MP’s life story that raises serious questions for the future

DAVID WHITE reviews the posthumous autobiography of Croydon North MP Malcolm Wicks and finds that he carried his decency to the end

Malcolm Wicks was a rarity among politicians. The MP for Croydon North-West, later Croydon North, from 1992 until his death in 2012, Wicks commanded almost universal respect from friend and political foe alike because of his deep sense of ethics, his hard work as a constituency MP, and the fact that he was a thinker as well as a practical politician.

Malcolm Wicks' posthumous memoir revealed a long-held secret

Malcolm Wicks’ posthumous memoir revealed a long-held secret

In his memoirs, My Life, published this month, Wicks recounts his early life, his becoming an MP and his time as a minister in the 1997 to 2010 Labour governments.

He started writing the book when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year before his death. As time went on, he realised he was running out of time to finish it. “I’m up against a bit of a deadline,” was how he put it.

As a result, the chapters on his time as a minister are rather brief and there is nothing after Labour’s defeat in the 2010 General Election. These gaps are partially compensated for by the fact that three of Wicks’s essays (on values, rights and responsibilities, and the work of a minister) are added to the autobiography.

Wicks inherited a lot of his approach to politics from his father, Arthur Wicks. Arthur was for many years a Labour member of the London County Council and the Greater London Council. He was a pacifist and one of the band of municipal socialists who devoted themselves to improving the health, housing and general well-being of working people in the post-war period.

Malcolm Wicks was sent to a prep school and later a minor public school in Guernsey. After that, he went to the London School of Economics to study social policy and administration, which he loved.

Wicks tells an interesting story about the time he was at the LSE. He and several hundred other students took part in a march to Rhodesia House in protest against the white minority Rhodesian government’s declaration of UDI (or unilateral declaration of independence). The police were waiting for the marchers and there followed what the Daily Mail exaggeratingly described as “the Battle of the Strand”. Wicks was shocked by the police tactics and when he complained, he was arrested, taken to Bow Street police station and charged.

At the subsequent court hearing two police officers made up a story that said Wicks and two others had wilfully obstructed the police. Wicks was fined £2, but learned a life lesson “that when push comes to shove police officers in court were prepared to concoct stories and rubbish the truth”.

Wicks married Maggie when they were both 21. He taught social administration at York University and then became a civil servant. It was in that role that, in 1976, he leaked details of the Callaghan government’s attempt to renege on its pledge to introduce Child Benefit. Frank Field, in his foreword to My Life says that the furore generated by Wicks’s leak forced the government to change tack and implement the measure.

Malcolm Wicks: atypical as a modern MP with background outside of politics

Malcolm Wicks: atypical as a modern MP with background outside of politics

Wicks’s parliamentary ambitions began when he sought to become Labour candidate in Croydon North-West in 1987. He was selected by the local party by the less-than-imposing margin of 16 votes to 14, but he went on to win the seat at his second attempt in 1992. This was the first time north Croydon had had a Labour MP, but over the next 20 years the Labour vote increased and by 2010, Wicks had a majority of 16,000.

In his first term, Wicks piloted the Carers Act 1995 through Parliament. He described this as a “modest measure”, but it was important as the first official recognition of the role of carers.

During the 1992-1997 Parliament Wicks was a shadow social security minister. So when Labour won the General Election of 1997 he might have been expected to be given a front-bench role. However, in a section of the book entitled “On not becoming a Minister”, Wicks tells how he was passed over by Tony Blair. No one even contacted him to let him know the position.

However, in 1999 he was appointed Minister for Lifelong Learning, the first of four ministerial positions he was to hold. When Pensions Minister, he played a major part in the passage of the Pensions Act, which protected employees’ pensions in the event of a company going bust.

I would have liked to read more detail about Wicks’s time as an MP and Minister, and his candid views about the successes and failures of the Blair and Brown governments. There is not a single mention of Iraq, for example. However, Wicks’s illness restricted the time he had available to write about this period and in any event he was not the sort of person who would want to appear disloyal.

It’s my impression that Wicks was never really in the inner circle of either the Blair or Brown camps (no bad thing). I remember talking to him soon after Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, when he was critical of Blair flying half-way round the world to consort with Rupert Murdoch. If he had lived a little longer perhaps we would have heard more of this sort of thing in his memoirs (though I suspect not).

I found the essays at the end of the book very interesting – especially the one on “Labour values – past, present and future”. Wicks asks the question “If Labour’s purpose seemed clear in the 1900s, and very clear in the 1940s, what is it in the 2010s?”

In attempting to answer that question, Wicks takes as a starting point the ideas of “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality” which originated with the French Revolution. He goes on to talk about rights and responsibilities in society. One of his many incisive comments is, “British politics has been weakened by the left’s almost exclusive focus on rights… and also by the right’s equally narrow emphasis on duty.” He concludes there should be a balance between the two, as the basis of a fair society.

Malcolm Wicks’s My Life is well worth a read and will stand as a testament to a principled, hard-working and thoughtful politician.

  • David White is a member of the Labour Party and lives in Park Hill. He was a councillor on Croydon Council and the Greater London Council in the 1970s

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1 Response to MP’s life story that raises serious questions for the future

  1. It is a pity that Malcolm did not have enough time to fill his book with more details and other periods of time; it is an unfinished book by a man whose life’s work was also, sadly, unfinished.

    I was interested by the article on “What Ministers Do” which explains the value, in a parliamentary system, of a minister also retaining the job of being an MP. Malcolm described how he would make a decision as Pensions Minister, and then, months later in his constituency surgery, learn from his constituents how the policy was working in practice.

    Above all, it is a reminder that almost all politicians – of all parties – are motivated by a desire to improve society and make life better and fairer for ordinary people. Those who cynically denigrate all politicians as an amorphous mass of self-serving, corrupt or malevolent conspirators would be well-advised to read this book.

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