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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The remarkable Glenys Kinnock

The Kinnock family and the Labour party have lost a matriarch

Photo: John Downing/Getty

I know this column is meant to be a diary, and it has to fit one page of the paper. But it has not been a great week, so I am claiming editor-at-large rights and going off piste.

First, I have had a dreadful chest infection, which despite steroids and antibiotics has lingered. Second, I had a string of events in the diary which I felt duty bound to do. Then amid all that I get a call from Neil Kinnock asking if I would do the closing eulogy at the funeral of his beloved wife, Glenys, on Thursday.

I was of course honoured to do so, given she was one of my favourite people ever, but though I have done more than my fair share of eulogies, I always find it daunting, not least because I believe they are an important part of anyone’s life and death.

So this is all a long-winded way of saying the only writing I care about this week is what I say about Glenys on Thursday afternoon. Here it is:

We have heard from Gordon [Brown] about Glenys the great political figure.

We have heard from Steve and Rachel [Kinnock children] about Glenys the wonderful mother, grandmother, wife and life partner for Neil. Neil and Glenys were one hell of a couple; the Kinnocks one hell of a family.

I want to talk about Glenys the friend. A true family friend.

The last few months in particular were tough for everyone who was close to Glenys. We should all be happy that she was so well cared for to the end, especially by Neil. Their love was unshakeable and profound, never stronger than in these last few years when he has been inspirational in his care for her. And I for one am happy that he was spared the agony of seeing her go into a home, which I know he dreaded.

Steve said something very interesting on the day she died. That for the first time since her illness began six years ago, he felt real memories from the time before the disease struck were coming back. It’s true. They have been flooding back.

Glenys the family woman I saw close-up back in the mid-80s, when I was on the Mirror and we got all their relatives from all over Wales and beyond, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, dozens of them corralled in a London hotel for a wild weekend and a double-page picture taken on the roof. A lot easier to corral for the photo when Glenys was around. The matriarch.

And what a family. Dad Cyril, mum Betty – you only had to be in their company for a few minutes to see where so much of the goodness in Glenys came from. Betty, whose funeral was in the week of John Smith’s death in May 1994. A life-changing time for many of us.

And lots of people, for good reasons, not least my earlier breakdown, urged me not to jump ship from journalism to politics, when Tony [Blair] followed John and Neil as Labour leader. Fiona [Millar, my partner]. Neil. My parents. My boss. As for Glenys: she said, if in your heart you think you should do it, you should do it.

At so many of the big moments in our lives, she was there. When our sons Rory and Calum were mascots for Burnley at Brentford, surely the highlight of any childhood, it was back to the Kinnocks in Ealing for Glenys to give them a bath.

Two things about her that didn’t come over as much as they might in the many terrific obituaries… her feminism; and just how funny she was. Both brilliantly combined in a beautifully put-together album that she sent to our daughter, Grace, when she was a baby, a collection of photos and scribbled cartoons and handwritten captions with the central message … this is a man’s world and you’re going to have to fight hard.

Page 1: “1994, for darling Gracie, memories and warnings from your Fairy Godmother.” The warnings include that men spend too much time playing and talking about football. “Beware the Burnley pressures,” she exhorts. “Why not play rugby and support Wales?”

On it goes, great photos, hilarious words, Neil’s holiday dress sense gently mocked, and then the serious bits … “Society, being codified by man, decreed that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority.” Simone de Beauvoir. “TRUE,” she adds, in capitals!

Then this more measured view: “Women must not seek power over men but over themselves.” Mary Wollstonecraft.

She uses the old line that, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” but adds: “This is funny, but not strictly true.”

And then, beneath a self-portrait of Glenys as a crowned, wand-waving Fairy Godmother, this: “Some day your prince may come and try to carry you away, but your social life will be so hectic you won’t be in that day.”

That our daughter is a feminist comedian is hardly a surprise, given the Glenys influence.

More seriously… my breakdown. I’m not sure I would have got through it without Neil and Glenys. The Hutton inquiry, on holiday with the Kinnocks and the Goulds, as often as were, and I get a letter saying the judge wanted the originals of all my diaries. That one – I KNOW I couldn’t have got through it without them.

If Glenys was your friend she was on your side. Always. That didn’t mean she never disagreed, criticised, suggested a different approach. But publicly nothing else than rock-solid support. Without exception. The Labour family. She was a matriarch there, too.

As recent visitors to their house know, Glenys had taken to putting up photos all over the walls. Sure, a sign of the illness. But also a reminder of all those great times and the great people in her life. And I’ll tell you this, despite the best efforts of Fleet Street’s finest, she never took a bad photo.

She endured a lot from the media, most of it unfair. But even when it was at its most vile, she didn’t let it get to her because she knew they were doing it to get to Neil, and damage Labour. And she wasn’t going to give them the pleasure. And remember: even when Neil famously tripped over in the water on Brighton beach, Glenys looked like she was walking on it. Smiling for the snappers … “the bastards won’t get me down”.

I was privileged to do the interviews for what to this day I think was the best-ever profile election broadcast, Hugh Hudson’s film that became known as Kinnock – The Movie. “Neil was great in that movie,” Hugh would growl, and yes, he called it a movie… “but Glenys… Glenys was the stardust.”

She had guts, too. She persuaded me to go to Eritrea in the middle of a horrific war, back in the 80s, she for a charity, me for the Mirror, and we travelled around in a pick-up truck, the driver playing the same one-track tape over and over, no bath or shower for days on end, often caught up in death and mayhem and the pictures show… I looked like a bagman. She looked smart. Elegant. Hair always great. Never took a bad photo.

So – the holidays. Glenys’s cooking. Unforgettable. The laughter. Unforgettable. The singing, sometimes karaoke, sometimes not, unforgettable.

And the shows. Oh my God, the Grace/Johanna [Steve Kinnock’s daughter] shows. Night after night, hour after hour, and one night Neil had had enough, and as he saw them planning Act One, he groaned: “Oh no, not another bloody show.”

“They’re expressing themselves, Neil. They’re expressing themselves,” Glenys would insist. And the show would begin.

Don’t forget. She was a teacher. She was all about kids expressing themselves. When our children were born, Glenys didn’t bring baby-grows as presents, but a stack of her favourite children’s books. I met some of the primary school children she taught. They loved her. She was loved at either end of the age scale, either end of the power and fame scale, too. Nelson Mandela would ask me, on Tony’s visits to South Africa. “How is my friend Glenys? I adore Glenys.”

When Gordon made her a minister it wasn’t because she was a famous face, and it certainly wasn’t because of her desperation to be a peer. It was because he needed someone good – serious, passionate, knowledgeable – on Africa; on the UN; and on Europe.

Ah… Europe. To the right wing haters, never-ending nonsense about the Kinnocks all aboard the Euro gravy train. To Glenys, becoming an MEP was about her commitment to Wales, an expression of her internationalism, her belief that democratic politics was the place to make meaningful change. And how proud she was to have got the biggest numerical majority in British electoral history. Hardly a shock though. As Helle [Thorning-Schmidt, Glenys’s daughter-in-law, ex-Danish PM] said after a day campaigning with Glenys, “it was like being out with the Queen”.

In what might have been the last conversation we had where I felt she still maybe knew who we were, and was understanding some of the chat, judging by the smile she liked what I said when telling her that one day her British grandchildren and her Danish grandchildren wouldn’t just be part of the same Kinnock family, they would be part of the same European family again, too.

Joe, Grace, Cecily; Johanna, Milo [grandchildren]; your Nainy [Welsh for Nan] loved you more than words alone will say, was so proud of you all, and though she is gone in body, and latterly went in mind, in spirit she will be walking alongside you every day of the rest of your lives.

Back in 1993, as we were all still getting over the election defeat a year earlier, and worrying whether the Tory era would ever end, Fiona and Glenys co-wrote a book, By Faith and Daring. It merits reading again today. In the introduction, Glenys wrote: “More and more children are born and grow up in impoverished environments, and many are being denied the chance to develop their potential. Mothers on low incomes are subject to special pressures, to spend more than they can afford. So many women feel they have little prospect of escape from a life on an income which forbids the possibility of planning in the long term or thinking beyond the next meal, the next gas bill or the next pair of kids’ trainers.” Plus ça change.

She was driven every day of her life by two things: her love of family and friends, and her passion for the great causes she believed in, above all how to help raise people up, especially children, women, and the poor and oppressed, wherever in the world they were.

The subtitle of the book is “interviews with remarkable women”, and she and Fiona had a great time, travelling around talking to dozens of them, from Betty Boothroyd to Valerie Amos, Frances Partridge to Penelope Leach. But truth be told, there was none more remarkable than the author of that introduction. She was a very special lady who I for one, including from the dementia years, will always remember with a smile on her face, and a song never far from her lips. Even in that horrible illness, she could bring radiance and joy.

And I am pretty sure she would want us to leave today with a smile for all the memories, care in our hearts for each other, and an eye to the future, not least the joy Neil and the whole Kinnock family are going to feel if we get a Labour government some time in his 83rd year, with the help of some of her grandchildren’s first general election votes, Rachel’s brilliant-as-ever backroom work for the party, and Steve following his mum into ministerial office.

That is legacy. That is love. That is the inspiration she leaves.

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