KNIGHT, Jill (b.1923).



Birmingham Edgbaston
31 March 1966 - 1 May 1997


Joan Christabel Jill Knight was born in Bristol on 9 July 1923. Educated at King Edward Grammar School, she decided she wanted to pursue a career in politics at thirteen, her anti-socialist views influenced by her school life. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941 and after the war lived for a time in Hamburg. On her return to the UK she joined the Young Conservatives. She married James Montague Knight in 1947.

Knight was elected to Northampton County Borough Council in 1956 and was the Tory whip until 1966. After trying unsuccessfully to win the parliamentary seat of Northampton in 1959 and 1964, she was chosen from more than two hundred candidates to contest the Birmingham Edgbaston by-election in 1966; once elected she held the seat until 1997. That year she stood down from Commons and was made a life peer as Baroness Knight of Collingtree.

Transcript of clip

"I remember one Member saying to me when I went in the smoking room for instance – I don’t smoke, I never have, but that was where you had a glass of wine or whatever – this very much sort of old fashioned conservative said ‘Jill I thought you were a nice girl!’; ‘I am’, I said, smiling winningly, and he said ‘Not if you go in here, this is the smoking room’, ‘But it’s where the MPs gather and I am an MP, you know.’ That sort of thing I did encounter."

Summary of interview

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Track 1 [01:06:04] Born in Bristol, moved to Cotswolds at 7. Family background –siblings, parents divorced. Mother ran a school –she had a degree [01.25]. Grandfather was Norwegian sea captain, tehn had a garage, then a dairy –and a grocer’s shop (“a bit like Margaret”) [03.15]. Remembers school days “lower middle class”. Family had no politics [04.05]. Brothers teased her about political ambitions. Didn’t mention it again until husband proposed to her [04.50]. Churchgoer but not serious although Grandmother joined Plymouth Brethren tells story of her winter coat. Ambition for politics from schooldays –tells story of English teacher, a strong Fabian, who got them to read News from Nowhere by William Morris – a vision of Golden Age of Socialism. Thought it was rubbish and wrote essays tearing it to pieces. Teacher penalised her [10.30]. Came bottom of English instead of top. Decided she was on the other side. Knowing her own mind –“it’s what we’re sent here for” [11.40]. Speaks about changing her mind about EEC/EC –now opposes it. “MPS are not there to do what they’re told but to do what their judgement tells them is the best thing” [12.53]. How did she became an MP? [13.52] Persistence; had had some stage training –as a WAAF – in the girls’ Gangshow then in Cabaret (friend of Janet Brown). It helped her “produce” her voice and hold an audience. Stood for local council –Northampton Borough Council. Was party whip for a time. Good way of learning about politics and people [16.40]. Today so many people go into politics having been an assistant or a researcher. Fought a seat in Northampton against son of local squire [17.40]. Lost to him twice. Took every chance to speak and to learn about audiences. [18.30]. Gives tips on campaigning e.g. never share platform with opponent –gives example of Cameron/Clegg campaigning on TV. Context of politics at the time, [20.10] was sent to UN to learn. She had a “programme” to achieve –had a lot to learn and women were not favouirite choice of selection committees. [22.00]. Managed the demands of being a mother and a councillor and candidate –juggling timetable [22.45]. Have to be determined. Couldn’t afford a nanny. Had a good time with sons nevertheless. Easier for women candidates today. Finally succeeded in winning a seat –had spoken at party conferences – her views on taxation [24.35] -and been noticed. If she’s been born 50 years earlier she might have been on the other side [26.00] A person’s background is not the best yardstick. Got noticed and had lots of invitations to speak . Matched with Edgbaston constituency –a safe seat- following Dame Edith Pitt’s death [27.49]. Knew Birmingham from schooldays. Beat 215 other applicants. “Great night!”. Impressions of Westminster [29.15] chided for going into in Smoking Room. Talks about earlier attempt to get selected for Colchester and meeting Sir Anthony Buck (elected as MP) –he had been told “If Jill Knight had been a man, we’d have selected her, not you” [31.00]. Got involved with Abortion issue [31.40] -had been contacted by local medical people who were concerned about David Steel’s Bill. They persuaded her to oppose abortion in all but specific cases [32.45] Was pulled up by Speaker for being emotional and too graphic in her opposition [33.50]. Excited making first speech. Had already been asked to give vote of thanks to Macmillan –and was complimented [34.50].      Track 1 [cont. from 34:50] Never asked for position on Front Bench –it would have meant putting aside her own beliefs [35.40]. Conflicts with party policy –not then but more recently e.g. over EC. Would never leave the party –would argue from inside. Need to listen to ordinary people e.g. recent issue of Lords reform. Speaks about threats from party to take committee chairmanship away over her opposition to dental and eye test charges [37.30]. Her husband was optician so she knew the issue intimately. Scathing about Edwina Currie [39.45]. Might have damaged her prospects. Her track record in espousing difficult issues e.g. Clause 28 [42.00]. Delegation of people complained about leaflets “teaching little children as young as 4 and 5 how to do homosexual act”. Has got more Private Members Bill through than anyone else –explains how to do it by adding clauses to existing bills [43.45]. Not against homosexuals per se. Got into terrible trouble with that. Other issues as Private Members Bills: -Design Copyright Act [42.15] where her constituents’ work was being copied; Child resistant packaging for medicines; parity in attaining nationality for children. Parliamentary structures change [48.41]. Committee work v important [49.00] e.g. recently about Local authorities trying to get rid of peddlars –great committee. Bill will be coming up soon. Lords is v good on having experts on any subject. Member of Monday Club many years ago [50.30]. Knew and admired McWhirters, but left the Club soon because she objected about the way decisions were made. [51.20] Had some jolly good ideas though. Very aligned with “IRA row” [51.50] Tells story of asking a New York traffic cop for directions –decided that the American Irish knew nothing about the situation. Set up speaking programme all over USA –that’s why she had a bomb sent to her and was nearly killed [53.25]. Airey Neave and Ian Gow both assassinated. Reflections on changes in her life as MP over 31 years [54.30]. The more women came in, the more the way Parliament works changed –especially the hours. She wants women in parliament but thinks the change in hours interferes with the work, e.g. the Lords sits far longer. Most magical night in Parliament was 29 March 1979, the day Margaret won vote of confidence by one vote and went on to win power – “everything changed” [56.45]. Tells story of being approached by Labour MP who tried to do a deal with the Tories -in return for a peerage [57.54]. V exciting night –a knife edge thing. There was a strike in the restaurants but not in the bars. Describes the moment of the result “you never know when your vote is going to make a colossal difference” [59.45]. Harder for an MP to get through to people now? Depends on presentation –refers to “pasties and pensioners” –how features of the recent budget had been poorly presented [1.01.25]. Influence of Margaret Thatcher –and of Churchill. Hopes she can stay in parliament for 50 years. Loves House of Lords for its erudition. Isn’t sure about what’s being proposed for Lords Reform (it was the day of the Queen’s speech). Dubious about elections for Lords –without the power of a party behind you, you haven’t got a hope. She couldn’t bear to lose the cross-benchers [1.04.30] a pool of expertise. What would she do differently? Talks about the choice she had to make between a career on the stage and politics -dead right to go into politics