Book review: Parliamentarians, mavericks and trots

Bob Marshall-Andrews and Richard Wainwright were two MPs who, in very different ways, belonged to the honourable and increasingly rare breed of parliamentarians who brought integrity and a willingness to speak up to the House of Commons, the public and their parties.
Stuart Weir
20 July 2011

Bob Marshall-Andrews and Richard Wainwright were two MPs who, in very different ways, belonged to the honourable and increasingly rare breed of parliamentarians who brought integrity and a willingness to speak up to the House of Commons, the public and their parties.

Off Message: The complete antidote to political humbug, Bob Marshall-Andrews, Profile Books, £16.99 hardback; Unfinished Business; Richard Wainwright, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, Matt Cole, Manchester University Press, £65 hardback.

One of the most effective protections of our governing political-media consensus is to label those who question it as “mavericks”, i.e., as rogue and unpredictable steers.  I am afraid that the marketing of Marshall-Andrews’s rollicking memoir plays into this scenario to the detriment of understanding the serious and principled role he played in the House of Commons from 1997 to 2007. New Labour of course had other ploys too.  Marshall-Andrews recounts how Lord Levy branded him as a “trot” to his friend Lord Razzall. (This was a technique they deployed against many of us on the left in the party. When I became editor of the New Statesman in 1987 I was interviewed by journalists from the Times and Sunday Times, both of whom had been briefed that I was a Monster Raving Hard Left Loonie by the party’s managers.)

Mind you, as our author says, the main protection of the stifling political consensus lies in the very composition of the House of Commons and its contingents of ‘professional’ politicians on all sides. These are men and women who are largely in politics for self-advancement and who therefore not only suck up to their party leaders and Whips, but who also make it unpleasant for people like Marshall-Andrews.  I should add here that he was too witty for his own good – salting serious speeches with jokes and ad libs that must have infuriated the faithful.

But the speeches were informed by strong analysis and strong principle.  He came into Parliament at the age of 57, too late to be indoctrinated into compliance and too independent in his experience and knowledge of life.  He was also committed to Labour’s more historic mission as several entries in the memoir make clear. He notes that over his years in Parliament the number of constituents attending his surgeries as a result of grinding poverty “seriously diminished”, commenting  that

When I am asked why in the face of its appalling record on matters of civil liberty and war, I have kept the faith with the Labour Party, it is this fact more than any other. The much reviled reforms – specifically tax credits for children and those suffering from disabilities – have proved remarkably effective in curing a raft of quiet suffering that had been all too apparent in the 1990s.

He also recounts that he once said as much about the effects of his policies to Gordon Brown:  “The fact that he underwent a  moment of genuine and gratified embarrassment has always contributed to my support for his political cause.”

Marshall-Andrew’s own cause was of course primarily to seek to protect civil liberties and due process from the likes of Tony Blair and David Blunkett and then to oppose Blair’s wars.  On the first front, he made a series of outstanding speeches – he prints excerpts here.  He also did a lot of basic organising that didn’t make news.  It is clear that he saw the rebellions in the Commons as a  bridgehead to more evident successes in the House of Lords and worked to liaise opposition in both Houses;  that he saw his efforts as part of a comradely campaign with colleagues; and that his consistent aim was to bring New Labour’s assault on liberty to an end, not just to win the arguments. 

As for Blair’s wars, he shows a deeply held concern for the enormous harm that they inflicted on innocent people and their countries, from the bombing of Serbia;  through Rumsfeld’s  ‘one million rations’ – i.e., explosives from ‘bunker busters ‘ and ‘lazy dogs’ to cluster bombs used to bomb Afghanistan, “one of the poorest and most backward countries in the world,  ... into the Stone Age as punishment for an unspeakable crime committed and directed by Saudi Arabians on American soil; and on to ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq.

His contempt for Blair shines through the memoir. On one occasion on the Today programme, John Humphrys tempted him into commenting upon the state of his party’s leadership. “I think,” he said, “that we have the best Chancellor of the Exchequer for half a century, and the worst Prime Minister for a century and a half”. Back in Westminster Hilary Armstrong, the chief whip, summoned him to ask how he could possibly have said that of Blair.  He replied: “Chief Whip, I have been thinking about that answer, and, on reflection, I have to the conclusion that I was wrong ..... On reflection, I think it is necessary to go back to Wellington before one can find a Prime Minister who has treated his own people with more contempt and deceit.”

On message?

One way of describing Marshall-Andrews is to say that he was a true parliamentarian – MPs who come in a great variety of shapes, sizes and causes.  Richard Wainwright, the Liberal MP for Colne Valley from 1966-87, could not have been more unlike Marshall-Andrews except for his firm radical views and the qualities of integrity and the willingness to speak up when push came to shove. As Matt Cole’s assiduous biography shows, Wainwright was a dogged campaigner who won the seat after several attempts, establishing himself as a community-based MP and becoming known as “Mr Colne Valley”.  His contribution to Parliament was as the moral compass of the then small Liberal Party in the Commons, in which role he felt obliged to bring down his leader Jeremy Thorpe (not, it is important to stress, over his homosexuality, but for political and financial dishonesty and his cavalier leadership style).

This biography gives a detailed account of Wainwright’s life and career, with a great deal about the internal affairs of the small Liberal parliamentary party, local constituency politics and his election campaigning, but it fails unfortunately to bring the man and his ideas alive.  This may well be down to Wainwright’s modesty.  I got to know Richard personally after asking him to join the executive committee at Charter 88, after being warned by a prominent Lib Dem that “the man is mad” (i.e., a man of inconvenient principle).  As it happened, he was a sane and committed democrat, a believer in worker co-ownership and a Keynesian who valued the welfare state and took pride in the parts two Liberals, Keynes and Beveridge, played in establishing it.

Wainwright was a rich man (who was very generous to the causes he believed in – for example, Charter 88 and the Low Pay Unit), but he was also an egalitarian who believed in inheritance and land tax. He would have been appalled  by the soaring inequalities in Britain. 

At the book launch for the biography, there was much discussion among the Lib Dem politicians present about whether Wainwright would have backed the move into coalition government. It was said that he was a practical party man who would have seen the advantages in going into government.  True, he would have done, but I don’t see the Wainwright I knew and have learned about going along with the terms of the unequal coalition deal, the turnabout on student fees, the nonsensical AV referendum – and much else besides.  Apart from anything else, he had a profound suspicion of the Thorpes, David Owens and (I think) David Camerons of the world.

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