Volume 10 Number 2
The Struggle to Be Decent
01 April 1997

British politician Frank Field talks to Mary Lean about gun control, sleaze and the moral force of the welfare state.

The Labour Member of Parliament for Birkenhead, Frank Field, is widely respected for his integrity, courage and Christian convictions, and for the vision and pragmatism which he brings to his central area of concern: the struggle against poverty. He seemed the perfect profilee for an issue on the moral debate in Britain-particularly with a General Election in the offing which could bring his party to power after 18 years in opposition.

So it was disconcerting to discover, early in our interview, that Field views the current moral outcry with 'unease'. He is alarmed by some of its more sensationalist aspects and their effect on legislation-and he doesn't believe there is much mileage in exhorting people to be good. He can cite the recent history of the Labour Party to prove it.

Field grew up in a High Anglican, working-class home in London in the Forties and Fifties. He told a BBC interviewer recently that his mother was a strong and positive influence, 'purely through her gentleness'; while his father, a brutal man who disliked his children, taught him how to deal with bullies. Forty years later, when the left wing of his local Labour Party mounted a prolonged campaign to replace him as their candidate, his early experiences came into their own. 'It was almost as though I had been, from birth, on a Duke of Edinburgh Outward Bound scheme on how to survive in these circumstances,' he told the BBC.

He became interested in politics at secondary school. 'I had a confidence then-which I don't have now-that you could change things quite easily.' His awareness of the injustices in society was sharpened by the casual disregard with which his father was treated by his employers when he retired. 'That radicalized me,' he says.

He read economics at university and, in 1969, became Director of the Child Poverty Action Group, which he ran for ten years. In 1979-the election which brought Margaret Thatcher to power-he became MP for Birkenhead, a constituency with high unemployment, across the Mersey from Liverpool. Today he chairs the House of Commons Social Security Committee, which deals with issues concerning the country's £95 billion welfare budget.

When Field entered parliament, he says, the Labour Party appeared to be in 'terminal decline'. The party was losing touch with its traditional supporters-the employed working class-who increasingly wanted to buy into the benefits offered by the market economy. When the Conservatives gave local government tenants a chance to buy their houses, and Labour opposed this, the gulf widened. 'Increasingly, Labour was seen as a party looking backwards and wanting to hold people down,' Field wrote in An Agenda for Britain (HarperCollins 1993).

The book was a plea for the party to accept that such aspirations as home-owning were valid. 'For the whole of my political life, Labour has espoused a view of human nature which is simply wrong,' he wrote. 'Self-interest is one of the most powerful of human characteristics and practical politics has to be built around that simple but fundamental fact.'

It's difficult enough, he says, to follow the New Testament injunction to love your neighbour as yourself. 'The left got itself into the position that to be proper, decent, moral, you had to love people more than yourself, and that's just plain dottiness.' It was no surprise, he says, that the Conservatives won the elections-'though Mrs Thatcher seemed to worry every time!'. Under Tony Blair, the party has begun to change its approach and Field now believes, for the first time since he entered Parliament, that it could win.

There is no doubt that Field believes in fundamental values-but his approach is pragmatic. 'It's the difference between love and justice,' he argues. 'You can have love within the family, a small circle of friends. But it's not a sustainable emotion for a wider society. There the best you can do is operate under rules of justice. I'm interested in trying to agree rules by which people should behave.'

He believes schools have a major role in this, and deserve support in their efforts. He also believes that the Government's largest budget, social security, exerts a powerful influence on the population's values. He sees the increasing use of tests on income and savings to determine who is eligible for benefits as an invitation to 'cheat and lie'. These means tests now affect a third of benefits, as against a tenth in 1948. 'They tell people that it doesn't pay to work, it doesn't pay to save and if you do either of these things, it doesn't pay to tell the truth.'

Britain's present welfare system is neither economically sustainable nor ethically defensible, Field maintains. Far from being the utopia towards which the train of social history has been travelling, the welfare state has merely been a station on the journey. He calls for a new strategy which embraces both the aspirations of the employed-for lower taxes and greater control over their lives-and those of the 'underclass'.

This strategy would find ways of using benefits to encourage claimants to 'build their own pathways back to work' and would develop a 'stakeholding' approach to unemployment insurance and pensions, where individuals would allot more of their income to their future welfare and own the schemes in which their money was invested. At the same time, he urges, the government must set itself the target of a return to full employment. The aim is to cut welfare bills-not by axing benefits, but by reducing the need for them.

If the current welfare system encourages dishonesty, as Field believes, then reform is a moral as well as an economic issue. But what can be done about honesty among other sectors of the population-sleazy politicians, for instance?

'I think the Speaker should expel MPs who behave badly,' Field says robustly. 'People should know, "If this comes to light, the Speaker might expel me."' Instead, he says, in setting up the Nolan Commission to investigate parliamentary malpractice, the Commons have accepted the public view that they're not capable of running themselves.

Only a handful of MPs, he points out, have been involved in sleaze and the House of Commons is meant to be representative. 'It's like the country. If this was a collection of monks and nuns it would be very unrepresentative, and very unsuitable as a legislature.'

He is uneasy about recent moral campaigns led by the victims of tragedy. 'Part of the public cant is that you don't say anything about it because then you're thought to be a terrible heel.' He feels that the House of Commons was 'blackmailed' into overhasty legislation after the horrific shooting of children in Dunblane last year. The new controls will mean that four fifths of the legally held handguns in Britain will have to be destroyed. 'It's very risky to do legislation on the hoof like that,' he says. 'You normally ought to have a period of quiet reflection.'

He believes the law should be used 'sparingly' where it can really have an effect. 'We may not ourselves shoot, and we may not understand why people want to. But up to that point in time they were proper decent civilized members of the community. We've now used the law to make their activities unlawful. There's only so much goodwill you can have with the law and there's only so much time people have got to enforce it.'

The obvious main players in the morality debate are not the politicians, but religious leaders. Field feels the churches lack strategy. 'If you started from the assumption, which is a realistic one, that Christianity is going to die out in this country, your next move would be to ask how can we prevent it,' he says. 'How can we teach the verities?'

His answer would be through church schools and colleges. He believes the churches should concentrate their energies on protecting and extending these schools, which are popular with parents because of their high standards and relative safety.

He does not talk easily about his own faith. He lays no claim to 'the immediate tingle' which stems from a personal conversion experience, and says others must judge what effect his beliefs have on his politics. His faith is not one of certainties. 'On the basis of probabilities it seems more real than not for me,' he says. 'It's very difficult to make much sense of being here without that.'

Does he pray? He hesitates. 'The whole exercise of talking to somebody who knows what you're going to say always strikes me as rather difficult. So I don't have that sort of exercise. I do have exercises of people being offered up. Choral music is very important to me. And saying the offices-because of the discipline, not because I think I'm getting any special hot line.

'I am not one of those who thinks you know God and then you become decent,' he concludes. 'It is about struggling to be decent and thereby you may know God.'
Mary Lean