Helen Liddell in the Press

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The bus driver's daughter is back in the fast lane


NEXT stop Scottish secretary. It is a long and winding road from Helen Liddell's humble beginnings as a bus driver's daughter from Coatdyke in Lanarkshire.

A degree in politics and economics from Strathclyde University set her on the fast track. Her first pit stop at the age of 21 saw her become head of the STUC's economics department, although she swept away the grandeur of that title by revealing that she was a department of one.

By her mid-twenties, she was Scottish Labour Party secretary, but again did a bit of self-denigration, suggesting that she was given the job only because the party was in crisis and, if things got worse, she could have been the scapegoat.

They didn't, and she put that down to the late Donald Dewar's gain in Garscadden. Others ascribed it to Mrs Liddell, the battle-hardened campaigner who as general secretary guided Labour in Scotland through three general elections, including the 1987 contest when the party had its greatest ever success in opposition, winning 50 of the 72 seats.

She has also been the BBC's economics correspondent in Scotland, did a stint as Mirror Group executive under Robert Maxwell, and was involved with the business venture programme before John Smith died, then making the decision to stand for the old Monklands East constituency. She also crammed in the job of novelist.

The unfinished story took its most dramatic turn in 1999 when she was made the first woman transport minister since Barbara Castle.

But it has not been without its price, a ticket that many successful politicians have to pay.

The Airdrie and Shotts MP attracts as many enemies as she does promotions. A year earlier, the woman with the famously padded shoulders, known variously as Mary Poppins and Stalin's Grannie and, sometimes more affectionately, as Nellie, was just a junior minister at the Treasury.

Promotion saw her preside over 15,000 officials running transport in England and Wales, with a seat in the cabinet. Energy minister at the Department of Trade and Industry was to come in a later chapter.

Her popularity with the high fliers of the Treasury, who admired the ease with which she mastered complicated briefs, did not travel well to Scotland.

Tony Blair ordered her home in 1998 to mastermind Labour's counter-attack against the rampant SNP. Given the impossible task of bashing the SNP and the teachers in her twin role as education minister and campaign director, she clashed immediately with others at Labour HQ and became the subject of constant whisperings.

She once said she wrote her novel Elite because she was fed up being called "formidable". In reference to herself, Mrs Liddell, 50, prefers the French pronunciation of the adjective, which gives it a whole different meaning altogether, as does her latest promotion.

-Jan 25th