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Frank Field: Faith and Politics

Frank Field: Faith and Politics

In light of news about Frank Field’s death, Nick Spencer writes about his role in the dialogue between faith and politics. 24/04/2024

About a decade ago, I wrote a history of the influence of the Bible on British politics. I remember talking about it with Frank Field one afternoon in parliament. I told him how the book recounted the full story, stretching all the way from Augustine of Canterbury in the sixth century to Blair and Brown in the 21st. “That’s a pretty grim end to the story,” he responded. 

Frank Field was a superb campaigner, parliamentarian, and human being. He was widely respected for his kindness, humour, integrity, tenacity, and commitment. He genuinely and viscerally cared about poverty, in particular child poverty; he was director of the Low Pay Unit for five years and the Child Poverty Action Group for 10 before becoming an MP. Moreover, he was not prepared to let a little thing like party loyalty or political ideology stand in his way.  

Field spoke out against high levels of immigration when to do so risked being labelled racist or Powell–ite in leftish circles. He was acutely conscious of how anti–social behaviour made the lives of people, especially the poor, unbearable and placed an emphasis on personal moral responsibility, self–reliance and self–improvement that had once been fundamental to the politics of the left but was distinctly out of fashion at the time.  

Rare was the Labour politician who could speak positively of Margaret Thatcher, with whom he struck up an improbable friendship. But where he thought the left had something to learn from her, he said so. It earned him the loathing of the hard left, who were very active in Liverpool in the 1980s. In some ways, after 40 years, it cost him his seat, when he resigned the whip over the antisemitism and “nastiness” of Corbyn loyalists who considered his views beyond the pale.  

At the heart of all this – his care for the poor, his integrity, his kindness, his perseverance – was a serious and pervasive Christian faith. Field was perhaps best known for his pursuit of welfare reform. He was famously given a brief by Tony Blair to “think the unthinkable” about the topic but when he did, he was sacked.  

He once described his proposals as “about placing a Christian understanding of mankind centre stage”. He reacted against the “sanitised, post–Christian view of human character” typical of Richard Titmuss and the newer, more metropolitan left tradition. It was a view that wrote the “fallen side of mankind” out of the script.  

His issue was not that humans couldn’t or didn’t behave altruistically. Nor was it that circumstance did not affect moral agency. Field knew the self was never “unencumbered” and he was never likely to tell the poor to get on their bike or pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  

Rather, his point was that to assume that altruism was the natural or inevitable form of human motivation, the kind of view that informs so much bland humanistic thought today, was not only naïve but to court disaster. Policy needed to recognise the reality of sin and policymakers to “wrestle with the angel and the serpent in each of us”.   

Not surprisingly, he was too independent–minded and blessed with too much integrity to stay at the top of the parliamentary greasy pole for long. But his life and work give the lie to those who claim it is impossible to combine faith and politics with integrity, or to reason politically from explicitly theological foundations. Field did, with courage and style. 

Honest to the end, he changed his mind on assisted dying in his final year. It was a change that disappointed campaigners among whom he had once counted himself, but it may not have surprised them. Field said and did what he believed, rather than what was expedient.  

And not just in politics. A committed believer, he nonetheless remarked in a book that he knew would be his last contribution to public debate, “For most of my life I’ve envied (I hope not in a corrupt way) those that had the certainty of knowing Jesus. But I shall go into death trusting that the decision I have made about what makes most sense to me will be shown to be true.” What more can any of us hope to say? He will be missed.

Frank Field at Theos launch event 2006

(Frank Field speaking at the launch of Theos in 2006)


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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 24 April 2024

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