Interview: Frank Field MP and social reformer

18 November 2008

by Terence Handley MacMath

I thought the world was in need of a change, and I thought being an MP would help to achieve that. Now I’m less enthusiastic about the process of changing things through Parliament. Maybe that comes through experi­ence, and maybe also because modern society is very complex.

When I first got elected, I thought I’d be much more involved in policy. The reality is different, partly because the Government’s role in citizens’ lives is so much more complicated. We have been good at extending the role of the state, but not so good at strengthening citizens.

I don’t think we should meddle in people’s lives so much. Before the war, we were very largely a self-governing community through the great institutions of public life: mutual societies, unions, friendly societies, and so forth — but all that’s been wiped from people’s minds. And they will be reinvented.

I wanted to reinvent a collective tradition outside the state. My views would have been mainstream centre-left, but we’ve lived through a very strange period of state Socialism. Now that it’s collapsed, a lot of those who comment on affairs have got trapped by language. It’s not where the voters are.

Our failure in our attack on poverty is still to be stuck in a ghetto approach. My attack on poverty is through welfare which benefits everyone — for example, a universal funded pension to run alongside the private pension. The biggest gainers are the poor, because they’d never had that opportunity, but it’s in the interests of people like me to see it established, too.

I don’t mind being called a maverick — not being branded or owned. Voters appreciate that. But I also appreciate that we operate in a party system. If there were too many like me, it would be chaotic. So it’s a cre­ative tension and conflict all the time. I do restrain myself sometimes. . .

The increase in legislation is deeply troubling — almost as if the Government has forgotten what government is all about. Good government is about not needing to pass measures, because the measures you have passed have been a success. We seem to have moved from class politics to the politics of behaviour — from a self-regulating society to a highly regulated one.

I was in favour of DNA records when they were first introduced. They were catching murderers and rapists from years back, which was wonder­ful. But with identity cards, I can only think of one government IT pro­gramme which they have actually succeeded in over the past ten years: the pensions one, which they are now planning to scrap. All the others have been a disaster.

My main wish that I hoped to achieve in 1997 was to create a welfare system that doesn’t trap people. The big difference between Gordon Brown and me is that he is a means-test addict, and I’m a uni­versal addict. Can you help the poor and extend their freedom at the same time? Any old fool can put money on the poor, but means-testing makes it difficult for the poor to improve their circumstances by their own efforts, or live honestly.

Do I like Gordon Brown? You have to ask whether you’d want to spend social time with him. I wouldn’t put Tony Blair in that category. Nor Mr Attlee, whom I very much admire. No, you shouldn’t think of political relationships as be­ing friends: it’s a business relation­ship.

Immigration is an immensely serious problem for two reasons: we’ve never had such high numbers of immigrants before, and it comes down to the art of government. We need to be sensitive to the fact that people will find their identity threatened and challenged by their neighbours’ identity changing so quickly. One way to protect incomers is by giving people the feeling that the open-door policy has stopped.

The woolly-headed Left seems to be unable or unwilling to make a distinction between immigration and asylum-seekers. I’ve been trying to get that distinction drawn, and be­fore it’s too late. What balanced migration is about is letting groups in to work but then go home.

If we’re going to keep the idea of God alive in our society, it’s through the schools. Why aren’t we produc­ing enough people who are confident about giving good assemblies and teaching RE? Why aren’t we en­couraging church academies? Why aren’t we extending the influence of church schools? We’ve been given these huge opportunities. Why aren’t we following through?

If the Church thinks it will get more money out of the Government in the present economic climate, it’s pie-in-the-sky. We need to position our­selves to take advantage of existing budgets. In my role as chairman of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission, I can see that the choral tradition is not going to last another 30 years, given the cost to the cathedrals. And yet music is dying out in state schools. So why don’t we get our choir schools to become the basis of church acad­emies? Why don’t we hand the cost of our choral tradition to the taxpayers? They’re happy to pay for it, because they get something they value. We have to sell our skills.

When I talk to young people in Birkenhead, which I much enjoy, I always think: what a tougher life they’ve got! There used to be 16,900 dockers there, and now there are 400. People could expect to move more easily from school and university into work. There isn’t the stable job market any more.

I was a book collector before I became a reader. Now I’m both. I’ve just been reading Andrew Chandler’s Piety and Provocation: George Bell in four landscapes. And Peter Hen­nessy’s Having It So Good about the break-up of the self-governing society which began in the ’50s.

The most important decision in my life was to become MP for Birken­head. It’s a proper place with its own identity: I’ve never had to rep­resent a bit of Liverpool which changes every time someone redraws the boundaries. It’s been a great 30-year tutorial.

I most regret not following my grand­mother’s advice: if you can do something today, do it today.

I hope I’ll be remembered as having enormous fun representing Birken­head, and for having influenced political debate in the way I have.

I’ve been influenced in a strange way by George Bell, actually. I’m sure I would have argued against his great stand against obliteration bombing — I think it was an un­realistic stance. But I just rejoice in his mighty courage. I love him because I disagree with him.

Do I remember any sermons? Well, I usually just wish to God they wouldn’t preach them. Why do the clergy think they have to know everything about everything? I phys­ically ache when I listen to them. Why can’t they just read us a poem, or something?

If I couldn’t do this, I’d do another job that gives me the same oppor­tunities that politics gives me: a pension, and being allowed to get on with what’s important to me. It’s a huge privilege.

I think relaxing consists of doing what you haven’t just been doing. Listening to music is pretty good, and choral music particularly gives a glimpse of glory which lies beyond all this.

I get endlessly angry with Govern­ment and spinning and all that. . . And the way they lose the oppor­tunities they have for changing the agenda. They’ve had three election wins and an economy which allowed freedom of action. The results have been modest.

I feel happy most of the time. I have a lovely life. Sometimes I can’t wait to get to sleep so I can get into the next day.

I had an embarrassing moment — al­most a Pauline conversion. It was in the early days of women priests. I was in Washing­ton Cathedral, look­ing at the struc­ture of the building, and found myself flying down a stair­case, sliding across a polished floor, everyone look­ing at me, and end­­ing up in front of a woman priest celeb­rating com­munion. It seemed the most natural thing, that celebra­tion.

Fairtrade marmalade, and M&S Gold Label tea. With London water, it’s brilliant. I have a local tea in Birk­enhead, but the Gold Label makes a wonderful workman’s tea in London.

I find prayer difficult because God knows perfectly well already what you’re going to ask. There’s a brilliant one on a stone outside Westminster Abbey which I think they should put on a postcard that people can take away. I say it several times a day as I’m passing: “May God grant to the living grace, to the departed rest, to the Church and world peace and con­cord, and to us sinners life eternal.”

I would like to be locked in a church with Judas, without question. I’d love to hear his side of the story, and then also I’d know all my doubts were met because there he would be — alive and well. And I’d also like to ask if between Good Friday and Easter Day Jesus came to visit. I expect the answer would be yes.

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