When the House Came First
Today’s career politicians could learn a lot from John Biffen, an MP who hated soundbites
How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear Prime Minister. John Biffen was the bookish child of a tenant farmer in a remote corner of Somerset, beyond the reach of electricity. He did his homework by oil-lamp, and won scholarships to his local grammar school and then, triumphantly, to Cambridge.
He never joined the Pitt Club (which, in those days, was Bullingdon East) but chaired the Conservatives. He was never a bag-carrier in Westminster, but went to work in the Black Country and got his hands dirty forging steel bars. He stood against Richard Crossman in Coventry, did well enough to impress the party, and got his chance in rural Shropshire when a by-election came up. There he had to contend for selection with a colonel and two majors. Although outranked (as a conscript sapper he had only made lance-corporal) he was authenticated by his father, who talked sense about livestock at Oswestry market in a broad Somerset accent. This sufficed — he was chosen and elected, and tipped off by an old parliamentary hand: “Biff, old boy, don’t visit the constituency too often.” Biff ignored him.
He was a recurrent member of the awkward squad. Only a handful of Conservatives voted against the bill that would take Britain into Europe, but he was one of them. This took some explaining in Oswestry. Twenty years later, with so much of Parliament’s supremacy already ceded, the battle was renewed — so he joined the “bastards” who made John Major’s life a misery after Maastricht. This time he found Oswestry on side.
Offered a shadow post by Edward Heath, he had accepted — on the insolent condition that, before the party fought the next election, Heath would stand down. Asked to join Margaret Thatcher’s shadow cabinet, he said that he’d always wanted to be a respected backbencher. When he rashly observed that she would not go on for ever, that was the signal that he must go first. Her hatchet man Bernard Ingham called him semi-detached. He borrowed the label for the vivid memoir and diary that he left behind him.
“From the earliest time,” he remembered, “I had sought membership of the Commons because the institution and its history fascinated me. I did not regard it as the ladder to ministerial office.” Certainly he felt no great urge to climb the greasy pole of power — and, correspondingly, no need to mind his back. He was a doubter in the Treasury, where the true-blue monetarists thought he let off the big spenders too lightly, and in Cabinet the Falklands crisis found him in a minority of one.
So he was at his happiest and best as Leader of the House of Commons, where he could make the great institution work as it should and keep the “usual channels” flowing. A light touch helped. When he was offered sarcastic sympathy by Dennis Skinner, sometimes called the Beast of Bolsover, he purported to welcome an ally: “Us grammar-school boys,” he said, “must stick together.” His idea for reforming the Lords was to send a dozen Skinners there to liven the place up.
One of his cross-party initiatives was a gift to the House — Betty Boothroyd as its splendid Speaker. Another was to take Eric Heffer to lunch in the City, in the days when City lunches were a serious matter. The Liverpool radical rose to the occasion. Brandy in one hand, cigar in the other, he leant back in his chair to field a politely critical question about the trade unions. “Being in a union,” he explained to his hosts, “is like being in a good regiment.” Quite so.
At the end, John Biffen watched unhappily as a new style of politics took over. He disliked the game of messages and focus groups and soundbites. To that list he might well have added photo-opportunities and, of course, tweeting. To see the House’s significance diminished and its members pilloried would have dismayed him. He had always believed that we lived under parliamentary government. Perhaps, in a distant corner of Shropshire or Somerset, some bookish child may now be encouraged to take up the cause. It needs friends.