Jan Royall, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, was elected Principal of Somerville College, Oxford, in February 2017. Here, she looks back on her political career and shares her love of Somerville’s radical history.
When Jan Royall was at school, she asked one of her teachers about this place called ‘Oxbridge’. What was it? Was it something she should think about? He told her not to worry herself, as she probably wouldn’t be going to university at all. It just shows you shouldn’t listen to everything your teachers tell you.
Jan has already heard a version of her own story from a good number of the Somervillians she’s met since her arrival. Even some of the College’s most recent graduates were discouraged by teachers at school, she’s learned, and it’s something she’s determined to tackle. ‘I want the brightest young people to know that, wherever they go to school, they are good enough to think of Oxford,’ she says. ‘We’ve all got talents. It’s just a question of how you use them, and how you tap into the talents of others too.’
Campaigning for social justice and for democracy in the widest sense is what makes Jan tick. ‘I’ve always worried about the state of the world,’ she says. Her love of learning is also an important force in her life. She read French and Spanish at Westfield College, London. ‘I enjoyed French,’ Jan says, ‘and I ended up doing Spanish A Level almost by accident, because the German class had too many people in it.’ As accidents go, it was a happy one, and a later trip to Spain opened up a love of the country and the culture.
After her degree, Jan was training as a bilingual secretary when a chance encounter with an inspiring individual at a Christmas party (in fact, her future husband Stuart) drew her into politics. She joined the Labour Party and the Young European Left and brought her languages and her politics together, working as the General Secretary of the British Labour Party in the European Parliament. After acting as a special adviser to Neil Kinnock, Jan worked for the European Commission in Brussels and then went on to become Head of the European Commission Office in Wales. Created Baroness Royall of Blaisdon in 2004, she was appointed government spokesperson in the House of Lords for Health, International Development and Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. She later became Chief Whip and Leader of the Lords.
When asked what she has enjoyed most about her career, Jan reveals that one of her favourite things has been the homework. ‘I love finding out about new things, learning enough to be able to understand issues and help others to understand them as well.’ As a whip in the House of Lords, she would often find herself with only a day or so to master topics across a wide portfolio.
Jan had already developed a profound respect for Oxford women, working as she did with Barbara Castle. No wonder, then, to find that she’s excited by Somerville’s alumni, whether it’s the College’s first Member of Parliament (Eleanor Rathbone) or the only British woman thus far to win a Nobel Prize for science (Dorothy Hodgkin) or medical researcher, and later Principal of Somerville, Janet Vaughan. ‘It’s an inspirational roll call,’ she says. The inspiration runs both ways, and Somerville know it is fortunate to be gaining the talents of such a powerful and impressive politician and activist. Jan sees it as the perfect match: ‘Somerville brings together all the things I care about most. It’s a place where brilliant people work at the highest level in everything they do. I know that it’s universities that will produce the solutions to the world’s problems.’
Jan’s first impression of Somerville has been borne out. ‘It’s a lovely, human space,’ she says. The College’s sense of community is one of the many things that appeals to her. ‘I want to know people,’ she says, ‘and I want them to know me. I’ve already hugely enjoyed meeting alumni, Fellows and staff, and now I’m looking forward to meeting the students when they arrive in a few weeks from now.’
And in her spare time? ‘It might sound a funny thing to say, but my family is my hobby,’ Jan says. ‘I’m so much looking forward to the chance to explore and get to know Oxford with them.’ Theatre is a passion, and she also loves gardening, citing the beauty of Somerville’s gardens as another draw.
Somerville’s history of including those who have been excluded has impressed Jan, and she likes the fact that the scale of the College means personal encounters can be transformative. ‘Big causes matter,’ she says, ‘but it’s just as important to me to change things one conversation at a time. Last year I went back to my old school in the Forest of Dean, and spoke to one of the students there who felt that he didn’t fit in, that it wasn’t worth pushing himself. I encouraged him, and yesterday, out of the blue, he sent me an email telling me how our conversation had inspired him to take himself seriously, work harder and get good A level results. The thought that I might have made a difference: that’s what motivates me.’