Frank Field tells Theo Hobson about Christianity, socialism — and the Prime Minister’s failure of leadership
I am expecting to meet Edmund Blackadder’s Puritan uncle, who frowns on suggestively shaped turnips, and worries that someone somewhere is having fun. But Frank Field does not fit the description. He’s smiley, forthcoming, chatty.
Field is more interesting than most ex-ministers. He embodied New Labour’s early attempt at stern moral idealism and intellectual rigour — the Keith Joseph of the movement. He looks beyond party labels (he is a friend of Lady Thatcher); he writes books about the politics of behaviour and the Kingdom of God (he is a staunch Anglican). OK, so he wasn’t very effective as a minister, but what chance do you have when your agenda directly conflicts with Gordon Brown’s?
He was never really Old Labour, so what was he before Labour was made New? Christian socialist? ‘I steer clear of Christian socialism — I don’t like the term — it suggests an elite group that somehow understands truth better than other people. I’ve always felt that there are large numbers of Conservatives who are very decent people, who lead lives that are better than most of ours — it’s wrong to call them second-rate Christians because they’re not socialists. It’s offensive.’
But there was a ‘Christian socialist’ moment in the mid-1990s, wasn’t there? ‘When John Smith, who was very clearly a committed Christian, became leader, the party seemed full of Christians. One almost got knocked down in the crush to come forward and say, “Gosh, I’m a Christian too!” And dare one add, slightly cynically, certain people saw that might be a way to advance.’ Name some names? No? We move on.
Was the Christian socialist craze filling a void at a time when socialism began to seem a doomed ideology? ‘I don’t think the party ever had a strong ideological base.