‘I disagreed with Frank Field, but he was no Tory and I loved him all the same’ – LabourList

Philip Collins

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This piece was originally published on Philip Collins’ Substack and can be found

here

.

I think of Frank Field in Birkenhead, the constituency he served with such distinction between 1979 and 2019. In a pub in the Georgian glory of Hamilton Square, where Frank lived, a member of the far-left group Socialist Organiser began to harangue him.

Socialist Organiser had deselected Frank as Birkenhead’s Labour candidate which had prompted Neil Kinnock’s office to order the corrupt process be rerun.

This activist was angry, and it seemed that only I stood between a rather meek MP and physical pain. Whereupon a group of refuse collectors, drinking on the next table, stood as one and, in complete silence, encircled Frank to protect him.

Frank Field stood for goodness in politics

Frank Field had given me my break, and in Birkenhead in my first job, I saw the two sides of the Labour Party. A vast majority of good people blighted by a hostile, ideologically intoxicated minority.

In a long career in public service, whose final chapter has now sadly closed, Frank Field stood for goodness in politics. He has embodied both the virtues and the flaws of deep moral commitment in a practical art.

In Frank’s case, the commitment was religious. Frank’s interview technique was to ask me what I thought about the King James Bible. It was my lucky day. It was the only thing I had revised. My mother had intemperate views on the superiority of the prose style of the Authorised Version which I repeated, to Frank’s evident satisfaction.

When I added a few choice remarks about the 1928 prayer book, I was in. Well, almost in. The second part of the process was to write a speech defending Margaret Thatcher. As the son of provincial Tories, I found this easy enough to do. Frank not only liked what I wrote, he thought it was true.

In politics, Frank stood alone

Frank was skittish, mischievous, funny and great company, but in politics, he was the cat that prowled alone. What other politician of his era would write a book called

The Politics of Paradise: A Christian Approach to the Kingdom

?

Opening

Neighbours From Hell

at random, I immediately come across a sentence, written in 2003, that no other Labour politician would have put so starkly: “The new politics is about moderating behaviour and re-establishing the social virtues of self-discipline.”

None of this made Frank a Tory. It made him a champion of working class aspiration. The dispute was dramatised when Frank was briefly made minister for welfare reform in 1997. In his memoir, Tony Blair says that he asked Frank to think the unthinkable and it turned out to be unfathomable.

That’s not really fair. Frank’s views on welfare were well-known. He believed that means-testing imposed a stigma on the poor and that universal benefits, by contrast, encouraged the vigorous virtues of providence and labour. For perfectly good reasons of his own, Gordon Brown took the view that targeting the money on the poor was a better use of scarce resources.

His friends were accustomed to disagreeing with him

I came to think that Frank should have been ready to compromise with Brown. He might have taken something rather than nothing. But disagreeing with Frank is something his many close friends become accustomed to.

I didn’t agree that the time limit on abortion should be reduced. I don’t go with him on immigration, on which he became, to my liberal mind, harshly right-wing. I didn’t agree on Brexit, for which Frank has been an enthusiastic champion. I thought his support of Ed rather than David Miliband was frivolous and signing Jeremy Corbyn’s papers to be a leadership candidate was downright irresponsible.

But it doesn’t matter because I loved him all the same. In this polarised era, it can be easy to forget that you do not have to agree with someone to hold them in the highest regard. On child poverty and pensions, in particular, he has been the most imaginative voice in the House.

He changed his mind to back assisted dying

Not long ago in the House of Lords, Baroness Meacher read out a statement from her friend Frank. He had said that he was himself dying and that he hoped peers would back the assisted dying bill which would allow terminally ill adults to seek assistance to end their lives.

Frank used to oppose assisted dying, largely on the grounds that life is sacred, but changed his mind when a dear friend had to endure the full horror of cancer because the option to avoid the inevitable was not available.

In his statement, Frank had referred to the fact that assisted deaths account for fewer than 1% of all deaths in those parts of the United States and Australia that the practice is permitted. The fear that the vulnerable will be preyed upon, which is a serious point, does not turn out to have practical force.

Subject to the proviso that the person seeking to end their life would require a declaration approved by two doctors and the imprimatur of the High Court, the law ought to be changed. But Frank is not a sentimental man. The law should be changed, but Frank would not want it changed as an early memorial. He would want the law changed because it is the right thing to do.

I recall Frank reflecting on the nature of heaven and hell

Back in Frank’s dimly-lit office in 1989, to the accompaniment of Mozart’s third symphony (which played in our office often), I was charged with typing up his dictated diary entries. I recall Frank reflecting on the nature of heaven and hell.

I remember, to this day, his skittish payoff: either we are all walking around up there in the bodies we bear on earth, “or else I have made the wrong bet”. Eschatology was another one of those matters on which we disagreed though I find myself hoping he is right.

I am thinking instead of the words of RS Thomas, a poet Frank loved. “This is an orchestra/ Of steel,” writes Thomas in

The Fair

, “with the constant percussion/ Of laughter. But where he should be laughing/ Too, his features are split open, and look!/ Out of the cracks come warm, human tears.”



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Philip Collins

Philip Collins is a journalist and the former chief speech writer for Tony Blair.


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