Political commentator Mary Ann Sieghart on Theresa May, face blindness and soothing Suffolk
PUBLISHED: 11:25 19 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:33 19 September 2017
Mary Ann Sieghart became one of our best known political commentators, in the days when women in Westminster were few. But, surrounded by grey-suited male MPs, she struggled to tell them apart, due to a rare condition which makes it hard to recognise faces. She talks to Pat Parker about politics, face blindness, bullying and how Suffolk soothes her
When Mary Ann Sieghart was a respected political writer in the 1980s and 90s, she stood out from the crowd, and not just because of her distinctive curly hair. The world of Westminster politics and journalism was dominated by men, so she was something of a rarity.
Things are changing. A record number of women MPs were elected in June, and most UK political parties are now led by women. Laura Kuenssberg is the BBC’s political editor, and even the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is female.
“It’s very exciting, and a huge step forward,” says Mary Ann, 56, an outspoken feminist and former Times political commentator. “The three most important people in British politics now are Theresa May, Ruth Davidson and Arlene Foster.” Not that Mary Ann, who has close family ties to Suffolk, is a great admirer of Theresa May.
“She has less emotional intelligence than almost any politician I’ve met, apart from Gordon Brown,” she says. “She’s similar to him in many ways – she has a complete tin ear, she’s very flat-footed like he was, has no charm or humour and doesn’t really understand other people’s emotions. I found that out long before she became Prime Minister. I used to lunch with her as a journalist, but I gave up, because it was completely pointless.”
The idea was to befriend politicians and exchange gossip, all grist to the mill of a political columnist.
“But she used to treat these lunches like an interview on the Today programme – utterly buttoned up, not giving a thing away. And I realised afterwards it was because she was so unconfident about what the appropriate emotional response was, she just found the safest thing was not to respond at all.” She feels there are parallels with Hillary Clinton, another politician who squandered a huge initial poll lead.
“Hillary wasn’t able to create that emotional connection with people. She was terribly robotic, formulaic and uninspiring, very like May.” Being one of the few female lobby correspondents at Westminster in the 1980s, Mary Ann was instantly recognisable to the predominantly male MPs. What the middle-aged, grey-suited politicians didn’t know was that they all looked pretty much the same to her. She often had no idea who she was speaking to.
Mary Ann was unaware then that she has a rare neurological condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which makes it hard to recognise facial features. It is a condition which causes considerable problems in both her working and social life. She is constantly terrified of inadvertently snubbing someone in the street by failing to recognise them. Films are difficult to follow, because the actors look identical.
“The good-looking ones are hardest to recognise, because their faces are all so regular and symmetrical,” she says. “Voices help a lot, so does facial hair, or a wart or mole. Women are slightly easier, because their hair styles vary more. But then if they change them, I’m lost!”
It wasn’t until she was in her late 30s that she realised she had a diagnosable condition, after her husband Dai chanced upon a magazine article about prosopagnosia.
“He said, ‘Oh my God, this is you!’ And I read it and thought, ‘Yes, this is exactly me.” She was tested, and found to be in the bottom 0.1% of the population for facial recognition. The condition, which affects around 3% of the population, is incurable, and genetic. Her mother, Felicity Ann, who lives in Aldeburgh, and one of her two daughters, Evie, also have the condition. Last year, Mary Ann made a Radio 4 programme about prosopagnosia to raise awareness.
“Lots of people have said to me, ‘I’m so glad you did that because I realise I’ve got the same problem.
‘People often make a point of introducing themselves now. Annoyingly, though, others will come up to me and say, ‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’ – just to rub it in!” Her 90-year-old mother, she says, probably has the condition even more severely.
“She and I dread walking down Aldeburgh high street, because she probably knows half the people she passes, but can’t recognise them!” Felicity Ann has lived in Aldeburgh for nearly 30 years, and ran the town’s cinema back in the 1990s, helping to turn it into the success it is today. She also found fame when, at the age of 76, she achieved two holes-in-one in the same round on the local golf course, a rare feat managed by only a handful of people.
“There’s a bench on the course dedicated to her!” says Mary Ann. Mary Ann’s brother William, the publisher who founded World Poetry Day and the Forward Poetry Prize, has a house in Thorpeness, where the family has connections dating back to 1930s. Felicity Ann, who lived in north Essex and whose father became chairman of Rio Tinto Zinc, used to holiday at the country club as a child.
She went to Oxford at a time when few women attended university, and later married Paul Sieghart, a barrister who became a prominent civil rights campaigner. They and their four children holidayed regularly at Thorpeness. From the age of three to 14, Mary Ann spent every summer there.
“I’ve always associated it with childhood happiness,” she says. “I loved the freedom. We’d rush out of the house on bikes after breakfast, usually in bare feet, and spend the whole day racing around with other children. We didn’t really see our parents from dawn to dusk. It was great.”
Thorpeness provided a welcome release from school, where Mary Ann was desperately unhappy. She was so academically advanced, her mother sought help from the National Association of Gifted Children. At primary school in Epping, Essex, she reached year six by the age of eight.
However, the local authority refused to allow her to take her 11-plus early, so she was sent to boarding school. She succeeded academically, taking her first GCE at 11. But socially, she suffered, and was bullied.
“It was horrible. When I was 12, I was a very late developer in a class of 15-year-olds, and you can imagine how difficult that was. It was depressing because in the holidays at Thorpeness I had lots of friends, so I knew I couldn’t be a completely hateful person.”
From the age of 12, she decided she wanted to become either a political columnist for The Times, or its first woman editor. She gained an Oxford scholarship at 16 to read politics, philosophy and economics, but waited two years so she was able to study with her peers.
She blossomed socially and academically, and left with a first and vacation work at The Telegraph under her belt. After spells at the Financial Times and the Today newspaper, she became The Economist’s lobby correspondent, before joining The Times in her late 20s.
She rose to become assistant editor as well as a distinguished political columnist and leader writer. Michael Gove was her deputy. A centrist, she is credited with persuading the editor to back Tony Blair after the 1997 election. She enjoyed working with Gove, despite their political differences.
“He has the best manners of anyone I’ve ever met. He’s funny, clever and incredibly eloquent. He’s a brilliant guy, and I’m pleased to see him back in the Cabinet.” She still admires Blair, despite disapproving of his money-making ways since leaving office.
Her relations with his successor, Gordon Brown, were not so good, and she had long disliked some of his bullying henchmen. When it became clear Brown was going to become Prime Minister, she took the surprising decision to leave The Times at the age of 45. “I knew I was going to hate having to deal with his ghastly people,” she says.
These days Mary Ann enjoys a portfolio career, chairing the centrist, pro-market Social Market Foundation think tank, writing and broadcasting, as well as sitting on the content board of Ofcom. She lives with her family in London and Wiltshire, but always looks forward to trips to Aldeburgh to visit her mother. She loves Suffolk’s quiet tranquillity.
“It’s not on the way to anywhere, so it’s really unspoilt,” she says. “It has a real sense of calm and peacefulness.”