Dame Jane Roberts
Doctor of Laws
13 July 2007 - Orator: Professor Gareth Williams
Nineteen-eighty was an interesting year for this University. Its medical graduates included a feisty and outspoken young woman heading for paediatrics, but seriously distracted by politics and with something of a reputation as a student activist. Hers was clearly going to be an interesting career, and indeed it has been. Combustion of that high-octane mixture of medicine, politics and restlessness has propelled her through successful careers as both a doctor and local government leader, and twenty-seven years later, has brought Dame Jane Roberts back to this Hall.
Jane Roberts was born in London of Welsh stock, the daughter of a vicar. She describes her father as an ‘irreverent Reverend’, but perhaps because he was the first ever of his family to go to University, he was unstinting in his reverence for education and the work ethic required to make the most of it. For some time, Jane assumed that all Dads did part-time PhDs and stayed up all night writing theses on Rogerian psychology; today’s graduands, please take note.
The family home, and Jane’s schooling, followed her father’s career from the London area to the USA, Wales and ultimately back to London. Somewhere in there, she even became an Essex girl, but I suspect a highly atypical one, and not for long. Jane’s mother was a nurse, and helped to plant the general notion of a career in healthcare in Jane’s mind. By the time Jane had to make hard choices, she went for Medicine and Bristol.
This University was fortunate to have caught her, although that view may not have been universally held throughout her time here. Jane’s interest was medicine, but politics was fast becoming her passion. The big issues that inflamed that passion were the same then as they are now – inequality and disadvantage, whether inflicted by race, poverty or upbringing. She joined the Young Liberals – and probably shook them up a bit – and then took a year out for ‘sabbatical activities’. This seemed to involve organising lots of student protests. Jane claims that she wasn’t a firebrand; this implied mildness tallies with other post-hippy tendencies, notably a fondness for kaftans and sandals; however, I have no doubt that the beaded mitten concealed a fist, and when necessary, a knuckleduster. This formative year confirmed both her passion and her aptitude for politics. It also brought her into contact and occasional conflict with higher levels of the University. Jane’s upbringing had led her to believe that all academics were wise and broad-minded; she says only that the scales fell from her eyes. I do not need to point out, Madam Chancellor, that this was quite a long time ago.
Her first attachment on returning to medical training was paediatrics. She loved it and has remained faithful to the speciality ever since. Junior posts at the Children’s Hospital here in Bristol led on to London and specialist training in child psychiatry – perhaps a predictable choice for her, because it is neither easy nor comfortable, and has much to do with the inequalities that preoccupy her political alter ego. As a doctor, she’s done very well – appointed consultant in child psychiatry in Islington in 1992 – and she still does regular clinics, even when her political life is at its most volcanic.
This brings us to the arena in which Jane Roberts is best known, as a Labour Councillor and leader in Camden, one of the biggest and most challenging boroughs of Inner London. Yes, Labour: her political maturation after the Young Liberals involved a distinct Red Shift as well as a fervour for rebalancing social inequalities. Throughout her career, she has set her sights firmly on local government, believing this to be more rewarding than national-level politics. This seems quite reasonable: one can think of MPs and even Ministers whose achievements have not exactly left the nation breathless with amazement. And if anyone believes that the corridors of Camden are tamer or nicer than those of Westminister, think again. Some of Jane’s sparring partners are not people with whom you would wish to swim alone. Of course, this is not the only setting where plotting and double-dealing are core business; in academic life, it is sensible when leaving meetings with colleagues and close friends to check your back for daggers. In Jane’s world, you need to check your front as well.
Jane was awarded her DBE in 2004 for her contributions to local government. She was a key member and eventually leader of the team that transformed Camden Council from pits to pinnacle. She was successively Councillor, Deputy Leader, Chair of the Education Committee, Deputy Chair, and finally Chair from 2000-2005. She injected huge energy, innovation and exacting standards into all these roles – during her tenure, Camden won Beacon Status for excellence in education and was Council of the Year in 2002. How did she do it? She has always known what needs to be done, and has equally clear views about how get there. She is a great builder and leader of teams, generous in her recognition of other’s hard work and achievements – but also uncompromisingly intolerant of lead-swinging and inertia. She’s also a great communicator and evangelist, which is how, while campaigning against Tory plans for the NHS, she found herself in a white coat applying a stethoscope to Frank Dobson’s chest. She can confirm that, at that time, the Health Secretary had a heart; follow-up on this important observation is awaited with interest.
Camden has provided a fertile testing ground for Jane to put into practice what she preaches. It’s hugely diverse – English is just one of its 140 languages (or two, if you count Cockney). This must be the nation’s most schizoid borough: it has the British Library and a well-off intelligentsia who have the highest density of postgraduate degrees in the UK; while right on their doorstep are large tracts of inner-city poverty with depressingly low levels of literacy. Jane led a multi-pronged attack on inequality, bringing new opportunities to the deprived while properly representing the whole population. A difficult tightrope to walk, but she has managed it; not only has Camden been physically regenerated, but some of its most disadvantaged people now feel that people in power are listening and pulling their weight for them.
Jane’s achievements are all the more remarkable because she and her team had to start from rock bottom, pushing reforms up a frighteningly steep gradient and against fierce resistance all the way. As an ex-Londoner I can offer a brief explanatory note. Back in the Eighties, even when London politics were at their most entertaining and a perpetual godsend to Private Eye,Camden Council shone out like a beacon from beyond the loony fringe: utterly professional in its dedication to incompetence, misjudgment and financial suicide, inspiring confidence like a toddler with a chainsaw. Indeed, even when I was a CND member and out marching beside Philosophers against the Bomb, venturing into the People’s Republic of Camden would have seemed a step too far. That’s the sow’s ear that Jane and her team inherited; it is to their lasting credit that they have transformed it into such a convincing silk purse, and one that doesn’t let money pour out of its bottom.
Jane has now moved on to bigger things, as Chair of the Commission for Local Councillors in England and Wales, leading the charge to get more people actively involved in local government; it’s a tall order, but if anyone can do it, she can. She’s also Chair of Parenting UK, which brings together both her areas of expertise. On top of all this, she’s also a busy family woman. Her husband David is a Professor of paediatric endocrinology; they met during their junior training in London. Their son, Jack – born in that tranquil year when Jane was first elected Councillor – has inherited both his parents’ fondness for science, if not yet medicine. The concept of spare time might seem hypothetical in Jane’s case, but she enjoys dancing (mainly as a spectator sport now, she claims), cycling and what she describes as a very amateur interest in architecture.
So, Madam Chancellor, this is the colourful route that has returned Dame Jane Roberts to us today. She has fought off the sharks in spectacularly bloodied waters, and has left a large and unpromising chunk of London a significantly better place – and all while working in one of medicine’s most demanding specialities.
It’s an old line – indeed, hackneyed or possibly finchleyed – but there is nothing like a Dame. And there can’t be many like this one.
Madam Chancellor, it is my great pleasure to present to you Dame Jane Roberts, as eminently worthy of the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.