Mary Creagh, MP

May 01 2019 | by

NOT MANY British MPs have fluent Italian. What led you to choose Italian when you were at Pembroke College, Oxford?

I loved modern languages at school, but sadly my school only offered French and Latin. Fortunately I had a very inspirational teacher so I did French, Latin and English as my A levels. This French teacher also taught me Spanish in his spare time, so I did Spanish for a year and then he suggested I study Italian because it is very close to Latin. Little did I know how hard Italian would turn out to be! I followed his advice and I got into Oxford, where I was in classes with people who were Italian speakers, or who had A level in Italian, and there it was a struggle for me. I had learned it in 6 weeks in the holiday before going to Oxford, and then I started those courses which were really hard, with authors like Eugenio Montale, etc.

I never had a good grounding in Italian grammar, but my spoken Italian was good. Despite my difficulties, I fell in love with Dante’s Divine Comedy, and some of its phrases have stayed with me ever since, like, “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza” which means, ‘You were not made to live as beasts, but to follow virtue and knowledge’.


 Your son is named Clement after Clement Attlee, who served as Prime Minister of the UK from 1945 to 1951, and was the leader of the Labour party from 1935 to 1955. Where do you rank him today among all the Labour Prime Ministers?

 He is still the greatest. He served as Deputy Prime Minister to Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet. Contrary to many people’s expectations the British public voted against the war hero Winston Churchill in the general election of 1945, and elected him as Prime Minister with a large majority. Clement Attlee’s success can be attributed to the bold manifesto which promised a new Welfare state and full employment. Despite Britain being nearly bankrupt after the expensive war, the Labour party was largely successful in bringing in a new welfare state, widespread nationalization and creating the National Health Service. Attlee presided over a truly radical government, which increased income tax on the wealthy and created a more equal society. Welfare, health and education are the three pillars of the good society, and Attlee established them, and they have transformed the lives of millions of people. These institutions have endured, and that’s a sign of a successful politician.


 The Brexit scenario is altering from hour to hour. In this volatile and complex crisis are you still a Remainer? And how should Parliament choose the best way forward now?

 I’ll be a Remainer until I die. I was totally against the referendum on whether to leave the EU or not. I voted against triggering article 50, the article which initiates the withdrawal process from the EU.

 All this has been difficult because Wakefield, the constituency which I represent, voted 63 percent to Leave, and so there was a big clash between my ideas and the votes of the people I represent.

 I have consistently maintained that Brexit will make us poorer, and I didn’t come into politics to make people poorer. This is why I have called for a people’s vote on the final deal, because the Brexit that was promised cannot be delivered. At the moment there is a huge gridlock in Parliament, and the Prime Minister cannot even get an agreement within her own party on a Brexit deal!

 Ultimately, I believe that Northern Ireland and the imperative not to have a hard border in Ireland will be the thing that will destroy Brexit, because it is a philosophical, political and theological impossibility; it simply can’t happen. The thing that gives me comfort in this crisis is to know that our European friends still care for us and are waiting for us if there comes a time when we change our mind.

 It’s important to know that there are generations of Britons who totally reject this nationalism and ideological hardness. They want to live in a country that welcomes the stranger. As a daughter of strangers (my father came from Ireland) I feel that it is important that we do not allow barriers to be put up in our country against people with foreign names and foreign accents. That is not the sort of country we are.


 Would you agree that the division in the country that the Brexit referendum uncovered has proved more significant than the decision it delivered?

 The decision was easy, it was either Leave or Remain, two words. The Leavers voted for more money for the National Health Service and controls on immigration, the two things that especially concern people who live in areas that have suffered the most from the Conservative party’s austerity programs.

 Lots of people have experienced considerable loss in their economic dignity and feel uncertain about their economic future because of David Cameron’s conservative policies. Faced with the referendum which Cameron had promised, they chose to leave the EU mainly because Cameron had urged people to vote Remain. They wanted to avenge themselves of Cameron, thinking that the reason their child couldn’t get into school or was denied health services was because of immigrants or the EU rather than the government’s underfunding of public services. Now, when I talk to people in Wakefield Leavers don’t come up to me and say we are going to be better off; they do not talk about prosperity any more. They talk about the people’s will, or about honoring democracy, but you can’t put bread on the table if you lose your job. If we do not strike a deal with the EU, 90 percent of our trade will stop, and there will be a huge economic crisis. I recently met a man who works for Kuehne + Nagel, and he told me he had voted Leave, but that he was not sure any more. This person, whose life depended on trade with the EU, voted to Leave, thinking he would get more services from the National Health Service, and then suddenly realized he could have voted to destroy his own job.

 In the Conservative party alone there are 320 different versions of Brexit! Every British citizen has their own version of Brexit, but whatever version of Brexit is finally delivered will not be the one people voted for, because Brexit can only exist as a perfect ideal and as an abstract noun that does not exist in reality. Whatever exists in reality will be the wrong Brexit; it will be either too close to Europe, or too far away from Europe, so we have a very big problem now.


 Do you believe that Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Sì (Praised be) can have an effect on conservative critics and industrialists who accuse environmentalists of being alarmists?

 Absolutely. I believe the encyclical has had a profound effect. The stand out phrase for me was, “We must hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” The poor are closer to the Earth; they are more likely to live in nature and depend on her. They are on the front line when damaging storms, floods, mudslides and hurricanes appear. We are seeing from the best industrialists a real understanding of both the Pope’s encyclical and the Agreement on Sustainable Development Goals, which applies to both developed and developing countries. The role of business in the sustainability agenda is very important, and I believe the next 10 years will be dominated by attempts to direct financial investments into green projects. We need to make our homes and heating systems more energy efficient, and we need to make our transportation system carbon neutral. Most of the assumptions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are based on technologies that do not exist yet; so far we haven’t invented carbon capture and storage facilities, so we are left with natural carbon capture and storage, that is, trees, soils, and green areas. The IPCC says we have just 12 years to reduce carbon emissions, so we need much more ambition otherwise our failure to act will have repercussions for thousands of years. 


 What makes Pope Francis so different from his predecessors?

 With Francis we have a Pope who understands the role of theology in tackling injustice, a Pope who tries to translate the full humanity of Christ into what he says. His focus on poverty alleviation, social justice and climate justice are things that are new and very exciting for my generation, who perhaps have grown up with priests who cultivated a Church that was more an excluding body rather than an inclusive body.


 Many people tend to think of Christianity as a religion which restricts personal freedom and happiness. Do you agree?

 The Church’s teaching has sometimes caused great suffering for women, for gay people and divorcees. For me the Church is about being part of a community of like-minded people coming together in the hope of hearing the word of God. And sometimes I do hear the word of God in church and sometimes I don’t.


 How would you describe God?

 My vision of God is that of an infinitely loving and forgiving Being who is the ultimate model for parenthood and citizenship. Divine love as expressed through Jesus is a model for infinite love, infinite patience, infinite hope, infinite wisdom. These are things we can only aspire to in our personal lives, but sometimes we can gain insights into our lives through listening again and again to the same stories. The stories I heard as a child sound completely differently to me now as an adult. I had the Sermon on the Mount at my wedding because it’s Jesus’ most political sermon. It contains the politics of listening to the poor, listening to children, the outcast, the excluded. Jesus for me is a revolutionary.

 When my Remainer friend Jo Cox was murdered by a right wing Leave supporter, one of my Catholic MP colleagues sent me a text which said, “Sacred Heart of Jesus I put all my trust in you.”

 Somehow, because of this terrible tragedy, we were all reflecting deeply on our mission in society, on Jo and her family, and on our relationship with God. There were some very powerful moments around Jo’s death, and we reflected on how the worst action brought out the very best in people. God is somebody who walks with you. However, I feel that I ignore God quite a lot as well, but he is the ultimate good friend, the best counselor.


 What does God expect from us?

 God wants us to live our best lives, to be the best version of ourselves that we can be, and to help others to be the best version of themselves that they can be. Sometimes I am very quick to judge people; sometimes I have to stop myself and try to reach for more wisdom and compassion to understand why this person is in a particular situation or why I am in a particular situation.


 Have you ever had any periods of dissent or crisis with the Catholic Church?

 I am in permanent dissent with the Catholic Church! I didn’t go to church for 12 years from when I left home till I came back from Brussels. I started going to church more often because I met two very good priests who had worked in Latin America and followed Liberation Theology.

 There is no perfection in me and my relationship with the Church, like any relationship, is imperfect.


 Do you have any kind of relationship with St Anthony of Padua?

 He is my best saint because he is the patron saint of lost things! Every day in my childhood we were encouraged to say a prayer to St Anthony, and I must start encouraging my children to pray to him to recover lost items.


 BORN and brought up in Coventry in 1967, Mary Helen Creagh attended the local Catholic comprehensive school. She won a scholarship to Oxford, where she studied modern languages. This led to 4 years working in Brussels first at the European Parliament, and then at the European Youth Forum.

 Taking an MSc in European Studies at the London School of Economics took her into academia. Mary taught entrepreneurship at Cranfield University’s School of Management for 7 years, and was a councilor in her spare time. She also spent 7 years as a Trustee for Rathbone, a national charity that provides training for disadvantaged young people in Wakefield and Huddersfield.

 Mary has represented Wakefield as its Member of Parliament (MP) since 2005. She was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP. She was elected to the shadow Cabinet after the 2010 general election and served for five years in the environment, transport, and international development shadow secretary briefs. In May 2015 she announced her candidacy as Labour Leader, but later withdrew her candidacy.

In 2016 she was elected by MPs from all parties to chair the Environmental Audit Select Committee, and has published reports on plastics, soils, the oceans, and sustainable fashion.

Creagh has been married to Adrian Pulham since 2001 and they have a son, Clement and a daughter, Beatrice. When she’s not working she enjoys cycling, yoga, food, gardening and having fun with her family. She speaks fluent French and Italian and enjoys travelling. 

Updated on May 01 2019