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Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, 1997 – 2015
Dame Anne Begg says that joining Parliament in 1997 “wasn’t as bad as I thought”. “I was expecting it to be some old boys’ club. Those of us who had come from non-political backgrounds, we had a mindset that we wouldn’t fit in, and I just couldn’t believe that I did fit in,” she says. It’s strange, she reflects, that the thing she misses most about Westminster now is the camaraderie, and having a drink in Strangers with colleagues.
Begg was part of the landslide of 418 Labour MPs who arrived in Westminster in ’97. But rather than get lost in the sea of new faces, she was something “quite new and novel,” as the first MP to be a wheelchair user “in the modern sense”. Begg, who has the degenerative Gaucher disease, points out that the MP who is often regarded as her wheelchair-using predecessor, Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh who was in Parliament from 1866 to 1880, was born without arms or legs and was carried into the Chamber by his manservant. And while after the First and Second World Wars, there were a number of MPs with long-term injuries sustained in battle, in era that followed, MPs with disabilities were rare.
Although Begg still had to fight for extra resources, she says “people were remarkably helpful, because they hadn’t had anybody like me before. They’d had David Blunkett and Jack Ashley, [who were blind and deaf respectively] but their disabilities were quite different from mine [with different] challenges in terms of access.”
If it hadn’t been for an all-women shortlist and being actively courted to stand, I probably would never have become an MP
She is pleased to see progression, however incremental, on disability representation in politics, with Pam Duncan-Glancy recently elected as the first wheelchair user in the Scottish parliament and more MPs with visible physical disabilities in Westminster. “I like to think that had I not broken the ground there, they might have found it more difficult. That’s not to say they find it easy; they find it really difficult. But I helped to improve things.”
Begg is a strong proponent of all-women shortlists, having become involved in Labour Party politics through the teaching unions and encouraged to put her hat in the ring for the marginal Aberdeen South by a local activist and Frank Doran, who had been the MP for the seat from 1987 to 1992 and was moving to Aberdeen Central. “If it hadn’t been for an all-women shortlist and being actively courted [to stand], I probably would never have become an MP… I needed that extra push, and a lot of women need that extra push to put themselves forward.”
Despite being a ground breaker when it came to disability representation, Begg regrets not doing more on disability rights when she was in Westminster, focusing more of her energy on women’s issues instead. “I was hoping I would get that last parliament, the 2015 parliament to do it, and I didn’t because Labour got smashed to bits.” Because her Aberdeen South seat was a marginal, she was “always frightened” to go away on parliamentary delegations – another regret.
On her proudest achievement, Begg names her campaigning on legislation allowing stem cell research in embryos in the early 2000s – although she says she struggles sometimes to differentiate between things she is personally proud of and reforms she is proud of the Labour government for achieving.
She “never fancied being a minister at all” but loved committee work, and says serving as chair of the Work and Pensions Committee between 2010 and 2015 was “the summit I wanted to achieve”. Begg was also part of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs: a position that helped her in her post-parliamentary roles, when she served on multiple local boards and committees before her health deteriorated more recently.
“If I say so myself, I was a very good chairperson,” she says. “If you get some of the difficult ones in Westminster, then you can certainly deal with the Grampian Health Board.”
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