15 September 2022

Pragmatic, formidable and resilient – Tessa Keswick was an inspiration

By Salma Shah

The word formidable could have been invented for Tessa Keswick, who has passed away aged 79. A woman of small stature who nevertheless packed a punch. She was not a battle-axe, nor did she have a stern nature, but she did have an aura of clearly recognisable authority. That might have seemed surprising, as she was softly spoken, measured and calm. Always impeccably dressed with what can only be described as excellent taste.    

I had the good fortune of knowing Tessa, but our relationship got off to an inauspicious start. We met at a dinner hosted by a mutual friend. Wine was taken, mostly by me and a disagreement followed, the subject of which has totally escaped me. We lived near one another and despite my appalling arrogance and contrary view we shared a taxi home. The next day, I received an invitation to lunch and an unlikely friendship began.

Like me, she had been a special adviser in government serving in some of the same departments. She travelled far and wide with Ken Clarke, the minister she so ably served in the Department of Health, Education, Home Office and Treasury. She was a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher and like Mrs Thatcher, Tessa had a strong work ethic and a determination to get things done. She was also somewhat unique because she said what she thought, a rare gift in Westminster circles. 

Even in her 70s her sharpness never dimmed nor did her belief in trying to improve things. Right until the end, we would converse on everything from the challenges of dealing with NHS backlogs and the precarious nature of international relations. She poured much of that energy and intellect into her work at the Centre for Policy Studies, where she was director for just shy of a decade, and later a deputy chairman and long-serving board member.

She was exceptionally curious, well read, well travelled and a font of wisdom – some of which she would occasionally share. The most valuable lesson she ever taught me was the art of listening. I would often, in exasperation, complain at the slow pace of government and rail against the ‘system’, and though sometimes caricatured as a right-wing radical, Tessa always gave pragmatic advice. ‘Read the submissions’, she would caution, ‘you can’t ignore evidence’. 

Whilst she was blue-blooded with an impeccable ‘pedigree’, you would never know it on meeting her. She was certainly part of the establishment but never captured by it. There was nothing exclusive about her manner, more interested in new ideas, with a keen ear for flaws in arguments, than impressed by status or titles. 

I had often marvelled at Tessa’s resilience. We had spoken about the difficulty of being working mothers and I was surprised to discover she raised three children without the trappings of wealth. She knew what it was to struggle, which is an important, often missed, part of her story.  She had first-hand experience of hardship. It’s possible it made her braver on a personal level, but it definitely drove her passion to improve things.

Her journey was an unexpected one for a woman of her class and generation. She faced misogyny and was underestimated many times but if that caused her any bitterness, it was never evident – the toughness of her character overcoming the naysayers as usual. 

She was devoted to her children and after the pandemic she was overjoyed to be spending time with her grandchildren which she would describe as ‘heaven’, there was little that made her happier than talking about them. And, of course, her beloved second husband Henry, with whom she made a great team. On the few occasions I met him, he would speak of his wife with such awe no one could doubt his affection. Their devotion to one another was palpable.

It’s always interesting to know that despite her status in the world and experience of life, it was always the simple things that were most motivating. Like taking up gardening, which she was sure was a bad sign and, of course, never troubling anyone about the seriousness of her cancer. She had beaten it once before, and when her hair started growing back I told her she looked like a right-wing Annie Lennox, which delighted her. 

Tessa was simply an inspiration. I just wish I’d told her so.

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Salma Shah is a Partner and Senior Adviser at Portland and a former government adviser.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.