“Putting on the chains and robes has a special significance… people take that very seriously”
By Joshua Neicho
As a newly elected 35 year old Conservative councillor in 1990, Clare Whelan was introduced to Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher asked her which local authority she represented and Whelan told her it was Lambeth. “My dear”, said the woman who helped face down the Soviet Union and end the Cold War, “You are so brave”.
Reminded of this story by her husband John, first elected at the same time as her, Clare – grounded, discrete and modest to a fault – will say only that the meeting was “awkward” and that indeed, Lambeth felt like a worthwhile place to begin a political career.
Born into a political and naval family, the grand-daughter of a councillor and great grand-daughter of a mayor of Great Yarmouth, Clare grew up with a strong sense of public service – so that “although I did not consciously aspire to get involved in politics it felt like familiar territory when it happened”, she says. One spark that led her to stand for office was a visit to a wretched old people’s home – “I was absolutely appalled. There were not just holes in the curtains, there were holes in the windows themselves”. She also says that she “probably got a lot of encouragement from my husband. “The first time I was asked to be a councillor – I didn’t think they were talking to me, I thought yes I could be a councillor’s wife. But other people said to me you should be a candidate”.
Winning in Thurlow Park, she was thrown into the maelstrom of Lambeth politics at the height of the borough’s problems. She shared responsibility for social care when Lambeth was in no overall control after 1994, and pushed hard for a review of Lambeth’s children’s homes. Her conviction that there was a job to be done carried her through. Despite the scandals of the time, she declines to run down former political opponents. “Most people who stand for public office are well-intentioned, they don’t always do the right thing,” she says. She talks about the importance of friendships across the political divide, calling shadow employment minister Laura Pidcock’s view that she has no time for socialising with Conservatives “very sad”.
She served as Lambeth’s Mayor in the millennium year, with achievements including a big boost to the amount raised by the Mayor through charity fundraising. In a charity-motivated stunt, she got all the London borough Mayors taking a ride at the same time on the London Eye, one Mayor per pod.
Since July 2016, she has been the first woman chair of the London Mayors’ Association – an organisation founded over a century ago by the Duke of Norfolk and which now advocates for and supports the capital’s civic mayors. The role demands from those elevated to it both endless reserves of bonhomie as first citizens of their borough with the toughness needed to chair council meetings. Times have changed since the office of Mayor was reserved for long-standing councillors – today it might be thrust on anybody, even those just elected. Clare points proudly to the diversity of this year’s group of London mayors – not as representative of the capital as they could be yet, but on the way to it.
She insists they are “extraordinarily good” at shifting into a position of political neutrality. “They recognise the role isn’t about them themselves,” Clare says. “Putting on the chains and robes has a special significance… people take that very seriously”.
She emphasises as one of the great strengths of Mayors their convening powers, bringing together for instance police commissioners with grassroots civil society groups and ultimately calming the threat of social unrest, which she feared Lambeth might be headed towards in 2000. One of the themes of her year as Lambeth Mayor was to involve faith groups in the civic life of the borough after years of exclusion. To kickstart the process, she sent out invitations for tea in the Mayor’s Parlour. “I put the kettle on, and waited to see what would happen. I had no idea if anyone would turn up” she says. “And it was extraordinary, we had the room absolutely full. The local imam shared a chair with the rabbi. It was an absolutely magic meeting”.
Mayors also have a role in the aftermath of tragedy, Clare suggests, to demonstrate that the political institutions closest to the level of communities care. She cites the moving service in Westminster Abbey after the Westminster Bridge attack, which Mayors from across the capital attended, “to show that despite the absolute awfulness of it, London would not be beaten into submission, life would go on and we stood together”. To those who would say this is only a symbolic gesture she counters, “I would say symbolic things are important at a time [people] need reassurance”.
The mayoral year begins in May with the election of new Mayors, followed in very modern fashion by an induction day provided by the London Mayors Association. Other highlights are the New Year’s Day Parade, at which many of the boroughs’ delegations are led by Mayors; the evensong service on the anniversary of the dedication of Westminster Abbey, an interfaith event when Mayors parade in their full robes; and the Great River Race when Mayors are among the dignitaries conveyed from Millwall to Richmond, since each boat must bear passengers to honour the Company of Watermen and Lightermen’s historic responsibilities.
Many of the mayoral chains of office have long histories, Clare says, and some boroughs have more than one. The Lambeth chain is pure gold, similar in appearance to her great-grandfather’s in Great Yarmouth. It is quite heavy to wear, with special loops on the robes to hold it on, but “you get used to it”. The boroughs worry about the Great River Race, she thinks, not because they might lose a replaceable Mayor but because of the risk of a chain being claimed by the river.
When Clare was in office as Mayor of Lambeth, she had delegations come and visit from all over the world including Japan, the US and China, curious about the UK’s political idiosyncrasies. Today, old hands in local government worry about over-mighty council leaders pushing inexperienced Mayors around; and the arrival of directly elected US-style Mayors, wielding great powers but with little interest in civic niceties has added another confusing tier to the banquet. Clare is unperturbed by the latter development. “One of the glories of the English system is that local government is different all over the place. I wouldn’t wish to see standardisation everywhere”.
Clare remains deeply involved in both political and civic life, working as a policy consultant and with another local government hat on as Deputy Lieutenant of Merton since 2015. More than 20 years ago, she was trying to get more women into national politics with Edwina Currie, for whom she had worked as an amanuensis and then parliamentary assistant. Clare is a realist, but ultimately optimistic about the sense of disfranchisement from politics. “Life these days is so rich, [there are] all sorts of opportunities presented to different people” she says. Community work “may not always be the natural choice" – yet, she says, she is always impressed when she sees groups of cadets and other volunteers, by “how many people do give time”.
On the recent wave of allegations of harassment and sexism to sweep through Westminster, Clare says that “responses need to be balanced. Abuse and harassment should be called out – nobody should feel intimidated, nobody should be allowed to bully anyone”. On the other hand, “freedom of speech in this country is a precious thing. What we have to guard against, is putting able and talented people off. Some politicians don’t live up to the very high standards that you expect, but an awful lot do. We could all do more to encourage people who do put their names forward”.
As for the ideal local government servant: “you have to be extraordinary in some ways to be a councillor, you also have to be ordinary enough. Someone who understands real life, the things in particular that people worry about”. Clare Whelan leaves you with the feeling that British politics as a whole could do very well with a dose of her good sense.