Underrated: Gisela Stuart

The German-born Labour MP has ignored her party’s bias and sees sense on Europe

UK Politics Underrated
©ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK

Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, has the courage to tell powerful men when they are getting things wrong. Her demeanour suggests she finds it more than a moral duty to speak her mind: she takes a wry pleasure in doing so. This may be why her ministerial career has so far been so short: from July 1999 to June 2001 she served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health. But it is also why she has emerged as a parliamentarian of distinction: one of the few on the Labour benches who is able to warn of the deepening crisis within the European Union, and to draw the necessary conclusions. In a recent article in The Times, she dismissed the palliative posturings of Tony Blair and David Cameron, and said: “Britain—and Europe—is coming to a fork in the road . . . We had better start thinking what life outside the EU might look like.”

This is an unexpected conclusion for Stuart to reach. She was born in 1956 in the small Bavarian town of Velden, and speaks English with a slight but perceptible German accent. She regards herself as a beneficiary of Europe’s freedoms: “When I came to the UK in 1974, I did not need a work permit, had the right of residence and could go to a British university.” But her enthusiasm for the EU did not survive her participation as one of two representatives of the UK parliament in the Convention on the Future of Europe, which in 2002-03 sat down to draw up a constitution which would bring the EU’s institutions closer to its citizens.  

Stuart soon realised this pious aspiration was not going to be met: “The Convention brought together a self-selected group of the European political elite, many of whom have their eyes on a career at a European level, which is dependent on more and more integration and who see national governments and national parliaments as a distraction. Not once in the 16 months I spent on the Convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want.” 

The Convention was led by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French President. Stuart relates that she came to have “great sympathy” with her laptop spellcheck, which “whenever I typed in the word Giscard, replaced it with ‘discard’.” Giscard and his collaborators dismissed the objections of Stuart and a few others, including the Tory David Heathcoat-Amory, who spoke up for what ordinary people actually wanted. As Stuart said in a Fabian pamphlet, The Making of Europe’s Constitution, “For the voter the crucial question is ‘Can I get rid of them if I don’t like what they are doing?’ This has always been a problem with the European institutions and the Constitution does not resolve it.”

In her own political life, Stuart has practised what she preached so unavailingly to Giscard. The voters of Edgbaston could easily get rid of her if they wished. When she took the seat in the Labour landslide of 1997 it had been Tory for over 70 years. One of her predecessors was Neville Chamberlain: the man of Munich has been replaced by a woman from near Munich. Stuart has survived in this natural Tory territory in part by demonstrating her independence from the Labour party leadership. In the 2010 general election she ran a local campaign which sprang from a series of “manifesto meetings” at which voters expressed their concerns on such subjects as immigration and the need for lower taxes on the low-paid, on which the national leadership had little to say. When the Guardian went to interview her during the campaign, it found a photograph on the wall of her constituency office of Gordon Brown on which were drawn a pair of devil’s horns and a moustache. Stuart said the party had made a “big mistake” by not having a leadership election in 2007, when Brown took over from Blair.

At Westminster, Stuart has tried to instil some realism into the government’s position on Europe, as when she asked David Cameron last January: “Will the Prime Minister tell us how on earth he thinks that a country such as Greece will regain competitiveness if it cannot devalue, which it cannot do within the euro?”

Stuart’s second husband, Derek Scott, died last summer. He served as Tony Blair’s economic adviser, but had the strength of mind to argue, well before it became a fashionable view, that Britain should not join the euro. “He was someone who always challenged the received wisdom,” said Stuart. “If everybody agreed on something, he’d see it as a sign it needed challenging.”

Parliamentary democracy can only work if each party contains at least some members who are brave enough to say what they think, regardless of what effect this may have on their careers. When Germany gave up the deutschmark and entered the euro, most of its political class was prevailed upon by Helmut Kohl to refrain from expressing the deep and justified anxieties which this policy aroused in the German people. Stuart chose instead to become British, and to point out that, judged by the test of whether or not one can throw the rascals out, the EU is scandalously undemocratic.