I think of Frank Field in Birkenhead, the constituency he served with distinction between 1979 and 2019. In 1989, in a pub by Hamilton Square, where Frank lived, a member of the far-left Socialist Organiser began to harangue him. The group had deselected Frank as Birkenhead’s Labour candidate, prompting Neil Kinnock’s office to order that the corrupt process be rerun. This activist was angry, and it seemed I was the only thing standing between a rather meek MP and physical pain. Whereupon a group of refuse collectors, drinking at the next table, stood as one and, in complete silence, encircled Frank to protect him.
Frank Field had given me my break, and in my first job in Birkenhead I saw the two sides of the Labour Party: a majority of good people blighted by a hostile, ideologically intoxicated minority. In a long career in public service, Field has stood for goodness in politics. He has embodied both the virtues and the flaws of deep moral commitment in a practical art. That career is sadly now in its final chapter because Frank has announced he is dying.
For Frank, the commitment is religious. His interview technique was to ask me what I thought about the King James Bible. It was my lucky day. 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. The second part of the process was to write a speech defending Margaret Thatcher. As the son of provincial northern Tories I found this easy enough to do. Frank not only liked what I wrote, he thought it was true.
Frank is funny and great company, but in politics he is the cat that prowls alone. What other politician of his era would write a book called The Politics of Paradise: A Christian Approach to the Kingdom? Opening his book Neighbours from Hell (2003) at random, I come across a sentence 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 makes Frank a Tory. It makes him a champion of working-class aspiration. This dispute was dramatised when he was briefly made minister for welfare reform in 1997. In his memoir, Tony Blair says that he asked Field 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 encouraged the vigorous virtues of providence and labour. For perfectly good reasons of his own, Gordon Brown took the view that directing the money towards the poor was a better use of scarce resources.
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 don’t, for example, agree with him 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 don’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 his signing Jeremy Corbyn’s papers to be a leadership candidate was downright irresponsible.
But it doesn’t matter because I love 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. On 22 October in the House of Lords, the crossbench peer Molly Meacher read out a statement from her friend Frank. He 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 help 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 suffering was not available.
In his statement, Frank referred to research showing assisted dying accounts for less than 1 per cent of deaths in the parts of the United States and Australia where 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, I believe, to be changed. But Frank is not a sentimental man. He will not want the law to be changed as an early memorial. He will want the law changed because it is the right thing to do.
Back in Frank’s dimly lit office in 1989, I was charged with typing up his dictated diary entries. He reflected on the nature of Heaven and Hell. I remember, to this day, his skittish pay-off: 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 issue on which we disagreed, though I find myself hoping he is right. I think of the words of the poet RS Thomas, whom Frank loves. “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.”
[see also: The myth of natural morality]
This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future