Peter Elson speaks to DAME LORNA MUIRHEAD, Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside
AS she manoeuvred along the seats to take her place at Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding in Westminster Abbey, one question kept nagging away at the back of Dame Lorna Muirhead’s mind.
Namely, what was an ordinary couple like Ronald and myself from Toxteth doing here?
“I thought, hey, I’m a midwife. It was Alice in Wonderland stuff,” she mused.
Dame Lorna, 70, describes herself as an establishment figure, whose role as Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside is to represent the Queen in her absence and to host Her Majesty on Royal visits.
It is in the former role that she will invest nine recipients with the revived British Empire Medal on October 17 at the Liverpool Athenaeum.
Yet Dame Lorna is more of a pathfinder than she initially allows. She has seen human kind literally from every angle: “And illness is the greatest leveller.”
In the millennium she became the first midwife to be made a dame since 1903.
“I came here in 1965 to work at Liverpool Maternity Hospital as a midwife and was largely caring for labouring women until I retired in 2005,” she said.
“For the last five years I went on the baby wards as a dame, but you get no deference from Scousers!”
“While doing midwifery I was among the first of my generation to be married and have children and juggle that.
“There were three big things that happened. I had to inform the administrators of my situation, I was paid no maternity leave and women still couldn’t get a mortgage in their name.
“So I went back part-time (which was very unusual) and found it difficult to get promotion. I learned the mantra that you can’t have it all.”
The turning point came aged 50, when her two children, James and Elizabeth, went to university, and her mother died.
“I was left with 10 years of professional life and I decided as I always had a lot to say and been professionally aware that I’d try and get elected to my professional body, the Royal College of Midwives and join its planning and strategic committee.
“Thinking I could help run the world’s oldest and biggest midwifery college was a very big step for someone used to going to work three times a week, but I achieved my goal and loved it, relishing the debate.
“I realised how parochial I was and grew up politically. I learned the things you moan about in the day room among colleagues are not the same full picture you have to grapple with as a manager. I also realised that politics is never pure.”
Then after three years on the council she even surprised herself by going for the top job. She said: “The college has an elected president and I rather foolishly threw my hat into the ring and astonishingly was elected twice, serving eight years as an ambassador for midwifery.”
She became an advisor to the World Health Organisation and five UK secretaries of state for health. Frank Dobson and Stephen Dorrell were her two favourites.
“It wasn’t froth and spin. I have much more respect for politicians than most of the public,” she said.
“Everyone wants to make the health service work, but just how? The NHS has served us well for over half a century, but it has to change and adapt.
“Caring for the sick and needy is the number one priority, but research and development is moving on all the time and someone has to pay for it.
“I joined the NHS in its first decade and people were so utterly grateful as for the first time they didn’t have to decide whether to feed their family or call a doctor. Inevitably, we promised more than we want to pay for.
“But if someone has cancer and there are drugs to keep them going you can’t blame them for wanting treatment.
“In medicine you’re never satisfied with your performance and it’s a journey about always trying to make things better.”
She has, though, witnessed massive improvements in the survival levels of mothers and babies during her career.
“There were no special baby units when I started and any babies under five and a half pounds were thought very compromised.
“I’ve loved being in Liverpool and have been hugely privileged to work with staff who had an influence worldwide on mothers and babies.
“It was a masterstroke, too, to locate Liverpool Women’s Hospital as a means of regeneration in that area.”
Having become a Deputy Lord Lieutenant (an accolade for those who have done well in the county), she “inexplicably” was asked to be Lord Lieutenant of Merseyside after Sir Alan Waterworth retired.
“I now know they wanted a woman and I would have dismissed it as tokenism. Yet it’s been fabulous. Not a job, but a way of life and I do little else, thanks to my husband’s terrific support. It took me outside the NHS silo and I meet amazing people. I’ll be very jealous of my successor in five years’ time.”
UNSURPRISINGLY, Dame Lorna’s favourite film is The Queen, starring Helen Mirren.
Of the Queen herself, Dame Lorna said: “The Queen in her actions and demeanour is very conservative, but in thoughts she is very progressive. I’m not her mate. It’s not ‘hello Lorna, how are you?’. But she’s got a great sense of humour. When we told her Masterchef winner Claire Lara would cook for her in New Brighton she said, ‘Philip will love that, he watches all those programmes!’
“Kate Middleton is lovely. Well-informed and knows what she’s taken on and has a steeliness to cope.”
Dame Lorna’s also dealt with Merseyside’s royalty – helping deliver the Walton sextuplets in 1983.
Education: Girls grammar school, Coalport, Shropshire; State Registered Nurse/Midwife,
Family: Husband Ronald, retired bio-chemist, grown-up son James and daughter Elizabeth
Favourite music: La Traviata
Favourite book: Oxford Book of English Verse
Personal Motto: Give commitment sparingly and honour it completely