New user? Register here:
Email Address:
Password:
Retype Password:
First Name:
Last Name:
Existing user? Login here:
 
 
High Profile

Cracking the whip

Roy McCloughry

The Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP seemed a fixture on the Conservative front bench when his career was interrupted by the fracas the media called 'Plebgate'. ThirdWay exchanged words with him at his office in Whitehall.

 

You first took your seat in the House of Commons when your father was still an MP. Can you tell us a little about your upbringing and how it shaped you?

I grew up in a political household - my father entered Parliament in 1959 when I was two years old. Politics were always a big part of family life, and what was going on was very much a topic around the kitchen table.

As the son of a member of Parliament, I was able to see at first hand the pluses and the minuses of a career in politics, and from an early age I had an understanding of the element of service in politics. My father felt very strongly that MPs were the servants of their constituents,and I hope that some of that rubbed off on me. My sister in her childhood developed a horror of politics and politicians - or maybe I should say 'a healthy disrespect' - but I always believed that politics was an honourable profession, and I still do.

When I talk to children in Sixth Forms in my constituency, I encourage them to see politics as the way in which you get things changed. If you want to see a different kind of society, or a society that reflects certain values or beliefs that you think are not adequately reflected at present, politics is the way you achieve that.

 

You've often been called 'ambitious'.Was that instilled in you in childhood?

I don't think there is anything wrong with ambition - ambition is the oil that lubricates the engine of progress. But also, you know, I have always felt that I have been very lucky in life - at least, until recently - and that much is expected from those to whom much is given.

 

In many ways, your background is stereotypically Tory…

Well, it's certainly true that I have a pretty conventional background. I was educated at Rugby, I served in the British Army - I was a United Nations peacekeeper in Cyprus in 1975 - I went up to Cambridge, where I was chairman of the Conservative Association and president of the Union, and I then went to work for Lazard,which was then a pretty traditional merchant bank.

But I have always had an interest in small businesses, because of the family business [in the wine trade], and I have always felt for the underdog. My interest in international development started in 2005, when I was appointed by Michael Howard as shadow development secretary, and continued into government in 2010 - that certainly is the political job of my career.

I worked with (I hope) passion and energy in developing the Conservative Party's approach to international development. It was all made possible by a party leader and then prime minister who believes passionately in international development as well, but I like to think that I helped drive the policy. I launched a project,Project Umubano in Rwanda, which was a way of taking Tory activists at all levels, from Shadow Cabinet to grass roots, to a very poor country to see for themselves what works and what doesn't in terms of lifting people out of poverty.

I care deeply about the quite appalling levels of poverty and misery that deface our world and make it, you know, much less safe, because so many people around the world see this colossal discrepancy of wealth and opportunity and understandably revolt against it - and

I think that our generation, much more than any previous generation, can actually do something about it.

 

Can we reduce global inequality simply by increasing the opportunities available to the poor? Or will it also involve taking away some of the privileges of the wealthy?

Well, on that point the rubber hits the road over climate change, for example.We have had advantages from the burning of fossil fuels ever since the Industrial Revolution that have allowed us to elevate the social condition of so many in Britain, and now we are seeking to deny that same opportunity to many poor countries because of climate change. That's why the negotiations in Paris [at the COP21 climate conference] are so very difficult.

Really, the key to all of this is to attack those things that lead to those colossal discrepancies,which are conflict, lack of good governance, inability to access prosperity… I mean, how do the poorest people lift themselves out of poverty? It is by being economically active. Often, what is going on locally militates against their economic advantage; but equally on other occasions it's the trading practices of the rich world. So, it's complex.

 

In 2012, speaking of overseas aid, you said that 'it's part of Britain's DNA to be generous to people who are in very extreme circumstances.'Do you think the same is true now, when people in their hundreds of thousands are coming to Europe looking for a better life?

Yes, because Britain has certainly led the way in terms of trying to relieve the suffering in Syria - and that is one reason why I am currently vigorously promoting the idea of safe havens within Syria. The truth is that most of these people don't want to have to start a new life on a new continent, they want to go back to the communities from which they've been driven by warfare; and so trying to keep people as close as possible to the areas from which they came is incredibly important. I think Britain has been a leader in that. It requires a real thrust of determination and will.

 

We have lately been remembering the life of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who cared for the sick and wounded of both sides in Brussels during the First World War. On the eve of her execution by the Germans for 'treason', she famously said: 'Patriotism is not enough.' What do you think it means to love one's country today, in this age of globalisation and multiculturalism?

Well, loving your country is an important thing to feel - although that is different, of course, from loving the state. Edith Cavell was also an example, I'm afraid, of deep British cynicism, because very little was done to save her. Indeed, I think the Kaiser said that if he had known what was happening he would almost certainly have exercised mercy. I think it is not unfair to say that there was within the British Foreign Office a view that it wouldn't necessarily harm the propaganda battle if the Germans executed this saintly woman.

 

Do you think it is possible in our world for foreign policy to be genuinely humanitarian?

I think it's extraordinarily difficult. If you look back to Robin Cook's attempt to promote an ethical foreign policy, it very quickly ran into ridicule - I seem to remember him getting into great trouble over mercenaries in [Sierra Leone in 1998]. And I think foreign policy can be very, very cynical - that is, I think, a fact. But it doesn't have to be. At the time of the Rwandan genocide, the world stood by while nearly a million people were massacred in 90 days - a faster killing rate than that achieved by the Nazis with all the industrial mechanisms of the death camps - and for me that is a matter of very great shame.

But, inevitably, foreign policy is about national self interest, and inveighing against that, I'm afraid, is a bit like inveighing against the weather.

 

We're often told that we live in a global village.Why isn't it appropriate to demand in our international dealings the kind of unselfish behaviour we expect of each other as private citizens? If generosity is in our national DNA, shouldn't our foreign policy be generous?

It should be generous, but I just think it sets you up for a fall to be over-sanctimonious. Dealing with harsh international reality - in our national interest but also in the interests of everybody - inevitably requires trade-offs.

 

Jon Snow of Channel 4 News described you as 'unquestionably the best-prepared Secretary of State [for International Development]. Nobody has waited longer in the wings and everyone in the sector knows of his commitment.'Were you disappointed when you were shuffled on after only two years?

Two-and-a-half.

It's quite well known that I did not want to move and did so very reluctantly - that was a job I had trained for for five years in opposition and I had very definite views and an agenda for change which we were implementing. But by the time the Prime Minister asked me to move, that was largely implemented; and I felt that you should do what the Prime Minister wants, really, so out of loyalty to him I did so.

 

Why do you think he thought you were better employed as Chief Whip?

I think I had done what we had planned together for DfID in opposition and, you know, I had been a whip before in difficult times, he used to ask me about whipping from time to time and I think it was a job he had earmarked for me.

 

The profiles of you in the press say that as a prefect at school you were nicknamed 'Thrasher'. Does that imply that you were a stern disciplinarian?

The truth is, I was never known as 'Thrasher' at school. It was an invention by Private Eye when I first got into Parliament in 1987. They had a column in those days called 'The New Boys' and what it said, as I recall, was that just as Douglas Hurd was known at Eton as 'Hitler Hurd' because he used to beat the boys in his house when he was a prefect, so I was known as 'Thrasher Mitchell'. It was a very good joke but, I'm very sorry to say, it isn't true. But I never strove officiously to deny it because it seemed tome that would be rather a humourless thing to do.

 

You had been Chief Whip for barely six weeks when 'Plebgate' erupted. Did it challenge your view of the world, or your faith in the institutions of this country, when the police acted as they did?1

Well,while I have nothing to add to (or, indeed, to subtract from)what I have said about that incident,which mercifully is in the past now, I have always been wary of the power of the state. It is not some all-seeing, all knowing entity; it is made up of people like you and me with our prejudices and our preconceptions.

An early influence on me was my friend the Labour MP Chris Mullin, who, although roundly abused by the British press for being a friend of bombers, stood up for the freedom of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six and was eventually wholly vindicated 2 - even though at the time Lord Denning had said that for those men to be innocent it would have been necessary to believe that the police had fitted them up, and such a belief was intolerable.3

I remember being profoundly shocked when I learnt that [in 1957] the British attorney general in Kenya at the time of the MauMau uprising, faced with evidence of barbarity in the treatment of prisoners,wrote on the margins of a government paper: 'If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.' I was absolutely horrified by that.

So, I've always been sceptical about the power of the state. The only time I've ever threatened to resign from the front bench was when the leader of the party wanted to impose a three-line whip supporting identity cards. (I informed him that I couldn't support this and he told me to go off and do my Christmas shopping!)

You know, I don't like the way our judges to such a very large extent seem to come from public school and Oxbridge. I don't like the idea that we have secret trials in this country -we launched our first on [June 6, 2014,] the 70th anniversary of D-Day. I don't like the way in which we give the state huge powers of surveillance. Not because I think they will deliberately act badly but because mistakes will be made and the wrong people may be caught in the net. On the whole, I believe in a small state which does not have these sorts of powers. The state is the servant of the people and not the other way around.

 

Did you feel aggrieved at the time that the culture and tradition that had given you so much, and to which you had given so much,might now unjustly cast you aside?

Certainly, it shook my faith to the core. I was absolutely horrified by what happened to me and I still have to rub my eyes and check that it wasn't just all a terrible nightmare; but it is in the past now and I have determined to do what I can to ensure that it doesn't happen to anyone else, particularly my constituents.

The lesson I drew from it was, first, that if this can happen to a Cabinet minister it can happen to anyone in our society, at any time in any place; and, second, that press freedom really matters, because although the press did me in, they also rescued me. I think that the importance of a rumbustious free press to keep powerful people in society on the straight and narrow is immense.I think they frequently go to excess, but that is a price we pay for living in a free society.

 

According to the Mail, you were once an aggressive rightwinger but are now a 'Cameroon' to your fingertips. Are you aware of havingmoved towards the political centre?

No - but also, you know, the DailyMail has called me muchworse than that -

 

I know. I won't repeat what else it has said.

-but the truth is that neither description is quite right. I am a One Nation Tory - indeed, I'm the secretary of the One Nation Group. On economic matters, I would find myself, I suppose, classically on the right - I believe we should live within our means - but on social matters I am pretty liberal. I've always believed in gay marriage - I greatly regret voting for Section 28 [in 1988]. You know, I am on the sort of Liberty/human rights wing of the Conservative Party.

The issue of human rights transcends party politics. In the summer, four of us - Jeremy Corbyn ('left-wing firebrand'), David Davis ('right-wing firebrand'), me and Andy Slaughter, the Labour spokesman on justice -went to America for two days of hard work lobbying for the release of Shaker Aamer from Guantánamo Bay. At a very good dinner that we had when we'd finished - which was a most enjoyable occasion - we got on very well but we did discover that,with the one exception of the release of this prisoner, there was nothing at all in any sphere of life that all four of us agreed on.

It's important that the human-rights agenda transcends party politics.Mrs Thatcher was someone who I think was pretty good in this area. Whenever she saw Gorbachev, she always used to say: 'Mr Gorbachev, can I give you a present for Mr Solzhenitsyn when you go back to Russia?' She was keen on human-rights issues -whereas I think it would be fair to say that Tony Blair was much less so. He wanted to bring in 90-day detention without charge!

 

Are you suspicious, then, of the proposal to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act?

Yes - although, obviously, I don't think that you can be against the repeal until you have seen what is going to replace it. The Government has got two of its cleverest ministers, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, looking into this and both of them have a good reputation on human rights, and it may be they have come up with something that is much better than the current Act.

What I am absolutely against is Britain's withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. I think often the way in which the Daily Mail reports the justice of the European Court is a bit of a caricature. (On the other hand, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday were the only papers who strongly supported the release of Shaker Aamer. Not even the Guardian has done what they have done,which is stunning.)

 

One does need to be consistent, surely? Mrs Thatcher may have been keen on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's human rights but she was also, notoriously, a friend of General Pinochet.

Yes. Yes. I think that with Pinochet she focused more on his economic policies, perhaps, than on some other aspects. And of course hindsight is a wonderful thing!

 

OK, but hindsight should inform the present, shouldn't it, so that we don't repeat the errors of the past.

Yes.

 

Today, we seem to be keen on denouncing the brutality of the Iranians but we turn a blind eye to the Saudis.

Well, you know, our Saudi policy has always been uncomfortable, because on the one hand they are a magnificent trading partner, as a result of which British jobs are created and preserved, but on the other hand this is a regime whose beliefs and actions contain, I'm afraid, the seeds of its decline. As a friend of Saudi Arabia, we seek to point out to them, not in a very public way but in a way that friends can, behind closed doors, the importance of reform. I have no doubt whatsoever that the British government is doing that.

 

If Ayatollah Khamenei died, would we fly our flags at half mast as we did for the Saudi king?

Well, on the whole you need to be very careful when you deviate from precedent.

The point I was really making about human rights is that they belong to everybody (including some extremely unpleasant people). Shaker Aamer was kept in captivity for more time than most people get for murder in this country and he'd never been tried or even charged with any offence. I think Guantánamo Bay has become the most brilliant recruiting sergeant for the terrorists,which is why so many of us worry about the way he was treated.

 

You said that you got on very well with Jeremy Corbyn. Did you feel uncomfortable when David Cameron, in his speech to the Tory party conference, characterised him as 'terrorist-sympathising' and 'Britain-hating'?

No, because I think that these set piece theatrical occasions lend themselves to a bit of hyperbole from time to time and there's nothing wrong with that. If you are in political life, you've got to have a thick skin.

And, you know, [the conference was] not a sworn court of law!When you'remaking a speech to the party faithful, you're allowed to indulge in a little lyricism.

 

You don't think that Mr Cameron was addressing the electorate beyond the walls of the hall?

I think that the Prime Minister's relationship with Jeremy Corbyn is one built on courtesy.

 

You are said to be one of the most affluent people in British politics. Does personal wealth affect a politician's attitude to politics?

Well, I think comments about my affluence may not accurately reflect the grotesque and obscene legal fees with which my wife and I have been faced.4 But if you are asking me whether affluence affects your role in politics, I think (as I said) that I've always felt for the underdog.

 

Does it distress you when you are accused of moralising about poverty while voting for tax reductions?

I don't…I mean, certainly, you know, the press will say that. I don't actually think it is true. If I vote against higher tax it's because I don't think that it will achieve what is desired. If it drives people offshore or it sends people into tax avoidance, it doesn't work. You know, I think that we should have a level of tax that everyone can accept is fair. If I vote that way, that is because that is my political judgement.

And I certainly do not regard myself as someone who moralises. It is not a good idea for politicians to moralise. I think that (as a distinguished former prime minister once remarked) we should leave morality to the bishops. The argument at the core of what I've always said about international development is that it is in our interests to do something about these egregious discrepancies, because making the world less unequal and more prosperous makes it also less dangerous - not only for those who live in very poor circumstances but also for us on the streets of Britain. It's hard-headed self-interest as well as the right thing to do.

 

You talk of a level of tax that is fair, but isn't the problem that fairness is a value judgement that no one can agree on - and that, while the wealthy can take steps to avoid any tax they regard as excessive, everyone else just has to pay up?

I think that if you have absurdly high levels of tax - you know, up to 98 per cent at one point under Labour - people will go to great lengths to avoid (but not evade) paying those taxes. When taxes were brought down to 40 per cent, the tax take went up.Most people thought that was fair and reasonable, so they didn't resort to clever lawyers and accountants. With acceptable levels of tax, the system works.

I believe that for the state to take from an individual more than half of what they earn is simply theft.

 

Talking of 'moralising bishops', what do you think the church should be doing that it is not doing? It still has more influence in this country than many people allow, I think.

I was a critic of the Church of England's approach over Darfur,where I thought that it could have done an awful lot more.

But I was a great admirer of the last Archbishop [of Canterbury], Rowan Williams, who did a wonderful job on international development, I thought. I'ma tremendous admirer of the Bishop of Birmingham,David Urquhart, who is undoubtedly a force for good. And it seems to me that Justin Welby, too, has brought a new energy to what the Church of England can offer.

I think the church has been in a much better position under the last two archbishops, and I think I am less of a critic of the Church of England now than I've ever been before.

 

Even though the church has lately been very critical of the Government?

I never mind when churchmen speak out about politics and the political situation. In fact, I think it's a good thing, actually. Clearly, elevating the social condition is something that both they and politicians care about.

 

Do you have a religious faith yourself?

I struggle, but I've been going backwards, I'm afraid, in recent years.You know, there are no atheists in the trenches, but I'ma sort of confirmed agnostic, really.

 

Does that mean you once had a more certain faith?

Yes, I think so. My upbringing encouraged belief - at school I was exposed to Christianity in away for which I am extremely grateful. But I think I have slipped back.

 

Was anything in particular the cause of that?

I think that my experience at the chalk face of international development, dealing with the lives of very poor people… Trying to answer that question, 'If there is a God,why do these things happen?', I think I have found increasingly difficult. After all, Rwanda is a very devout country and yet genocide could take place there - and indeed the Catholic church and other religious bodies had a role in it. I certainly think that was a pretty seminal moment for me.

 

Agnosticism implies an openness to being convinced again that atheism does not.

There's certainly an openness, because I can think of nothing more wonderful than being a devout believer. One of the reasons why I respect so many of the Muslims I meet in Birmingham is that I enormously admire the devoutness of so many who see their faith as central to their being.

 

What are the proudest achievements of your life?

Oh, goodness! I hope I have a future as well as a past.

I think, the two big international conferences I organised while I was [at DfID]. One was designed to extend vaccination to children under five in the poorest parts of the world and it meant that Britain's contribution on its own ensured that throughout the last parliament we vaccinated a child every two seconds and saved the life of a child every two minutes, from diseases that none of our children, thank goodness, die from in Britain. That mattered a lot tome.

The other conference was to promote family planning. If everyone sticks to the commitments that were given then, they will reduce by 50 per cent the number of the poorest women in the world who have no access to contraception, so that they can decide whether and when they have children. That is something we take for granted in Britain but [the want of it] is a real threat to life and security in the poorest parts of the world.

 

And are there failures you are willing to admit to?

At the risk of being accused of dodging your question, I'm conscious of my failures every day of my life.

 

BIOGRAPHY

Andrew Mitchell was born in 1956 in Hampstead and educated at Rugby School. He joined the Royal Tank Regiment on a short service commission in 1975 and served in Cyprus. He read history at Jesus College, Cambridge, graduating in 1978. He was chair of the university Conservative association in 1977 and president of the Cambridge Union in '78.

He worked for the investment bank Lazard Brothers & Co from 1979 to 1987 (returning to the bank in 1997 as a director, until 2009). He first stood for Parliament in the 1983 general election as Conservative candidate for Sunderland South, and entered Parliament four years later as MP for Gedling. In 1988, the year his father left the government, he joined it as parliamentary private secretary to William Waldegrave, who was minister of state at the Foreign Office.

In 1990, he became PPS to John Wakeham, then Secretary of State for Energy. In 1992, under John Major, he became vice chair of the party and was also appointed to the whips'office, becoming a full whip the following year. In 1995, he became minister for social security. He lost his seat in 1997.

After four years 'biking around London and making money', he returned to the Commons in 2001 as MP for Sutton Coldfield, the seat he has held ever since. Michael Howard made him shadow minister for economic affairs in 2003, and moved him to home affairs in 2004. In 2005, he joined the front bench as Shadow Secretary of State for International Development (and ran David Davis's unsuccessful campaign for the party leadership).

In 2010, he was sworn in as a Privy Counsellor and entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for International Development. In 2012, he was made Chief Whip, but resigned 45 days later amid the fallout of 'Plebgate'.

He launched Project Umubano in Rwanda and Sierra Leone in 2007.

He is currently a trustee of International Inspiration. He is a Freeman of the City of London and a liveryman of the Vintners' Company. He has been married since 1985 and has two daughters.

This interview was conducted on October 14, 2015.

 

NOTES

1 On September 19, 2012 he had an altercation with three police officers in Downing Street. According to the police log, he said: 'Best you learn your fucking place. …You're fucking plebs.' He later admitted that he 'did not treat the police with the respect they deserve', but denied swearing or calling them 'plebs'. 'What infuriates me here', said the chair of the Metropolitan Police Federation, 'is that a minister is saying police officers are liars.' Mitchell was obliged to resign, but subsequently a police officer was jailed for 12 months for criminal conduct and three others were dismissed for gross misconduct.

2 The Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six were all sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975, for the Provisional IRA pub bombs of the year before. The Court of Appeal overturned their convictions in 1989 and 1991 respectively.

3 In 1980, the then Master of the Rolls dismissed a civil claim for damages brought by the Birmingham Six against the West Midlands Police for this reason among others: 'If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury …That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, "It cannot be right that these actions should go any further."'

4 In 2014, he sued the Sun for libel and was sued in turn by one of the police officers involved in the 'fracas'. He lost both cases. The judge was satisfied that probably 'Mr Mitchell did speak the words alleged or something so close to them as to amount to the same.'