Dr in the House with a new pescription
PUBLISHED: 09:30 15 September 2014
She arrived on the green benches of Westminster via an unorthodox route...and Sarah Wollaston thus has some radical thouhgts on how the place might change, as she tells ALEXIS BOWATER
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On the wall of Sarah Wollaston’s Westminster office hangs a giant whiteboard covered from top to bottom with ‘issues to deal with’.
All are constituency matters about which this GP turned MP is passionate and steely, with a determination well concealed beneath her softly spoken and charming manner.
Dr Wollaston is not a career politician, rather someone who on gut instinct saw something wrong and campaigned to change it: ending up in the House of Commons in the process. Her constituents in Totnes may well be grateful for that.
She began her political career using her experience of 24 years as a frontline doctor to fight cottage hospital closures, champion the NHS, and stand as an MP to stand up for rural issues.
And once voted in she gained a reputation for being independent-minded, not afraid to challenge her party’s leadership or oppose them when she believed that their decision goes against the interests of her constituents.
“People voted for me because I am a Conservative,” she tells me, “but I was also very clear that I wanted to bring in a more independent perspective to that and also to put what was important to South Devon first if there was a conflict and I hope that people feel that I have done that.”
And that independence is key to representing those who live in South Devon. If you’re living in a rural area, with housing issues, health issues, employment issues, you’d want someone who understands not only the geography but the philosophy of living here to speak for you.
She lists for me the work she is doing on behalf of the region in Westminster, dropping in an understated: “I think the fact is that relative to big metropolitan areas the South West and rural areas generally are still somewhat sidelined if I am honest,” as my eyebrows shoot up at her diplomacy. It’s at that point that I realise that, whatever she says, however self-deprecating she is, Dr Wollaston is a born campaigner and leader who has taken to this work like a duck to water.
But what, I ask, about being a woman in Westminster? There are, after all, issues around harassment, underrepresentation, a lack of women MPs. How does she address that?
The harassment, she tells me, isn’t as bad as it’s portrayed: “In terms of a woman MP, it’s funny really, yes of course 23% of MPs are women but the point I would make is that actually in The Commons everyone gets a hard time, it’s not that they are rude to women it’s that they are rude to everyone.”
“But do you think that puts women off getting involved in politics?” say I, probing away.
“There is a critical mass effect. I think that once we get to a third of women in The Commons then a lot of the culture around the place will change and a lot of the barracking.”
Then she comes out with such an exciting and simple idea as to how to get more women into politics, particularly those in the age bracket 30-45 who can be sidelined for family reasons, that I actually stop taking notes and listen open-mouthed.
Job-sharing. JOB-SHARING! Why didn’t anyone think of that before? In order to get more women into the pipeline you team them up with an older MP (a mentor), do two days each in Westminster, the constituents always have someone on call in position and voila! That’s a win-win if ever I heard one.
“I guess I feel very enthusiastic about it because I have done job shares and if you can make a job share work in medicine then I don’t seen why you can’t make a job share work in politics,” says Dr Wollaston.
But things don’t move as quickly in Westminster, apparently: “The default position here is to ‘leave it as it is’, which is frustrating” she says. But read this article again in 2024 and let me know. I’ll put a penny or two on it having happened.
For with women like Dr Sarah Wollaston - only the 77th Conservative woman MP - in position then change, radical change, in all sorts of areas does seem possible: including most significantly in the area of health where she has just been elected as chair of the Commons Health Select Committee.
In the meantime, out of the corridors of power, the Member of Parliament for Totnes may well be seen in Devon’s lanes, on a bicycle made for two with her forensic psychiatrist husband Adrian, training for this month’s 100-mile Ride London.
“Tandems are wonderful because you can talk to each other as you go along. I can get up Hay Tor without breaking sweat on the tandem,” she says.
“100 miles with a middle aged man in Lycra does make it a lot easier to be fair but he has told me that if I don’t lose half a stone then I will have to do it on my own bike.”
And I, for one, have absolutely no doubt that she will do it - all.
Dr Sarah Wollaston – ten things you didn’t know about me
1. I fell in love on a tandem.
2. We are still tandeming 30 years later, so that’s my top tip for love!
3. As a child I used to swim in the sea with my pet duck, Duckworthy.
4. I still have a soft spot for chickens (and ducks of course) but no duckhouse.
5. My dog will be ‘100’ in February (hoping for a telegram from the corgis).
6. Six legs not eight.
7. I can’t sing a note, best not to stand next to me.
8. At least I can paint, surely, even if my family won’t hang them.
9. I love community hospitals and miss being a ‘proper’ doctor.
10. I’m hoping to RideLondon for Mind
10. To be honest, I hadn’t realised how far 100 miles feels on a bike even with a MAMIL (Middle Aged Man in Lycra).
Dr Sarah Wollaston – ten things I love about Devon
1. The South West Coast Path from Bantham to Broadsands.
2. The River Dart from Dartmeet to Dartmouth and the Dittisham ferry.
3. Our independent high streets and the perfect cup of coffee in Totnes.
4. Dipping my toes in the sea at Beesands followed by fresh fish from Britannia@the beach.
5. Low tide at North Sands then the ferry to Salcombe for ice cream.
6. The early morning fishing fleet in Brixham and Shoalstone sea water pool.
7. Bluebells, foals, skylarks and the medieval village at Hound Tor.
8. Devon cream teas (jam on top) and pasties on the beach (crimping on top).
9. High Devon hedgerows and green lanes.
10. Downhill on a bike from Haytor or Trendlebere Down.