The MP Interview: Zac Goldsmith

On the dysfunction of parliament, political idols, and being pushed down the stairs.

Zac Goldsmith.
Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston.

What made you go into politics?
Politics colours everything, and anyone who wants change is necessarily political.  As an environmental campaigner more or less since I left school in the early 90s, I have always been involved in lobbying, campaigning and pushing for changes. I became formally involved when the Conservatives asked me to help review their environmental policies while they were in Opposition. I signed up to stand for Parliament to try to push those same issues higher up the agenda. As an MP, I believe my job is to try to hold the government to account, and having seen how dysfunctional parliament is, I am committed to reforming the way our politics works (or doesn’t).

What job did you do before you became an MP?
I edited the Ecologist magazine for a decade, formed various environmental campaigns , raised funds for others and did what I could to help wake people up to the environmental crisis we are undoubtedly causing. Although I am still connected to the magazine, I stepped aside when I got involved with the Conservative Party to prevent accusations that it is in any way politically biased.

Which law would you scrap?
There are so many, that I find it impossible to identify the very worst. But an issue I have been looking at recently is the new EU Food Supplements Directive, which will apply wholly unnecessary regulatory and financial hurdles on providers of minerals and vitamins. It will undoubtedly destroy many jobs, it will probably close hundreds of shops, and it will certainly deny choice to millions. Consumers have been taking food supplements in the UK for decades and there can’t be many examples of their causing harm. Besides, the Food Safety Act already requires food products to be safe and appropriately labelled. This is wildly painful cure for a problem that doesn’t exist. If it benefits anyone, it will be the big pharmaceutical firms who can handle the additional costs, and will benefit from still fewer competitors.

And if you could pass one law, what would it be?
If I had only one shot at it, I would bring in a mechanism to allow people to trigger binding referendums locally and nationally on issues that matter to them. I’m not suggesting we should have Government by referendum, and don’t believe it should be easy, but I have been an MP for long enough to know that MPs don’t have a monopoly on common sense. I would set the threshold relatively high. Where there is sufficient demand for a change, say 20% of an electorate, it should be possible for them to force their Government or local authority to act. One vote every 5 or so years isn’t enough, and this measure would arm voters with the final veto.

Do politics and religion mix?
There are clearly many good politicians who are guided by religious belief, so the mix can work. But there’s a line to be drawn. It would be hugely dangerous for a country’s laws to be set by the scriptures, and particularly those of the expansionist religions. It’s not that the great scriptures aren’t full of wisdom; they are. There is a deep green thread running all the way through both the bible and Koran for instance. But the scriptures are entirely open to interpretation. Some of the worlds’ most appalling abuses have been justified by religion because it is possible for people to find vindication in their scriptures for any of their prejudices.

Who is your favourite prime minister from history, and why?
I’m tempted to cite Winston Churchill simply because he can take credit for having saved our country. However I’m going to choose Robert Peel, the great C19th reformer who created the police (‘Bobbies’), passed the landmark Factory Act, which improved conditions for countless workers, and addressed the chronic food shortages at the time. In addition, I’m told he brought us the Tamworth pig.

Name three dream dinner-party guests.
Assuming I can choose from history, and assuming at least one of them fails to show up, I would want to meet Napoleon, Cicero, Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Wolsey. Napoleon is constantly fascinating, both in his personal life and reforms. It is one of history’s greatest stories that because of him, his relatively modest Corsican parents lived to see all eight of their children become kings, queens, princes, princesses and emperors of Europe. Anyone who reads Robert Harris would want to meet Cicero, and hear about the colossal characters driving Rome in its most dynamic moment. Leonardo Da Vinci, if only to see his reaction to the world today, and Wolsey because despite being born the son of a butcher, he became for more than a decade, England’s most powerful Crown servant of all time, and at a time that will fascinate us all for generations to come.

Which politician from a different party do you most admire?
I have always admired the great Kate Hoey, who was fired twice for voting with her conscience, or Frank Field, whose contributions are almost always spot on. Both are independent-minded, above party politics and the sort of politicians that restore pride in Parliament. Today’s phone-in-radio programmes daily fizzle with anti-politician rage, and I’m convinced that if more MPs looked to these two for inspiration, that would change.

What’s your karaoke song of choice?
Even Karaoke needs higher standards than I can reach, so I have gone great lengths to avoid being bullied into it.  

What’s the last film you saw?
See Spot Run, I’m afraid. But children love it. The last great film I saw was Shawshank Redemption, not for the first time. It’s just as moving the second time.

What’s the last work of fiction you read?
Imperium, by Robert Harris. He is a genius.

Newsnight or Question Time?
Newsnight, definitely. Question Time is fun, but its structure means guests are required to opine on subjects they often know nothing about, whereas Newsnight has clear themes. You appear on Newsnight to talk about issues that mean something to you. The interviews are also long enough to allow scrutiny, and prevent the usual non-answers. Paxman remains brilliant.

Humphrys or Paxman?
Tough choice. Humphrys probably just pips it, because of his superb book; the Great Food Gamble, but I am a Paxman fan.

Who is your favourite blogger?
Paul Kingsnorth (paulkingsnorth.net) is a green philosopher and amazingly talented writer. For pure politics, Tim Montgomerie’s Conservative Home is a must-read.

Who is your favourite newspaper columnist?
Although they approach events from different angles, Simon Jenkins and Charles Moore, between them, offer the best writing and the most valuable insight.  They’re both sharp, and both right, often. The Independent’s Matthew Norman is always fun, although I don’t sign up to his politics.

If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
I would make more time. The job has no boundaries, and that causes permanent tension.

What’s the funniest or saddest thing you’ve ever heard at a surgery?
I can’t describe either without the constituents knowing I am referring to them. The funniest was unintentionally funny. There are countless sad surgeries, made better only when there’s something to be done. Surgeries attract the polar extremes; you can go from a meeting to hear complaints about a parking ticket, to hearing Kafkaesque stories about victims of the European Arrest Warrant.

What was your worst doorstep campaigning moment?
My worst ever was before I was a candidate, and was canvassing on behalf of my father. I was pushed down the stairs. My worst as a candidate was also my first. I rang the bell, heard shuffling from the window above, and looked up at a woman in a towel who yelled that she’d rather eat her own shit than vote for a toff like me.

Who is the most important person in your life, and why?
I can’t avoid the cliché: my children.

Do you think you will ever be prime minister – and if not, why not?
No. I don’t stand a chance of surviving the various rungs of the ladder, and am a committed backbencher. If there existed a job description for an MP, it could be reduced very simply to using their votes and presence in Parliament to hold Government to account and represent their constituents.  Everything else is bonus. But the structure of Parliament virtually guarantees that MPs exist to support their Party hierarchies instead. I am committed to trying to make the job of being a backbencher more important, and the single biggest step we can take is to introduce a genuine recall mechanism, so that MPs can be removed by their constituents at any time, if enough people agree. That would, at a stroke, remind all MPs that the only 3-line whip that counts is the one imposed by their constituents. It would encourage far greater independence in Parliament, and would, I think, go some way towards restoring people’s faith in the political process.