Where are they now?

25th May 2001 at 01:00
It was always a bad hair day for Labour's one-time education secretary, who later became part of the SDP's 'gang of four'

Her claim to fame

Object of desire in her student days at Oxford: no shortage of male volunteers to carry her books; education secretary in Jim Callaghan's Labour administration; destroyer of grammar schools doing "more damage to this country than Hitler", according to the late Auberon Waugh.

In 1974 she was nominated by Time magazine as likely to be Britain's first woman prime minister; in 1981 she resigned from the Labour party with the "gang of four" who founded the Social Democratic party.

So was she the Left's answer to Margaret Thatcher?

Not likely. Apparently a stranger to the hairdresser, she gave the women columnists a field day. "SW always looks like she's left the stove on at home," said Lynda Lee-Potter, of the Daily Mail.

Why did she resign?

"The party I loved and worked for over so many years no longer exists." She was disillusioned by the antics of the militant Left, as were Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers, the rest of her gang.

Did she upset some fans?

Not half: she was Cherie Booth's great political hero. The future PM's wife was so outraged at her defection that she applied to stand as Labour candiate in her home town of Crosby when SW stood for the SDP, but was turned down.

What did the SDP achieve?

Anthony Howard said: "All it achieved was to see to it that the Tories would be able to ride roughshod over the divided forces of the Centre and the Left in the three general elections which followed."

But Polly Toynbee claims that Tony Blair is a "fully baptised social democrat".

Does she like New Labour?

Paddy Ashdown, in a 1996 entry to his diary, said: "She doesn't have a very high opinion of Blair; she thinks he is a fixer and she doesn't know what he stands for."

What is she doing now?

Hitting the campaign trail with Charles Kennedy et al. As Matthew Parris said in The Times: "SW is the cherry on the sundae of any gathering of the nice and the good."

Diane Spencer


Born: July 27, 1930

Education: In UK and US; Somerville College, Oxford; Columbia Univ, New York

1952-58: Journalist on the Daily Mirror and FT

1964-79: Labour MP, Hitchin, then Hertford and Stevenage

1967-69: Minister of State, Department of Education and Science

1976-79: Secretary of State, Education and Science

1981: founder member of the SDP

1988-: Professor of elective politics, Harvard University

1993: Life peer

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today