From her humble beginnings in Cornwall, to working with two British Prime Ministers, Barbara Hosking has had a remarkable career. After being a press officer at the centre of power in the 1970s, Hosking has finally created headlines for herself – by ‘outing herself’ at the age of 91 and becoming a ‘gay icon’.
Exceeding My Brief, by Barbara Hosking. Published by Biteback.
Last week, Parliament celebrated the first 100 years of female suffrage. During the media discussions over the landmark event, names such as Millicent Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle were honoured for their role in the advancement of women. Barbara Hosking however, is probably the most influential woman you’ve never heard of.
As one of the few female press officers to Number 10 during the Wilson and Heath years, Hosking had a ringside seat to some of the most dramatic moments in British political history. She also had the ear of the key actors of the era. Hosking has now reached national consciousness after revealing she is gay, in her memoir Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant, which has been published by Biteback. The publisher claims that it is their favourite book of 2017.
The book is a timely arrival on to the crowded political memoir market. As the #MeToo movement gathers momentum, the book shines a light onto a period when women were severely underrepresented in politics. Hosking admits that there was plenty of sexism to deal with and the book is an attempt to look at the progress made over the last century. Indeed, her birth in 1926 spans a period beginning with the general strike, taking us through the second world war, Wilson, Thatcher, Blair and Brexit (the latter of which Hosking is strongly opposed).
The story begins by focussing on her roots as a Cornish scholarship girl and her move to London after the second world war. Hosking never hid her ambitions to become a Labour MP and a cabinet minister. When Labour won the 1945 election, Hosking was just 19 years of age with a lifetime of work ahead of her. Yet there were few female figures around her for inspiration. In 1945 only 24 female MPs sat in the Commons. Progress would be slow throughout the century. By the time Hosking reached the age of 60 in 1986, the number of female MPs had actually decreased – to just 23.
It was in the early 1950s that Hosking began her first job in politics, working for the Labour Party at Transport House. Assigned to the typing pool, she describes in the book, the atmosphere amongst the workers as “deeply political and sometimes class conscious.” Her colleagues were often the daughters of trade unionists, and any middle class activity such as “wine drinking and the arts were regarded with suspicion.”
After a year in the typing pool, she was promoted to the press office, just as Attlee lost power and Churchill returned as prime minister. Here, she remained confident that her career trajectory would lead to her becoming an MP. She notes in her memoir that she discussed her ambitions with a fellow young female activist called Shirley Williams. Hosking’s ambition however, would never be fulfilled. Even though she was successfully elected to Islington council, she committed the golden sin for any aspiring political candidate – putting principle before party.
The Labour battle lines of the 1950s had been drawn by the Bevanites and the Gaitskellites, with defence emerging as the defining issue within the party. By 1966, Hosking had made the shortlist for the Stroud constituency for the upcoming general election. Yet when she spoke to the selection panel, she reaffirmed her support for CND and claimed that she “could not always guarantee to support the government whatever the subject”.
After being tested again and again on various issues, it dawned on Hosking that politics, at least back then, was the art of the compromise. She notes in her memoir “I now was aware for the first time in my life that I thoroughly disliked political compromise.” She withdrew her application, only to be told that the constituency had chosen her as the candidate. Honesty had been her virtue. They asked her to reconsider. She refused to back down and the Labour’s loss would be the civil service’s gain.
Perhaps it was Hosking’s refusal to subscribe to one ideology that made her perfect for the civil service. Making virtue of the relative neutrality there, she rose quickly to the No 10 press office, first working for Harold Wilson and then latterly for Ted Heath.
It was alongside Heath that Hosking made her greatest impact. She writes with pride of his vision for a “future for Europe without wars”. The big issue of the day was the Common Agricultural Policy, which saw Heath utilise all his diplomatic skills to maintain trade links with countries as diverse as New Zealand and France.
Unlike the current approach set out by May and Davis, Heath took Hosking all around Europe to gain the best deal for Britain. It culminated in a positive meeting between the PM and President Pompidou in Paris that ratified Britain’s entry to the EEC. She writes with pride at seeing Heath fulfil his lifetime ambition of taking Britain into Common Market.
Hosking gives fresh perspective to the key events of the decade; from Heath’s delay in signing the Treaty of Rome to the terrorist atrocities at the 1972 Munich Olympics. There is also an insight in to the forgotten events such as Heath’s attempt to clean up London by arranging for the soot and grime to be cleaned off the dirt ridden buildings.
The political insight is underpinned by the ongoing battle to defeat the sexist culture within Whitehall. On her first day in the civil service, Hosking was confronted with the stereotypical attitude that many women still face; being undervalued. Rather than use her wealth of experience, Hosking’s new new boss sent her out to buy some flowers , so that he could give them to her predecessor as a farewell gift.
At that moment she admitted “I felt like running away…being treated like an office girl…I was angry and hurt.” Yet she recognised that it would be one of many hurdles a woman would need to overcome in order to become successful in the male dominated world of Whitehall.
After she left the civil service, she would again need to battle incompetent male bosses. When Hoskins took on a role at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, she was shocked to discover her male deputy was being paid more than her. Taking matters into her own hands, she asked her boss: “Are you paid less than your deputy?” Her forcefulness ensured that a rise was implemented that afternoon – but it led to colleagues patronisingly calling her a ‘suffragette’ forever more.
A reflective Hosking now admits that she is ‘apprehensive’ about what the future holds. In her lifetime, Britain has won a war, built a welfare state, introduced the NHS, legislated for equal pay and achieved peace in Northern Ireland – an issue which seemed irreconcilable when Hosking began work in Number 10. Yet as she approaches the end of her time in public life, many of those hard won gains are under attack.
Barbara Hosking’s memoir guides the readers through those changes. What marks the book out from others about the 1970s is the eyes with which it was seen through – predominantly a gay woman working in Whitehall, who successfully overcome many obstacles along the way. That she is now having her moment in the sun is testament to her courage and resilience, and should give us all inspiration for the challenges that lay ahead.
Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant is out now, from Biteback.
Celebrate LGBT month with Biteback by purchasing it for half price here; https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/exceeding-my-brief.