My revolting past

July 16, 2004

In the 1960s, Tessa Blackstone discovered a taste for endless debate - and long red velvet kaftans.

Former higher education minister Baroness Blackstone remembers the time she was invited to become a Conservative candidate. It was 1959 and a teacher at Ware Grammar School thought she might play the role in a mock election. The future Labour Education and Arts Minister, who 45 years on is shortly to take up the post of vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, said no: "I did not really know what I was politically, but I did know that I wasn't a Conservative," she recalls.

That self-discovery took place at the London School of Economics, where she arrived in 1961, after a year out to accommodate a late but highly significant swerve away from languages to social sciences.

She recalls: "I immediately threw myself into a range of activities."

Initially, the drama club - she played Ismene in Christopher Logue's Antigone and also appeared in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire - was more important than overt politics. But the interest in politics that had contributed to her change in academic path found immense stimulus at the LSE. She recalls the school as characterised by "endless discussion and debate, a great ferment of debate about what was happening in the world".

She was radicalised by her studies as much as by student politics: "I was exposed to a whole new literature about class, conditions, social and economic history and social theory. Tawney's writings, particularly Equality , had a great impact on me. Terence Morris's classes on the causes of crime left me with a lifelong interest in prison reform. It all made me much more aware of the inequalities of our own society."

Participating in classes and seminars also increased her self-confidence:

"I felt lucky to be there, and everybody else seemed so clever. It was not until the second year that I became more confident and realised that I might not be as far behind as I imagined."

She became seriously political in her time as a postgraduate, although her spare time was limited by being the mother of two small children, an experience that showed how far women's rights still had to advance: "I became an assistant lecturer while still doing my PhD and remember dragging myself to a faculty meeting shortly after the birth of my second child.

There was nothing I felt less like doing and no young female academic would dream of doing it nowadays, but there were no concessions and I had to go."

She was also fully in tune with changes in fashion: "The hippy era began towards the end of my time as a postgraduate and I did get into long red velvet kaftans and going around without shoes. When flower power came in I tried long hair and then of course there was the mini-skirt, which I sometimes wore in the LSE senior common room."

That was not the only reason she was noticed, earning rebukes from more conservative academics when she wrote to The Times supporting student protesters. She says now: "I can see the other side better now, but there was an awful lot of nonsense about all the protesters being Trotskyites or foreigners." This encouraged her research on protesters, which proved that the vast majority were neither and which became her first, jointly authored, book, Students in Conflict (1970). At the same time, her research on early years education attracted the attention of the then Department of Education and Science, initiating a lifetime of work in and for government.

Looking back, she says: "I remember it all with great affection and nostalgia."

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