The Polyglot Parliamentarian

Iris Online meets Jenny Willott MP.

Peruse the CV of Jenny Willott, Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, and you might think at first that she was destined for a life in politics: a career politician in the mould of the Miliband brothers, who, as people often complain about the modern generation of MPs, has never tasted the world outside Westminster.

 After all, one of Willott’s first jobs after university was as a researcher to the asteroid-dodging MP Lembit Öpik, after which she became a councillor and built up her public policy experience in the charities sector, a well-worn path to Parliament. But appearances can be deceptive: Willott insists that she went into politics almost by chance, as she found it interesting, while her brother, who unlike her actually studied politics and economics, has ended up as a civil servant instead.

Deceptive appearances abound around Parliament. When I meet Willott in her office in Portcullis House, the purpose-built office block for MPs opposite the Palace of Westminster, she is huddled in a thin cloak, recalling nothing in my mind so much as Socrates on campaign in Potidaea during the Peloponnesian War. But Willott has very little of the stereotypical sophist about her – and despite studying Classics at the University of Durham, she doesn’t feel much common cause with ancient philosophers, truth be told.

“Philosophy was interesting, but I’m not a philosopher,” she says quietly, perhaps self-conscious about her admission. “I found it more interesting when it was basically science – really early science in the Greek times, rather than when it actually became more like philosophy.” She also “absolutely loved” philology, arguably one of the more ‘scientific’ subjects under the Classics umbrella. I can sympathise. I’d have loved to study philology given the chance, and I think I can see in Willott the same passion I have for understanding systems, how things work behind the scenes.

I bet she’d certainly like to understand why, in the height of winter, the personal heating system built into her office walls isn’t working, despite the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money lavished on the over-budget building. Hence the cloak. If only Archimedes were on hand, or a Vitruvius to rig up a hypocaust.

Born in Wimbledon, south-west London in 1974, Willott grew up surrounded by Classicists. “My mother had done a Classics degree, my grandmother had done a Classics degree,” she chuckles. “My mum was always very passionate about it – in fact she later trained as a teacher, she taught Classics and English. And my gran had taught Classics and English as well, so I was sort of brought up thinking it was interesting. I’ve always been really interested in languages, and I think I realised quite early on that if you learn Latin and Greek it’s such a fantastic base from which you can learn pretty much any other Indo-European language,” she enthuses, showing her smarts as a philologist with a reference to Latin’s genealogical heritage. And of course, she is right: from Portugal to Lithuania, there’s barely a language in Europe that Latin doesn’t help you learn.

But as befits a thrusting politician, Willott’s ambition for putting her language skills to work didn’t stop at the Bosphorus. After being educated at the ancient and prestigious Uppingham School and completing her Classics degree, she went on to obtain an MSc in Development Studies at the London School of Economics. As she explains, the school wouldn’t normally have offered a place to a liberal arts student, but they decided to take a punt. “Pretty much every single person on that course had a first degree in something relevant… there were two of us who had no academic background in subjects that were relevant to the course.”

“I spoke to my tutor about it and he said they were doing it as an experiment. They’d got two people on the course who didn’t have a relevant background and they wanted to see if we could cope not starting from a politics or economics perspective. And both of us – they’d chosen two classicists… they obviously thought there’s something about a Classics degree that means that you’ve got the breadth of different subjects”. Heartening words for any student attracted to the Classics but worried about whether the subject will open enough doors – and a sound riposte to the maddening people who, when they learn you’re studying Classics at university, seem to think that you’ve killed your chance of a respectable career.

After the LSE, Willott went to do development work for a charity in India. She found herself in Bihar, one of the poorest states and with very few English speakers, so was obliged to learn Hindi to make herself understood. “I had a phrasebook that was absolutely no use whatsoever,” she recalls. But soft! Wasn’t Hindi an Indo-European language, descended from the same origins as Sanskrit and borrowing many words from it? “I understood the building blocks of a language and how you put them together, so rather than just learning a sentence you work out how to put sentences together yourself”. She sat down with an Indian staffer and pieced together a basic grammar, working out “how you decline nouns and conjugate verbs and all that”. The result was a grasp of Hindi that belied the few months of her placement. “I would never have been able to do that if I hadn’t had a degree in Classics”. Today, as a Cardiff-based MP, Willott continues to spot grammar rules in Welsh, though her natives are relatively Anglicised now.

Practical to a fault, then. A fascination with the worldly, the substantial and the computable at the expense of the sentimental and the literary runs through Willott’s account of herself, and it’s reflected in her hesitation to pick a favourite author. “I remember my lecturers!” Eventually she settles on Homer – “definitely the Odyssey rather than the Iliad – the fighting gets a little boring,” she admits (amen to that), but affirms that “he was a fabulous storyteller. The stories are great. They’ve been turned into Hollywood films all over the place, which generally irritate me intensely, because they always do something wrong”. She avoided the indifferently-received 2004 film Troy, for instance, objecting to what she thinks was its cover-up of homosexual references, by which I think she means Achilles and Patroclus (reduced to mere cousins in the script). We don’t have time to stop and discuss whether Homer’s Achilles and Patroclus were just good friends before Willott charges on.

Willott entered Parliament in 2005 and continued to dine out on her degree, it seems. “There are things about how you learn in Classics – you have to be totally logical.” Or maybe that’s just how ultra-logical Willott saw it? “That’s quite a useful discipline to have.” When studying at a less-than-hi-tech Durham in the early 1990s, she was more or less obliged to write out her essays by hand. “The discipline of having to plan an essay out… and then you sit down and have to write it in one go because otherwise you’ll lose your train of thought, and you can’t cut and paste… it’s a very, very good way to train your mind to work”. She finds it “incredibly helpful” for writing speeches and articles, or thinking up a quick response to other MPs’ speeches in the House of Commons’ debating chamber. With help from Latin and Greek, she learned French, which proved to be quite literally a lingua franca when Willott served on the Council of Europe, bringing together MPs from across the continent.

Is there no end to what you can do with a Classics degree? And if not, why is the current government (of which Willott was a fairly junior member until late last year) so uninterested in supporting the teaching of Classics along with other humanities and social sciences at university? Higher education funding is going more and more into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Aren’t the Classics being overlooked?

“I think we need people studying all subjects,” she says diplomatically, talking about her work to attract women into the sciences when she was at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (the one in charge of higher education). “Just the act of studying for a degree in itself gives you something that is of huge benefit… A lot of the humanities are such a strong base to go and do pretty much anything afterwards.” She adds: “I think underestimating the value of a humanities degree means that you’re missing out on very important skills and a really important breed of people”. Something for the next universities minister to bear in mind?

I hear there’s a general election coming. “Politics now is not very dissimilar from politics in Greek and Roman times, really. Human nature is still the same, isn’t it?” Willott opines, before venturing that “our politics is almost heading back in that direction. People are getting more obsessive about the leader of a party, and the personality of that person and their wife – it’s pretty much always a wife – and how photogenic their children are, which is much more sort of Roman/Greek way of doing it really. More obsessed with the individual personality of a person… so in some ways I think we’re almost heading back that way.”

Modern politics, as Willott notes, is much more disciplined: we have political parties and whips to make sure people vote the right way – in fact Willott was a government whip until she stood down last year. And yet, party discipline seems to be breaking down, rebellions are more commonplace and the big parties’ hold on politics is fracturing. Five years ago, we were told two-party politics was over; now – with UKIP, the Greens and the SNP resurgent, we might be looking at four-, five- or six party politics at the next election. “Personally I think it’s a good thing that politics is fracturing more, because I suspect that what we’ll end up with is a Parliament that’s more representative… that will mean that you you’re less likely to have a government with an outright majority.” Another way in which we’re going back to the ancients, she feels. Courageous, as Sir Humphrey would say: support for the Lib Dems has collapsed since the last election, and Willott is no doubt feeling the heat from second-placed Labour in her constituency.

I leave Willott to enjoy – or tolerate – Prime Minister’s Questions (she’s spoken out against the yah-boo atmosphere of PMQs, although she affirms that things were even worse in antiquity; you can’t drop innuendo about the Prime Minister’s mistresses in the chamber.) After our interview, Willott appears on TV in Michael Cockerell’s BBC documentary Inside the Commons. It was recorded when she was still a government whip, and, unlike when I met her, she is busying herself with her children in most of the shots, but relentlessly upbeat despite the obvious pressures of her job and family. As I watch her, I reflect a little sadly that I barely scratched the surface with this right honourable member*.

If Willott has any vulnerabilities, she has a politician’s knack for keeping them well-hidden. She is unflappable as she feeds parliamentary canteen takeaways to her infant children and then, hurrying to a vote in the Commons chamber, hands her wailing son over to the whips’ office on the way to battle. A humanising touch of the director’s, like when her beloved Homer gives us the tender scene of Hector with Astyanax before his fateful duel with Achilles. But then Westminster politics are rather similar to epic poetry: rambling, interminable, formulaic, increasingly quaint looking and sometimes baffling. Yet the likes of Jenny Willott enjoy both, and she’s not alone: politics continues to attract some of the brightest minds. If only more were Classicists, perhaps we could have some of those philosopher kings I once heard about.

* Willott was made a Privy Councillor in 2014, a milestone of the cursus honorum at Westminster, giving her the right to be addressed as ‘right honourable’.