Baroness Fearless

Series Title
Series Details 22/11/01, Volume 7, Number 43
Publication Date 22/11/2001
Content Type

Date: 22/11/01

HER eyes narrow and she fixes you with an intense glare as she whispers: “I never show fear.”

Emma Nicholson is describing the moment when, during her recent trip to a Taliban-held Afghanistan refugee camp - the first such visit by a western politician - she chided her guard for the way the Taliban regime treats women.

“The guard was armed to the teeth. I didn't know how he'd react but fear didn't come into it. I told him exactly what I thought. I didn't hold back,” she says.

“No fear' is, in fact, an appropriate way of describing the whole career, both personal and professional, of the doughty British MEP.

She's had to deal with plenty over the years: a career-threatening physical handicap; a vicious hate campaign when she dramatically switched political parties and the loss of her husband, Michael, two and a half years ago.

His death, from cancer of the colon, is something she admits hit her harder than anything.

“He was a wonderful man and it was a hugely happy marriage. In fact, I am only just emerging from what has been an intense, long period of mourning which has taken up much of my time and energy,” she says.

Nicholson dug deep into her reserves of courage to cope with his loss and has now found a new lease of life in the European Parliament.

She was quick to stamp her mark and is the first vice-president of the Parliament's foreign affairs committee.

Her husband died shortly before she was elected an MEP in 1999, but she says he would have been proud of her success.

“He was a lifelong European and was delighted when I was selected.” She adds: “Of course I miss him, but I value the chance I've been given to do what I enjoy most in life: helping others.”

Daughter of the former British MP Sir Godfrey Nicholson and grand-daughter of the 27th Earl of Crawford, she was born into a patrician family with an honourable tradition of service.

Born 80% deaf, she suffered partial loss of eyesight at the age of 11. This cruel twist of fate inevitably won her sympathy, but sympathy is something she insists she has always scorned.

Instead, it served only to increase her determination - and feed her ambition. She was head girl at school, trained as a professional pianist but then switched for a business career in the fledgling computer industry.

Such was her drive to enter public life, that she didn't think anything of writing to the central office of the British Conservative Party demanding to be put on the candidates' list.

It worked.

She entered the British Parliament in 1987, after serving as director of fundraising for the Save the Children Fund. There were few women in her party when she became an MP.

At the time, a political pundit described her as “one of the more popular of new members”.

It should have been a successful political career, but was destined to end in bitterness and defection. On Boxing Day, 1995, after years of dogged devotion to the Conservative cause, she spectacularly switched sides and joined the Liberal Democrats.

Nicholson, who represented a West of England constituency, was branded the “Wicked Witch of the West” by outraged Conservative officials. She became the target of a hate campaign and was even punched by a fellow Tory MP. But, just like her recent encounter with the Taliban guard, Nicholson has never shied away from a challenge. Indeed, she positively thrives on “squaring up' to those she perceives to be in the wrong.

She quit, she says, partly because of the Conservatives' anti-Europe stance.

“They say they want good relations with our (European) neighbours, but they can't resist throwing xenophobic slogans at them,” she said at the time. Rather amusingly, she later added insult to injury when she revealed how the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major had flirted with her on a sofa in his office. Instead of discussing politics, Major asked: “What's that beautiful perfume you're wearing?”

For some, her decision to cross sides, and her subsequent explosive exposure of Tory sleaze in her book Secret Society: Inside and Outside the Conservative Party served only to confirm her perceived shortcomings.

“Lack of humour, a dearth of self-awareness, and you have Emma exactly,” said former health minister Edwina Currie. In the late 1980s, another senior party member accused Nicholson of lack of judgement, remarking: “Poor Emma: if only there was a Pulitzer Prize for ambition, she'd win it every year.”

Whatever her faults, she is a courageous woman with her heart in the right place. Little seems to have escaped her attention.

Marsh Arabs...child trafficking...Romanian orphans... Iraqi refugees...peace in the Gulf.

For Nicholson, it's a case of “been there, done that.”

She has set up six charities, is patron of 34 organisations and president of another six.

She's recently taken up the cause of Afghan refugees and has even launched a competition in Africa, named after her beloved late husband, for budding writers.

But when asked about her life outside the world of good causes and politics, her hesitancy and lack of certainty are almost tangible: “Er, you've put me on the spot, there,” is her response.

“I've never given much thought to “interests” or even personal fulfilment,” she says. “I do love playing and listening to music, but I always seem to be too busy with other things.”

She turned 60 last month but, at an age when many are contemplating retirement, she is looking forward to EU enlargement. It's hard not to conclude that her devotion to reaching out to others perhaps compensates for a void in her personal life.

Looking back, she says without doubt her greatest achievement was helping the Save the Children Fund launch a programme of immunisation against polio in 1979. It's a subject particularly close to her heart: “My poor mother suffered very bad measles when she was pregnant with me and, really, that is why I was born acutely deaf. Politics is a rough old game and, having such a disability, has been very difficult at times.”

She's largely overcome the handicap by teaching herself to lip-read. She also speaks with pride and love for Amar, an Iraqi boy badly burned in the Gulf War, whom she and her husband fostered.

She recalls how she first came across him in her book, Why Does the West Forget?: “It was the very stillness of Amar's heart that entered my heart. It was terrible to behold, how his face and body had melted in the heart of flames from aerial bombardment as Saddam planes dropped their bombs.”

“He's so brave,” says Nicholson, who also has two step-children from Michael's previous marriage. “He is only 20 but he's had 26 operations for burns and needs another one soon.”

In assessing her colourful career, you can't escape the thought that Nicholson's stint in British domestic politics was somewhat unfulfilled.

She was made a life peer in the House of Lords in 1997 becoming Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, and is a former vice-chairwoman of the Conservative party (with special responsibility for women). It must rankle that she never got the top ministerial job she craved, however Nicholson insists she is as happy now as she has ever been.

“I'm working in the most modern parliament in the world where I feel I can achieve far more than I ever could in Westminster,” she says.

The people who know her best - her friends and staff - speak warmly of her.

Jerome Le Roy, director of the UK-based AMAR appeal, which was set up by Nicholson after the Gulf War, has known her for ten years. “She gets things done in a way I've never seen in anyone before. Her deafness makes her achievements all the more remarkable,” he says. But the qualities that make her

so formidable - her drive, single-mindedness and determination - could be seen by some as a possible defect. “She can be very demanding but we accept this and don't mind,” adds Le Roy.

When asked what makes her feel most depressed, Nicholson says, “unused, idle talents”.

Wasting her undoubted gifts is something of which she could never be accused. The most fitting final word should be perhaps the answer she gave to an interviewer some years ago, when asked how she would like to be remembered. Her reply? “As a friend.”

Martin Banks

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