Jill Knight, the longtime Tory backbench MP for Edgbaston constituency in south Birmingham who died aged 98, was not as benign or harmless as she sometimes appeared .
Known for her colorful floral dress sense – once memorably described by former Times parliamentary sketch writer Craig Brown as making her look like a fight in a hydrangea bush – Knight has devoted much of her career to campaign against immigration and easier divorce, was in favor of the return of the death penalty and, in particular, Term 28 prohibiting the alleged promotion of homosexuality by local authorities in their schools.
The clause was born out of a fake moral panic that was stirred up on the Conservative benches in the mid-1980s and assiduously promoted by some tabloids that teachers’ unions and some local Labor authorities were somehow encouraging other children to become homosexuals. There was virtually no evidence of this apart from a few nebulous and notably primitive sex education books seeking to reduce anti-gay bias.
As an education correspondent for the Daily Mail at the time, I was responsible for finding such subversive literature in schools, but I never did. The only copy of the most notorious booklet – Jenny lives with Eric and Martin – that I have ever seen was the one in the bottom drawer of my desk at work. Nonetheless, this was a problem early in the culture wars, and the fear of some conservatives such as Knight that children could be “made gay” was exploited by the right and some evangelical lobby groups.
The clause took two years to reach the statute book, interrupted by the 1987 general election, a process whose unintended consequence was to unite most of the gay population and many others in outspoken and reasoned opposition, including stunts such as lesbian activists rappelling down the Commons. bedroom and others invading the BBC’s Six O’Clock News studio during a broadcast.
Knight – in 1985 she became Dame Jill Knight – introduced the original clause in the Commons which eventually became part of the Local Government Act 1988, claiming to have been beleaguered by worried parents and complaining of having been harassed by the Gay Liberation Front. When she voted against equal marriage rights in 2013, she unconvincingly insisted she was not homophobic, as some gay people were ‘very good at antiques’ – hunting for antiques was one of his own recreations.
The clause was finally repealed in 2003, without a single lawsuit, which ultimately led to an apology from David Cameron in 2009 and, in an interview nine years later, Knight’s regret being “sorry if the law hurts someone”. The private members’ bills she pushed through concerned child-resistant packaging, genetic engineering, copyright in designs and nationality rights for children born abroad from British mother.
Born in Bristol, she was the daughter of an accountant, Arthur Meek, and his wife Alma, a teacher. Although she was given the name Joan, as her brother Jack’s twin, she was always known as Jill. After her parents’ acrimonious divorce – a life-changing experience that affected her future vision of a stable family life, as she never saw her father again – the family moved to Birmingham, where she attended King Edward VI High School in Handsworth.
Knight claimed it was a socialist teacher who turned her into a young conservative after she was graded for an essay on the William Morris short stories out of nowhere. During World War II, she served in the Women’s Royal Air Force (Wraf), where she met and married in 1947 Monty Knight, an optician, who shared her strong right-wing views.
In 1956, Knight became a Conservative councilor in Northampton, where the family lived, and unsuccessfully fought fox-hunting Old Etonian Labor MP Reginald Paget (later Lord Paget of Northampton) in the 1959 and 1964 general elections. when applying for selection as a candidate for winnable seats, but was ultimately chosen – from over 200 male candidates – following the sudden death of Dame Edith Pitt, MP for Edgbaston, the leafy constituency of the suburb of Birmingham shortly before the 1966 general election.
She held the seat until her retirement in 1997, when voters chose another woman, this time Gisela Stuart from Labour, to succeed her. The seat, formerly Neville Chamberlain’s, is the only one in the country to have elected four successive female MPs, the current incumbent being Labour’s Preet Gill.
In parliament – initially one of 26 women MPs, including seven Conservatives – Knight was staunchly reactionary on social issues. She has consistently opposed the legalization of abortion – ‘Babies aren’t like bad teeth to be pulled out,’ she said when David Steel’s abortion bill was passed in 1967 – and also to the supply of the contraceptive pill to adolescents.
She opposed sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa and was a member of the right-wing Monday Club during the heyday of the 1970s. This is in a speech given at her constituency association dinner in 1974 that Sir Keith Joseph effectively destroyed his chances of leading the party by claiming that the balance of Britain’s “human stock” was threatened because the poor had too many children.
She became a staunch supporter of Margaret Thatcher, claiming to spot Communists in high positions within the Labor Party: “If Nazi Germany had had as many supporters in Westminster in the days of Munich as Communism has today’ today we would have lost the war.
Unlikely to become a minister, she was a member of the 1922 Conservative backbench committee executive, including terms as secretary and vice-chairman, for 18 years, and served on committees home affairs, race relations and immigration and the all-party child and family protection group.
Her only rebellion came when the Thatcher government imposed fees for eye exams and dental appointments, given her husband’s profession. After retiring from the House of Commons in 1997, she received a life peerage, becoming the first woman to serve in parliament continuously for more than 50 years, not finally stepping down until 2016.
Monty died in 1986. The couple had two sons, one of whom survives him.