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date: 21 March 2023

Mowlam, Marjorie [Mo]free


Mowlam, Marjorie [Mo]free

  • Paul Murphy

Marjorie Mowlam (1949–2005)

by John Keane, 2001

Mowlam, Marjorie [Mo] (1949–2005), politician, was born on 18 September 1949 at 43 King Street, Watford, Hertfordshire, the second of three children of Frank William Mowlam, Post Office worker, and his wife, Bettina Mary (Tina), née Rogers, telephonist. She described her parents as 'classic lower-middle class' (personal knowledge). When she was eleven the family moved to Coventry, where her father became an assistant postmaster. He was an alcoholic, and his behaviour at home was a constant trial for her. Her mother, however, was very different, and a source of strength and friendship.

After a short spell at Chiswick Girls' Grammar School in London Mowlam went to Coundon Court comprehensive school, Coventry, where she excelled. She went on to become head girl, as well as being an outstanding netball player and winning a duke of Edinburgh's award. In 1968 she progressed to Durham University, where she read social anthropology. She became a student leader and had a number of boyfriends, including one whom she followed to Iowa University in 1973. While there she gained her PhD (on referenda in Switzerland.) She then went to Florida State University in 1977. Two years later she returned to Britain and became a politics lecturer at Newcastle University. Shortly afterwards, her former boyfriend, from whom she had parted in 1976, died in a drowning accident.

In Newcastle Mowlam became very politically active, chairing Tyne Bridge constituency Labour Party, joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and playing a part in getting Neil Kinnock elected as Labour Party leader. She left Newcastle University in 1983 and took an administrative job at Northern College, Barnsley. She was unsuccessful in finding a parliamentary seat to fight at that time. Shortly before the general election of 1987, however, James Tinn, MP for Redcar, announced, at the last minute, that he was not going to seek re-election. From a shortlist of four Mowlam was chosen to contest the seat for Labour, beating the strong local candidate, Richard Lewis, by the narrow margin of seven votes in the selection process. Lewis and his wife, Ruth, remained steadfast friends of Mowlam for the rest of her life.

Mowlam was thirty-eight when she entered the House of Commons. In her maiden speech she paid special tribute to Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour MP of the 1920s, and made particular mention of the problem of low-paid women. She was soon a member of the influential public accounts committee, before Neil Kinnock made her a junior spokesperson on Northern Ireland, only ten months after her entry to the house. Her new job gave her an initial insight into the complicated politics of Northern Ireland. In 1989 she moved to become Labour's spokesperson on the City of London and corporate affairs, working with Gordon Brown. Their relationship was not a warm one. She was elevated to the shadow cabinet in 1992, becoming the party's spokesperson on women and the ‘citizens' charter’, a post she neither wanted nor enjoyed. She was elected a member of Labour's national executive committee, pleasing some party members with her decidedly republican views.

On John Smith's death Mowlam took a major role in the election of Tony Blair as the party's new leader. She would have liked to have been Blair's campaign manager, but the job went to Jack Straw. Blair made her shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, which she felt was a demotion. It proved to be nothing of the sort. The Labour Party's position on Northern Ireland needed an overhaul, if there was to be a settlement under a Labour government, changing from one that was seen to be very ‘pro-green’ to one of consensus and even-handedness. Mowlam soon got to know all of the main players in Northern Ireland, drawing on her previous experience as a shadow Northern Ireland minister.

In 1995 Mowlam's personal life changed dramatically when on 24 June she married Jonathan Paul (Jon) Norton, a forty-year-old Labour-supporting merchant banker whom she had met when she had been Labour's City spokesperson. She acquired two stepchildren, Henrietta and Freddie, as well as a new home in Islington. In 1997 her life was transformed in a very different way. She was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had to undergo difficult radiotherapy treatment. She kept this news very much to herself and a close circle around her, including her able adviser Nigel Warner, the speaker Betty Boothroyd, and Tony Blair. When newspapers started to comment unfavourably on her increased weight and new wig, she felt she had to make her condition public. As a result she received tremendous public support for her courage. In meetings, she would often astound people by taking her wig off and continuing as if nothing had happened.

After the general election of 1997 Mowlam became the first woman secretary of state for Northern Ireland. She immediately went to Belfast to meet people in the street. Her style was a complete contrast to that of any previous secretary of state. She was very much a ‘people person’—‘touchy feely’ was a phrase often used about her—and also used robust language and was very plain-speaking. With her attractive and charismatic personality she had no difficulty in relating to ordinary people, especially women. She carried little religious or political ‘baggage’, believing that the ‘principle of consent’ was the only way ahead for Northern Ireland. Her style did not appeal to all. Many Unionists, in particular, did not quite know what to make of her. Relations between her and David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, were never good.

Mowlam's immediate task in Northern Ireland was to revive a flagging peace process. Working closely with the senior American politician Senator George Mitchell, the chairman of the talks, and prime ministers Blair and Ahern, she started her job by overseeing a new ceasefire by the Irish Republican Army, which was necessary before inclusive negotiations could start. This succeeded, and Sinn Féin re-entered the process; but Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party left it. During the autumn of 1997 little progress was made, and by the winter it looked as if the peace process was nearing collapse. In January 1998 Mowlam spectacularly and controversially visited loyalist prisoners in the Maze. This kept loyalism on board, and helped revive the process.

Although, inevitably, 10 Downing Street took the lead on Northern Ireland issues, with Tony Blair playing a very important role, the day-to-day business of the process was handled by the indefatigable Mowlam. The Belfast, or ‘Good Friday’, agreement of April 1998 led eventually to the establishment of a power-sharing executive, an elected assembly, the release of prisoners, major changes to human rights and policing, and, especially significantly, an agreed and settled status for Northern Ireland. Properly, Mowlam was given much credit for the outcome of the talks. By contrast, it was sometimes also said that Mowlam was marginalized in the process, especially during the final negotiations. This was not the case—she played a vital part, along with the two prime ministers and the Northern Ireland politicians. She was, however, the first to say that the politicians and people of Ireland, north and south, were the real creators of the new arrangements. It would take a decade before the agreement was implemented in full, but the Good Friday agreement was the key to the success of the peace process.

Mowlam had, many argued, become the most popular politician in Britain. Indeed, a Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph revealed that she was the most popular member of the cabinet. During the Labour Party conference of 1998, in the middle of Tony Blair's speech, the prime minister's reference to 'our one and only Mo' resulted in a unique and heartfelt standing ovation. It has been claimed that this was to work to her disadvantage, and that her eventual departure from Northern Ireland to a lower-profile cabinet job stemmed from this occasion. Certainly, her future was now to be controversial. She refused the offer of standing as the Labour candidate for the London mayoralty (the eventual winner, the then independent Ken Livingstone, later said that she would have won had she stood), and the job of secretary of state for health. She would have preferred to become foreign secretary or defence secretary, but in the end she was appointed minister for the cabinet office and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, in October 1999. She was replaced in Northern Ireland by Peter Mandelson. She did not much like her new job, although she worked particularly hard on issues relating to the international drugs trade. She became increasingly disaffected with the direction of the government and was not in favour of the invasion of Iraq.

Mowlam retired from the government and from the Commons in 2001, publishing her autobiography, Momentum, the following year. She took part in television programmes, toured the country in 'An audience with Mo Mowlam', and was still very much the darling of the Labour Party, gaining recognition and admiration wherever she went. She and her husband retired to a farmhouse in Sittingbourne, Kent, where she worked on a book about drugs policy. Her health problems, however, continued. She died on 19 August 2005, in the Pilgrim's Hospice, 56 London Road, Canterbury, of bronchopneumonia and astrocitoma of the brain. She was survived by her husband, Jon, and her two stepchildren.

Mowlam's name will always be associated primarily with Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement—rightly so, since the impetus she gave to a flagging peace process was very real. She was seen as someone who was genuinely different from previous Northern Ireland secretaries. She was inevitably overshadowed by Tony Blair, and she could antagonize people, especially Unionists. But her achievements were genuine, her bravery unquestioned, and her popularity in the country, among people of all political persuasions, unrivalled.


  • J. Langdon, Mo Mowlam: the biography (2000)
  • M. Mowlam, Momentum (2002)
  • D. Godson, Himself alone: David Trimble (2004)
  • The Times (20 Aug 2005)
  • Daily Telegraph (20 Aug 2005)
  • The Guardian (20 Aug 2005)
  • The Independent (20 Aug 2005)
  • WW (2005)
  • personal knowledge (2009)
  • private information (2009)
  • b. cert.
  • m. cert.
  • d. cert.



  • BFI NFTVA, ‘The rise and fall of Mo Mowlam’, T. Stark (director), Channel 4, 6 May 2000
  • BFI NFTVA, current affairs footage
  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage
  • BFI NFTVA, performance footage



  • obituary photographs
  • photographs, repro. in Momentum
  • photographs, repro. in Langden, Mo Mowlam
  • J. Keane, oils, 2001, NPG [see illus.]
  • V. Carew Hunt, bromide fibre print, 1998, NPG
  • photographs, 1995–2004, Getty Images, London
  • photographs, 1988–2004, PA Photos, London
  • photographs, 1991–2004, Rex Features, London
  • photographs, 1997–2004, Camera Press, London
  • J. Giles, colour photograph, 1998, priv. coll.
  • S. Humphrey, drawing, 1995, priv. coll.
  • S. Amery, clay model, priv. coll.; bronze cast, U. Durham

Wealth at Death

£316,163: probate, 21 Nov 2005, CGPLA Eng. & Wales


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