Frank Field demurred from his friend Enoch Powell’s most famous “Rivers of Blood” speech about the dangers of mass immigration. “I still cannot think through clearly what Enoch thought his goal was”, Field wrote in his centenary tribute to Powell. “If it was to awaken the country’s political elite to the dangers of sustained large scale immigration… at a stroke he made the subject of immigration a no-go area for elected politicians”.

In his death last week aged 81, Field also confounded Powell’s second most famous dictum that all political careers end in failure. Few MPs who served as a middle-ranking minister for a mere fifteen months have their demises noted in the headlines of national news bulletins or are remembered with such fond respect in broadsheet obituaries. Fewer still die as members of the House of Lords and Companions of Honour. 

Frank Field left an impression. Not many backbenchers have found a place in the national consciousness without achieving high office. One similar may be Betty Boothroyd who is best remembered as the arbiter of non-partisan standards from the Speaker’s chair. Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn climbed higher up the greasy pole and were never admired across the political spectrum. 

Field was closest in manner to Enoch Powell, though with different political preoccupations and without the malign aftertaste. They were similar to encounter in my experience as a journalist. Both sallow, traditionally dressed, austere, no sufferers of fools, convinced of their own rectitude and a touch intimidating. Frank called me “Adam” and Powell “Mr Boulton”, neither in the normal manner of suck-up interviewees, but letting you know they knew who you were and where you were coming from.

In 1979, when Field was first elected as member for Birkenhead, Powell was thirty years older and had been an MP for more than thirty years. They came from opposing sides but already had much in common as seasoned rebellious misfits. Field joined Labour as a teenager after being “shoehorned out” of the Young Conservatives for organising an anti-apartheid boycott of South African goods. Powell had been cold-shouldered by the Conservatives after rivers of blood; in response he had advocated votes for Labour and against the common market and now represented the Ulster Unionists.

Field liked much about Powell’s style and seems to have modelled himself on it. He noticed how Powell lacked “social skills and clubbiness” but celebrated how “the political intellectual could not only initiate a new debate, but also set the contours in which that debate would be conducted”. He also admired how “conventional criteria for success meant little to him” and that he had “the courage to stand apart”.

The two men overcame their natural reserve to become friends thanks to their mutual commitment to Anglican Christianity. First Field complimented Powell on some lectures he had delivered to London clergy. Next, there was “much merriment and some drink” after Field and his mother encountered Powell and his wife at matins at Westminster Abbey.

Field was a famous politician for a decade before he became an MP. I first came across him listening to the radio more than fifty years ago when he was the prime mover of the Child Poverty Action Group and the Low Pay Unit. He went on to dedicate his political life to these causes, within the “contours” of social justice. 

Field came closest to Powell’s definition of failure in his ministerial career, although the fact that he remained largely unsullied by the compromises of government may, paradoxically, add to the admiration in which he is held.  

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister Field served, was characteristically prompt and deft with his short tribute last week: “Frank had integrity, intelligence and deep commitment to the causes he believed in….an independent thinker… Even when we disagreed, I had the utmost respect for him.” 

Blair’s memoir, A Journey, is, well, franker about the brief period when Harriet Harman was Social Secretary with Field as Minister for Welfare Reform. Blair writes that their intended “pas de deux” went from a “dating agency from hell mistake” to “severe mismatch”. 

They were both caught in the crossfire of an early skirmish in what became the Blair-Brown wars. Field’s ideas for benefit restrictions, personal responsibility and private pensions were indeed “thinking the unthinkable”, as Blair had asked, but he also found them “unfathomable”. Meanwhile “Harriet” lacked the “wonkery” to devise a workable policy. Brown fretted about the cost implications and the social impact of Field’s green paper. Alastair Campbell dismissed it as “crap”, largely blaming Harman. She took her dismissal in the summer reshuffle “well, to her credit”, Blair says pragmatically. The Prime Minister was also “relieved” when Field resigned, having been refused promotion to her place in the cabinet. 

In his resignation speech to parliament, Field said he had learnt that welfare reform would require “the whole cabinet, and especially the chancellor, to share beliefs about that common endeavour”.  

Blair concluded of Field: “Some are made for office. Some aren’t. He wasn’t. Simple as that”.  Interestingly one of Blair’s most persistent critics, the Tory journalist Quentin Letts, agreed with him in his review of Field’s memoir Politics, Poverty & Belief, commenting, “Over the past three decades I sometimes bumped into Field in the Westminster cloisters. He was as charming as you would expect but afterwards I would realise that he had no idea what he actually wanted ministers to do”.

Field often knew what he didn’t want governments to do. He got his own back on Brown by successfully leading the campaign against the abolition of the 10p tax rate. He made his political mark as an ideas man and an inquisitor, not a policy maker. Before New Labour, he chaired the Social Services Select Committee. Afterwards, he chaired the Work and Pensions Select Committee, famously shaming Sir Philip Green to return over £363 million to his BHS workers’ pension fund. 

Field was beloved of centrists because he reached out across the chamber. His pro-Brexit and anti-abortion sympathies and concerns about the consequences of mass immigration appealed to many on the right. So did his willingness to make common cause with anyone who agreed with him on issues. He was a candid friend of Margaret Thatcher, ever since he confronted her with a cross-party campaign to save jobs at the Cammell Laird shipyard in his constituency. As one of her last visitors in Number Ten, he advised her to resign with dignity. 

Field’s opponents inside the Labour party saw him as a closet Tory. Throughout his time as an MP, left-wing militants in his Merseyside constituency tried to deselect him. He fought them bravely, confessing that before one CLP meeting facing “the Trots” he “vomited”. 

For all that, Field was one of the MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership to “widen the debate”. He at last quit the Labour whip during Corbyn’s ascendancy in protest at the “party’s toleration of antisemitism… and culture of intolerance, nastiness and intimidation”. He was defeated in the 2019 general election standing as an independent for the “Birkenhead Justice Party”. The non-partisan esteem in which he was held brought him back to Westminster as a crossbench peer.

It was impossible to be sure where Field’s intellectual fervour would take him. His last speech to parliament was sent from his death bed and delivered by another peer. In it, he expressed his support for assisted dying because of the suffering he had witnessed his friend, the former Labour MP Malcolm Wicks, undergo while dying of cancer. 

Frank Field was his own man, like Enoch Powell. Like him, he struggled to fit acceptably into normal political life. Frank who lived alone, with no partner, often seemed detached from normal life as well. But unlike Powell, Field was motivated by compassion and concern for others rather than philosophical pessimism. Frank Field may not have had all the answers but he asked some of the most important questions without fear or favour. That is why this unique and independent politician is so celebrated.  

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