INTERVIEWS FRANK FIELD MP
It was one of those strange stifling days in early July, just after the Conservative party had reaffirmed the unity of two thirds of its MPs by agreeing that John Major could continue to live at No 10 Downing Street as long as Mr Heseltine ran the country. In the welcome cool of Central Lobby familiar faces came and went. A ferret-like Tony Banks flickered through; the historic figure of Orpington man floated between the gilded archways of the nation’s patron saints; and an almost avuncular Beast of Bolsover held brief but merry court amidst the human traffic.
It was over twenty years ago that I left my work in the Commons to train for the priesthood and, for old time’s sake, I parked myself under the statue of my political hero, William Ewart Gladstone. Punctual to the second, Frank Field came to greet me and we made our way to the sunlit terrace above the Thames.
A woman in her early 30s rushed up to Field and while requesting his autograph asked him about her old school. Field muttered darkly about the role of the bishop in despoiling it. “Deserves to have his head cut off,” he remarked, without apparent malice. He offered tacit agreement to my suggestion that this would make little difference to the capacity of the man in question. We dragged two chairs and a rickety table out of the bar and settled to business on the “harbour” wall.
Field is an enigma and, after sixteen years, something of a legendary figure in the Commons. Medium height, now slightly greying; blue-grey eyes that travel between compassion, analysis and steel; a Nixonian five o’clock shadow; and a soft but clear voice that does nothing to mask the pungency of what he says. Field is one of those rare birds who has cross-party respect for his intellect, his courage and his unique analysis of the political challenges ahead. His fierce commitment to the poor has characterized both his Christianity and his political career. His personal stand against Militant in their attempt to unseat him was the first significant defeat for, what he describes as, “The Bennite praetorian guard” and the early and scarcely detectable steps on the road to New Labour. Anyone who wants to know what Tony Blair’s game plan is will find it all in Field’s book Agenda for Britain. I began by asking him,
Where were you born?
This question provokes the only noticeable pause in any of his replies. The hesitation is comprehensible only to those who were not born where they would have liked or can identify with.
“I come from Chiswick – grew up there, that was home. Actually born in Edmonton where Mum was, temporarily, to avoid the bombing.”
“My dad was a labourer at Morgan Crucible in Battersea all his life and my mum was a welfare assistant at a nursery school. Two brothers, one recently retired from the Bank of England and the other self-employed.”
What about your education?
“I won a scholarship to St Clement Danes and went on to read economics at Hull University.”
What did you want to do?
“Well I tried for the Assistant General Secretaryship of a Trade Union (Inland Revenue staff) but they weren’t used to graduates then.”
His expression does not change but the stiletto had been in and out without a trace on the blade.
“I happily went into teaching. I started at Bacon School, Bermondsey and later went to Hammersmith College.”
“In 1964 I fought for the safest Tory ward and won it and served for some years in local government. And then in 1969 I went to work for the Child Poverty Action Group and stayed there for ten years.”
This was the job that really put Field on the political map. As one of the very first political lobbyists his task was to influence every representative of political opinion and persuade them of the urgent priority of poor families. The aim? To get child benefit on the statute book.
How did you get into Parliament?
“I heard on the radio news that Edmund Dell (the old Paymaster General and MP for Birkenhead since 1964) was retiring and decided to go for the seat. Actually I thought Birkenhead was in the North East rather than the North West and nearly went to the wrong railway station! I was the third candidate but the two front runners slugged it out and, as neither would support the other, I came through.”
When did the Militant Tendency first show itself.?
“I was warned very early on by the chief militant there that if I didn’t do as I was told there would be trouble.”
He didn’t. There was. He describes the nightmare years for Labour as surviving and battling bullies and the party having the corporate equivalent of a nervous breakdown. He has long been opposed to the Trade Union block vote and “Clause 4”. (Common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange).
In that union world of old working class loyalties there is an enormous sense of family and solidarity isn’t there?
“I can’t say I was ever aware of it. I could have done with some of that family feeling.”
The momentary permafrost is the only articulation of the bloody years in which the hard left conducted a campaign of frightening bitterness to remove him.
What role is there for unions then?
“We need voluntary organizations to be powerful in the state to check the power of the state and challenge it, whether it be unions or the church. Although I accept that the established church has a peculiar difficulty in doing this.”
Tell me about your faith history?
“I don’t have one. My mum took me to St Nick’s in Chiswick, catholic tradition, a Pearson church. I love Pearson – architecture is really important – “the space within which God hides” – it teaches religion – darkness, light, quality, beauty – a visual sacrament. You get a sense of wonder from the aesthetics. I go to St Bride’s, Fleet Street for the music. Wonderful. I’ve never had a Pauline conversion. It’s down to probability – Christianity makes more sense than any other. Oh dear! Whenever anyone asks me this question it makes me begin to doubt.”
You surprised a lot of catholics by converting to women’s ordination. How did that come about? Was it a justice argument or theological or ecclesiological?
“I used to believe all this mumbo-jumbo about order. I was in Washington Cathedral and suddenly found myself, like Alice in Wonderland, falling down a dark hole. I had slipped on the marble floor and was sliding towards the altar with a lot of curious people looking at me. I got up and felt I’d better stay still for a bit. There was a woman celebrating and I was very angry! The longer I stood, however, the more natural it seemed and I’ve never had the slightest doubt since.”
The teasing enquiry as to whether he had banged his head in the fall is met with moderate good humour. He accepts that there are a few eccentrics, like me, for whom order and doctrine are quite important.
You were against compensation for orthodox priests forced to resign?
“Yes. It is a matter of conscience and everybody is to be treated graciously and courteously and fairly.”
You must know that this ideal bears no relation to the reality of the diocesan one-party state!
“Yes, but I am saying how it should be. No-go areas by declaration or appointment are not Christian!”
You have recently been very critical of the Commissioners and the plans for the future of church assets.
“These are historic funds and they should be safeguarded by legislation in Parliament, not by a Measure in Synod. They must seek power from Parliament to divide these assets, which do not belong to the Synod! To what body will they be paid?”
Are we going to get the best standards of government or the minimum?
“This terrible inward-looking habit has characterised the church’s decline. And it’s time an episcopal church stopped being governed by the indirectly elected.”
You want more power for the bishops? You have been one of the most critical of the corrupt appointment system!
“There are two problems. The Crown Appointments Commission is unstable – never the same group meeting twice so there is pressure to get their people in rather than in the right place. They cannot make sensible appointments. Second, Synod is used as a basis for promotion. You see roaming gangs appointing their mates. I could write the drivel you need to say to impress the Crown Appointments Commission. You could say it in the wrong debate so long as you use the key words. It is party newspeak delivered with that nauseating “head on one side” sincerity.”
Will the Church of England survive?
“It is a frail institution. It worked when no-one had the whole show and the Commissioners had the money. But now the evangelicals are questioning, using their money to strike down those who don’t give the right answers. The laity want more power and that will play into the hands of extremists.”
Many of us would say that the whole show is run by extremist liberals and why should we let them debauch the church?
“Well you can tell the nutters, when you go into a meeting room, by their rolling eyeballs whether they’re militant or evangelicals.”
This is less than half in jest. I said it would have been better if I had worn dark glasses so it would have taken longer to spot me. He assures me that I am not an extremist. (I mark him down as a future referee.)
The irony is that Field is, in many ways, an extremist himself – a man of extraordinary contradictions. He is an admirer of Mrs Thatcher for her political acuteness, her sale of council houses (Labour should have done that), her union reforms (ditto); and yet he is a rager against the poverty and injustices wrought by her economics. He is a man who fought the bully boys in politics; but applauds them in the church, while questioning their right to be appointed. He is an Anglican who loves the Prayer Book; and yet he espouses doctrines that drive a coach and horses through its teaching. He seeks fair play, acknowledges it doesn’t happen in the Church of England and agrees with the meanest constructive dismissal of some of its most faithful servants.
You’re a Vice-president of the Prayer Book Society. Why?
“I love the Prayer Book. The Church of England was held together by the Prayer Book and the Commissioners’ cheque and a little help from the Almighty. Those bonds have been brutally broken. The ASB is no more explicable to a kid coming into church. That was a terrible old con.”
We both agree on the unspeakable awfulness of the modern Roman rite.
What is your position on abortion?
“Deeply compromised. I remember the shock of seeing tiny babies in special care who, in other circumstances, could be aborted. I have fought for a time limit below viability because it was politically possible to get that but the zealots would not compromise. I prefer the hospital to the back street but I believe the huge abortion and teenage pregnancy rate is an appalling indictment of our society. We have a good SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child) and LIFE locally and I support them. I also support BROOK (abortion and contraception). When feminists ask me why I support the others I say, to be pro-choice there must be something else to choose.”
How do we get out of a dependency culture?
“Welfare is the outward and visible sign of Christian religion. But it must encourage hard work, savings and honesty. The means test rewards idleness, taxes honesty and penalizes savings. That is how the Tories have created this culture.”
It is the only party political remark in our time together.
What about the Church’s recent reports on living in sin and homosexuality?
“The Church must be clear whether it is speaking to the nation or to the elect. It should make clear the ideal and move towards it. It must not think up reasons for agreeing with whatever mood the state is in. I am against promiscuity and deceit. The key thing is faithfulness and we should welcome faithful couples within the congregation.”
Unmarried or homosexual?
At that moment Bill Cash MP, leading Eurosceptic, passed our table. I asked Field:
Where were you in all this? The currency, our sovereignty?
“There will be no abolition of our currency but you can’t stop a process if you’re not at the negotiating table. The E.U. is not about submerging of interests but where national interests are fought out. No tribe voluntarily surrenders its power to another tribe.”
There follows an animated discussion about the disastrous effects of following German foreign policy in Yugoslavia. Field’s suggestion we “bomb Belgrade or pull out and allow a free movement of arms – an equilibrium of terror” had, he remembers, “Douglas Hurd’s teeth churning in his gums”. Finally I asked him
Who influenced you?
“John Newton, a civil servant in the Post Office who worshipped at St Nick’s, Chiswick. He used to collect and sell books for the church. He was intelligent, kind and humble and took an interest in me. He is dead now but his wife is still alive.”
And a political influence?
“Gaitskell. His dignity in defeat in the 1959 election was a lesson in how to behave.”
We move away from the terrace and up the carpeted stairway.
“Yes”, he says “I was a young Tory then, thrown out of the party for organizing a boycott of South African goods.”
We part warmly and he says to please ring him if I can’t read my writing. I assure him that I never invent what I cannot remember and the Member for Birkenhead goes to his next meeting. Many tip Field as a certainty for a Labour cabinet. He has one of the best minds and records in Parliament. In the 19th century he would have been a certainty. Today, in an age of collegiality, clubbability and corporate man, his enigmatic and contradictory gifts may yet leave him as a prophet rather than a priest of New Labour.
Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s