A life of service

Margaret Simey, who has died aged 98, was someone who took Dylan
Thomas at his word – she did not go gentle into the dark night but
raged against the dying of the light. Although increasing physical
incapacity frustrated her last years, she retained her sharp and
rebellious intellect and indefatigable spirit until the end. In one
of the last articles she wrote (for Community Care), she
said that older people should be “emancipated” from dependency.
They should be allowed a fair share of responsibility for their own
well-being and that of the community to which they belonged. She
didn’t want “them” doing good to “us”. The last words of the piece
were typically defiant: “Here is the last cause I mean to

She was born in 1906 in Glasgow and came to her adopted city of
Liverpool as a child when her father was appointed head of a
further education college. She took to the city and the city took
to her – she rejoiced in the great melting pot that it was and
remains, despite the many changes it has undergone socially,
economically and architecturally.

When the social science course was created at Liverpool University,
Margaret was its first graduate, and her late husband, Tom (later
Lord) Simey, was later to hold the first chair of social science.
The link was retained all her life. She was to become an active
honorary fellow and when she became unable to leave her home on her
own, the university sent its students for what were unique

Margaret was deeply influenced by Eleanor Rathbone, of the
well-known Liverpool philanthropic family. The older woman went to
the Commons and on to the Cabinet Office, her protegee to the
council chamber. Margaret represented the inner city Granby ward
for 23 years on the city council and the (Thatcher-abolished)
metropolitan county council where she was, famously, to chair its
police committee. She also served on the city council’s children’s
committee and the successor social services committee.

But the greatest influence on her outlook came from her immersion
in the burgeoning voluntary movement as she herself came to
maturity. Voluntarism, mutuality, self-help and self-governance
became her lodestars.

Public notoriety and Thatcher opprobrium fell upon Margaret when,
during the Toxteth riots of 1981, she said that people would have
been mad if they hadn’t rioted. Her wrangles with the chief
constable, the late Kenneth Oxford, over police accountability were
also widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Accountability was,
for her, the cornerstone of democracy – and she included herself,
as community activist and politician, within its reach.

She was a prolific writer. The biography of another hero, the
capitalist and sociologist Charles Booth, was written with her
husband. In later years came Government by Consent (1985),
Democracy Rediscovered (1988), Charity
(1992) and The Disinherited Society
(1996). Companion to these were papers, pamphlets, articles,
lectures and reviews. All displayed a fierce commitment, written
with an uncompromising passion for not only a more just society but
also a more inclusive one.

Margaret closely identified with her fellow Liverpudlians. At the
root of all social problems, she once said, was “us” not being
listened to. Central government politicians of all parties wanted
to impose “their” ideas, not “our” solutions, on the city.

When she became involved in the housing association movement she
found the same vices which afflicted other voluntary organisations
and local government – a distancing from the people,
professionalisation and managerialism.

Margaret had enormous energy. In her 80s she was camping with her
two grandsons in Lesotho, where her son, Iliffe, worked for some
years. And, incidentally, she found in African living and family
patterns the mutuality which she sought on home ground.

If you hadn’t seen her for years, she would talk as if the
conversation had halted only the previous day, about the battles
she was engaged in or the niceties of Liverpool politics.

When the issues of old age became personal to her, she said that
she and her contemporaries were excluded by a society that had no
use for them. It did not stop her seeking to remove those

Life’s purpose, she wrote, was provided by self-fulfilment through
service to others. And an integral part of that was her creed of
government by consent, altruism being given free rein, and welfare
dependency ceding place to a welfare society.

In 1999 Margaret wrote to me: “I survive, being the surviving kind,
but I don’t grow old gracefully.” Someone once said critically of
her that she was “a thoroughly awkward customer”. She took such
criticism as the highest praise. CC

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