2021

Born in Hertfordshire, Mo Mowlam’s family moved to Coventry shortly after she started secondary school. She studied sociology and anthropology at Durham and then her PhD at the University of Iowa.

After her time at Durham, she worked for Tony Benn in London and then Alvin Toffler in New York, leading to her to move to the US.

In 1979 she returned to the UK to take up a post at Newcastle University where she stayed for five years.

In Newcastle she became very active in CND and the early green movement, including Tyneside Environmental Concern (TEC). In 1981, she and a Newcastle colleague, Michael Clarke[1] organised a series of alternative lectures to the Reith lectures being given that year by Laurence Martin, the university’s vice chancellor. These were published as Debate on Disarmament, with their proceeds going to CND.

Mo’s work in the peace movement allowed her to develop her public-speaking skills, which she did to great effect, often eclipsing the ‘celebrity’ speakers who had made the journey up to Tyneside to offer their support.

She was also very involved in the Labour Party and in 1983, after considerable equivocation she stood, unsuccessfully, against Nigel Todd to become Labour’s candidate for Newcastle North. Nigel subsequently lost in the 1983 election.

At that time, Newcastle Labour, indeed most of Tyneside Labour was largely misogynist and reactionary. Any ambitions Mo may have had were frequently frustrated by the attitude that women were there for the drudgery: making tea, turning the handles of the Gestetner machines and delivering leaflets. Mo’s intellectual and organisational calibre was viewed as a real threat by the old, male, right-wing power brokers in the party. Nor did she get on with the up and coming left who regarded her as too right-wing and open to compromise. At one point a rumour circulated that she was a CIA agent. The only ‘factual’ basis for this was that she had lived in the USA and worked for Alvin Toffler who wrote on security matters.

In 1987, now having acquired a real desire to become an MP she won the Redcar seat and quickly became part of the Blair project.

One of Mo’s early activities in parliament was to organise the “Prawn Cocktail Offensive”, designed to convince the City of Labour’s financial rectitude. It was through this that she met Jon Norton who was to become her husband.

In 1994, having been Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Mo became Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, initially under John Smith and then under Tony Blair who she helped to elect as party leader. When Labour won power in 1997 Mo remained in the Northern Ireland job and went on to lead the UK government’s part in the Good Friday agreement. It was at this time that her unconventional approach to negotiations cut through the entrenched positions of Northern Ireland politics, bringing Sinn Fein into the negotiations and persuading loyalists to participate through a personally risky unaccompanied visit to the Maze prison.

Shortly before the 1997 general election, Mo was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Although it was malignant she maintained that it was benign and treatable. At the time this was known only to her doctors and her husband. Blair did not know. The radiotherapy caused her to lose her hair and one of her more unconventional negotiating tactics was to take off her wig and throw it on the table. Allegedly she once said “I’ll take the wig off the table when you lot take your dicks off it”.

In government, Mo’s popularity with party and public rapidly became a cause of concern among her parliamentary colleagues, especially the more important ones. The impromptu standing ovation she received during Blair’s speech at the 1998 annual conference was, according to her husband, her political death knell.

Mo left government and parliament in 2001. Momentum, her memoir of the work done to secure the Good Friday Agreement appeared in 2002. At this time she resumed her anti-war efforts and was a speaker at the huge February 2003 demonstration in London opposing the planned invasion of Iraq.

During these years her health slowly deteriorated and her gradual loss of energy was very hard for her. Mo Mowlam died in 2005. An atheist, her funeral was nonetheless conducted by the Rev Richard Coles, one time member of the Communards.

In 2009 the BBC made a docudrama of the latter years of Mo’s life. Despite the very considerable physical difference between the two, Julie Walters played her completely convincingly, winning a BAFTA for best actress.

Although generally open, indeed at times to the point of indiscretion, there was a deeply private side to Mo. There were tragedies in her childhood and adult life that she disclosed to very few.

[1] Michael Clarke went on to become the director of the Royal United Services Institute – RUSI.