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Politics, Poverty and Belief: A political memoir by Frank Field

by
24 February 2023

Richard Harries reads a seasoned poverty campaigner’s memoirs

FRANK FIELD is one of the most interesting politicians of recent decades. Member of Parliament for Birkenhead for more than 40 years, briefly a member of Tony Blair’s government, and a respected chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, he has been distinguished by his independence of mind.

This is rooted in a respect for individual freedom and a visceral hatred of bullying. When he was 15 his father took a hammer to him. Frank took it out of his father’s hand and told him that if he did it again he would use the hammer in return. It was in this character that, in the early part of his political career, he stood up to the “Trots” who tried to unseat him, and later to Momentum, who tried the same bullying tactics.

Similarly, he disliked the way in which councils sometimes treated their tenants, and this led him to support the sale of council houses. A turning point came when he was a councillor, and a tenant complained that a banging door was keeping him awake all night, and the council was not doing anything about it. When Field suggested the tenant might mend it himself, the man replied “Blimey, why do you think I pay my rent?” The great mistake was that this policy was taken up by Margaret Thatcher. Houses were sold off cheap, and the proceeds, instead of being used to repair and rebuild the housing stock, were used to reduce taxation.

The great success of Field’s career has been to show what is possible if there is a sharp focus on a particular issue. He did this, first of all, with his work for the Child Poverty Action Group and Low Pay Unit, leading to child benefits and the minimum wage. Later, he campaigned against modern slavery and climate change. By focusing sharply on one issue, doing good research, gaining the support of influential people, and persevering, he has been a key player in movements that have brought about real change.

AlamyFrank Field in his office in 1973, when he was director of the Child Poverty Action Group

This book is designed to bring out the Christian basis of Frank Field’s political activities. Together with a full and well-informed introduction from Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, one of Margaret Thatcher’s advisers, and his wife, we learn than this originated in the sacramental worship of St Nicholas’s, Chiswick, and was shaped through the writings of the great Anglo-Catholic priests of the 20th century.

It is a faith based on the belief that human beings are both fallen and redeemed. Because we are fallen, we cannot rely on altruism alone. We have to take into account the basic self-interest that drives most of what we do. This self-interest is partly natural and good, and partly inordinate and at the expense of other people. But we have to work with it. Nevertheless, we do have a genuine capacity to take into account the wider good, and everything needs to be set within that framework and ideal. This approach Field calls “self-interested altruism”.

One of the most disturbing parts of the book is his section on the decline in respect in our society. In 1900, there were only 1908 crimes of violence against the person in the whole country. Now there are more than that in each constituency. Furthermore, a century ago, most people in prison were serving seven-day sentences for minor offences. If Edwardian standards were applied today, most of Britain’s youth would be in prison. Field locates this in the loss of manufacturing jobs, when a man could bring back a living wage and have the status of a breadwinner, while his wife looked after the children. Now, too often, the man is not around, and the woman is struggling both to earn a living and to bring up a family.

Field also suggests that this terrible social ill is significantly due to the decline in the Christian faith, the diminution of the moral foundation of the Labour Party, and the loss of the English philosophical idealism that earlier motivated so many in public life when they had moved away from their Christian faith. He believes that this fundamental malaise cannot be tackled by fiscal means alone, but needs a range of other approaches — not least, giving a priority to parenting skills.

Field is a salutary role-model for those of us who tend to be politically or religiously tribal.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His autobiography, The Shaping of a Soul: A life taken by surprise, is due to be published on 31 March.

 

Politics, Poverty and Belief: A political memoir
Frank Field
Bloomsbury £20
(978-1-3994-0839-4)
Church Times Bookshop £16

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