An exclusive extract from the new memoir by Frank Field as he contemplates his life and what comes next
I grew up in this parish that I would now call low-church Catholic parish, St Nicholas’s in Chiswick. By ‘low-church’ I mean the liturgy was celebrated in a clear Catholic form, but there was a strong distaste for any excess of church millinery, such as dressing up in yards and yards of lace. Nevertheless, St Nicholas’s provided me with a sense of protection and belonging, and I cannot thank this church community enough for the protection it offered me, of which, as I look back, I was so badly in need.
Here I was safe from my father’s outbursts of rage and bullying. And here I learned the nature of a wider community that ran alongside the family that my mother provided every day for ‘her three boys’, as she called us. So, thanks exclusively to her influence, I grew up in a Christian family.
Where St Nicholas’s failed me was in the fact that it didn’t teach me any idea whatsoever of the Catholic faith, and this lack I became more conscious of as I grew in my sixth form and then moved into university. Strangely, I have always sensed the lacking of a scaffolding of ideas that appeared to be agreed upon by those people I most admire and trust, and whose friendship so enriches my life. I am presented so often as an outsider. If I am so, I am an outsider who longs to be part of the inside. Is this peculiar to me, or is it an integral part of the human spirit as it tries to make sense and order of the events that sweep us along? Whatever the answer, all I know is that during my crucial early years I had no vision of the world into which I could try and fit my life’s actions. There was no rulebook to follow. But all too soon I saw this failure as a mighty bonus, a Providential blessing if there ever was one. I was taught to try and think for myself.
Likewise, while there was this marked distaste of church millinery, St Nicholas’s lacked much sense of the church militant. This important vacuum was filled much later at university, where the dismissive attitude to Christian Socialism of our outstanding labour history don, John Saville, intrigued me more than any of his Marxist interpretations of nineteenth-century England (and ‘England’ is not a misprint, despite John’s internationalism). The lack of a map or compass from any Catholic rulebook left me deciding for myself what to do on the big and the small issues. I was not too troubled on this score: I did not know then of a different world of structured ideas and philosophies. I still do not fully comprehend this world. Moreover, were not the early followers of Jesus to an important extent in the same position, for where was the method by which he taught? When, as often happened, he was faced with a question, it was often simply to trick him. He replied, ‘What do you think?’
Thinking out my position in this universe and trying to make sense of the question ‘What is the purpose of life?’ began to build the person and the kind of MP I became. I was on my own as far as ideas went. In this most important sense, St Nicholas’s served me well. I was taught no catechism or rulebook, let alone a philosophy of life. As a result, I was never in any box from which I had to try and escape and think as though I was on the outside. I was always on the outside.
What St Nicholas’s as a church community had failed to teach, its building came to the beginnings of a rescue. This wonderful J. L. Pearson building, which sits proudly at one end of Chiswick Mall, captured two sacramental lessons. First, that the true nature of reality can be greater than our ordinary senses can behold. Pearson is, for me, our greatest Victorian architect. More than any of his contemporaries he was able to defy the expectations one forms about the size and scope of a building’s interior based on observations from the outside. Entering through the small choir door, I beheld something for which my eyes had not prepared me. Once inside, St Nicholas’s became so much bigger and more significant than it appeared from an external encounter, as is the case, of course, with the Christian story too.
The second sacramental lesson I gained from St Nicholas’s was that part of the Christian journey is a movement from darkness into light. By the time I was nine or ten I was trusted to go to church on my own. The safety of children outside their homes then went unquestioned. On some weekday mornings I would be down on the rota to serve at the 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. Mass. If it was a winter’s morning, I would be running through the dark to be in church and robed before the said hour.
From the darkness and cold outside I would be welcomed and wrapped immediately by the warmth and the peculiar smell of St Nicholas’s. The heating was always turned on during those bleak winter months. But the warmth was more than that artificially created by a pretty efficient heating system: I felt that I belonged there. I was at home. And as I led the priest from the vestry, past the high altar, bowing as we reached the centre, we moved through the darkness into a pool of light that illuminated the Lady Chapel.
While lacking any rulebook to apply to my politics from my grounding at St Nicholas’s, I was beginning to learn that a direction of life was an attempt at moving from darkness to light, however feeble that attempt was. The journey would ebb and flow. There would be successes and failures. But there was ever the aim of that goal. I had no detailed rulebook which would hide me from making my own decisions, and particularly the hard decisions about life. This freedom was one of the greatest gifts I could be given for the political and public side of my life.
These two crucial aspects of the Christian faith – of the truth being greater than one ’s mind can possibly perceive, and that life ’s journey is an attempt to move from darkness to light – taught me the limits of rationalism, though I was not conscious of it at the time. My introduction, therefore, to these Christian beliefs and, with them, to the limits of rationalism was my first introduction to the politics of Michael Oakeshott and his emphasis on the danger of rationalism in politics. Oakeshott’s great inaugural lecture on political education was simply a brilliantly written expansion of the lessons I was already being taught.
With this gift about knowledge that we are on a great journey, both as individuals and collectively, also came a sense of Providence. And here is one of those baffling or conflicting aspects that characterize my life. This sense of Providence, and the feeling of protection that came from it, were given to me very early on. It didn’t excuse me from making judgements about what were strategic goals, and what were the best means of achieving these goals. In no sense was I to think that my life was on auto-drive. Activity is the cornerstone of being a Christian and a responsible citizen. This gift of a Providential blessing gave me a sense of being protected, and I’ve had that feeling as long as I have thought about the purposes of life and of death.
Until recently, I’ve never been able to see this blessing being on a par with the experience of those Christians who talk of knowing Jesus. I have no such personal knowledge of the Godhead. Looking back now, however, I am not so sure that I did not have the best deal. For most of my life I’ve envied (I hope not in a corrupt way) those that had the certainty of knowing Jesus. But I shall go into death trusting that the decision I have made about what makes most sense to me will be shown to be true.
Frank Field, Baron Field of Birkenhead, was born in July 1942. Initially a member of the Conservative Party, he left in 1960 over opposition to apartheid in South Africa and became a Labour man. After a degree in economics at the University of Hull, we went into teaching and served as a Labour councillor in Hounslow. He contested the seat of South Buckinghamshire in the 1966 general election unsuccessfully, but was selected for Birkenhead which he won in the 1979 election and represented the constituency for the next 40 years.
Field has always been something of a maverick and not a docile servant of the party. He became Minister for Welfare Reform in the Blair government of 1997 (for just over a year), resigning over disagreements with the Prime Minister and thereafter an open critic of the government from its backbenches. In 2015, the year he became Chairman of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, he nominated Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership contest. He enthusiastically promoted ‘self-interested altruism’ and regarded Mrs Thatcher as a personal friend, admiring her free market philosophy views and visiting shortly before her resignation to offer advice. He also holds some socially conservative views such as reducing the timeframe in which abortions can be allowed.
Field supported Brexit and consistently voted that way in parliament, resulting in the drama of a no-confidence vote in his constituency in 2018 when he also resigned the Labour whip but remained MP as an Independent. The constituency vote aside, a main reason for leaving Labour was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership which he never believed would translate into electoral success but had turned into ‘a force for anti-Semitism in British politics’. He attempted to reform his platform as the Birkenhead Social Justice Party but lost to the Labour candidate in the 2019 general election and was elevated to a peerage in the House of Lords in the dissolution honours published the following year and sits as a crossbencher.
Field is a committed member of the Church of England, also having served as Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust and as a member of the General Synod. In 2017, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave him the Langton Award for Community Service ‘for sustained and outstanding commitment to social welfare’ and in the 2022 New Year Honours Field was appointed Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (CH) for political and public service.
In October 2022, Lord Field ‘who is dying’ sent a statement for Lady Meacher to read out in her Assisted Dying Bill debate in the Lords which said he had ‘just spent a period in a hospice and I am not well enough to participate in today’s debate. Had I been, I would have spoken strongly in favour’. Speaking to the Radio 4 Sunday programme in early February he said of belief ‘on balance, this is the best story around…on the balance of probabilities I think it to be true’.
Politics, Poverty and Belief: A Political Memoir by Frank Field is published by Bloomsbury Continuum.