Sir Teddy Taylor. The name was enough to return a resounding ‘hear, hear’ from Tories and a gasp of horror from liberals.
The MP for Glasgow Cathcart and later Southend East, who died on Wednesday, was the sort of politician the euphemism ‘colourful’ was invented for. He was also a man of strong, if not always agreeable, views and his honesty is sorely lacking in politics today.
Taylor was an icon of Scottish Conservatism — a Glasgow lad done good and gone Right. Although not from the working class, he had an instinct for the presumptions and prejudices of the city’s aspirational blue collar voters. It was an ability that kept Cathcart blue long after demographics had dictated it should have gone to Labour. Most of all, he put his constituents before all else, whether it was the politically correct pabulum of the Left or the patrician snobbery of his own party.
Some of his views were pungent, some repugnant. He was, depending on your politics, a tell-it-like-it-is man of the people or Genghis Khan in a pinstripe suit. In his passing, he has been called everything from a Thatcherite to a populist. In fact, he was what Francis Urquhart, Machiavellian antihero of House of Cards, would call ‘a plain, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Tory’.
He loathed the European Union with a ferocity that made Nigel Farage sound like a mealy-mouthed agnostic and this son of a stockbrokerage clerk lobbied for the return of capital punishment like a man with shares in rope. He was for belting, birching and Britishness and proved a dogged foe of abortion, gay rights and sanctions on Rhodesia. In a party where degrees of right-wingery were measured in ‘sound’, ‘sounder’, and ‘soundest’ Teddy Taylor was deafening.
Yet is a measure of how highly regarded he was that some of the warmest tributes have come from those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. The SNP’s Stewart McDonald, who represents Taylor’s old constituency, said: ‘Many will remember a man staunch in politics, but above all a love for serving his constituents. He had that gift of being able to secure the respect and votes of those who opposed his politics, because he always put his constituency first and foremost. There must have been hardly a household that hadn’t heard from or had assistance from Teddy during his time as the MP for Cathcart.’
But today we frown upon the likes of Teddy Taylor. It is doubtful the liberal-baiting troublemaker would last 40 minutes in modern politics, let alone 40 years. Any number of pugnacious statements he made over the years would have seen him hounded by the social media prim-and-proper patrol, the echo chamber of Left-wing received opinion that pounces on every ribald joke and slip of the tongue.
#TeddyTaylorMustGo would be permanently trending on Twitter and earnest millennials posting teary YouTube videos demanding a trigger warning before being exposed to his views on safe spaces and gender-neutral pronouns.
The increasing dominance of party machines over local branches and of advisers over rank and file MPs has delivered a Parliament almost devoid of characters. The scores of free-thinkers and straight-talkers who used to delight in making mischief for the whips have been replaced by largely obedient lobby fodder. In years gone by, many would go into politics harbouring ambitions of greatness but willing to settle for being good constituency MPs. Now everyone wants to be a minister and figures blandness is the fastest route to the top. If you don’t say anything you can’t get sacked for saying the wrong thing.
Some colourful MPs remain. Jacob Rees-Mogg delights a certain segment of the population with his Elizabethan poses and Latin witticisms delivered to a largely bewildered House of Commons. Even if you doubt the sincerity of his performance, at least the North East Somerset MP supplies some respite from the deathly fog of dullness that permeates Parliament. Then there is the joyously bolshie Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, who is not afraid to speak plainly of her Tory opponents — or her comrades on the Labour benches.
Not long after Jeremy Corbyn took over as Labour leader, Mrs Phillips warned him bluntly: ‘I won’t knife you in the back, I’ll knife you in the front.’ Excoriating his ‘pernicious’ opposition to ‘shoot-to-kill’ for rampaging terrorists, she said Labour’s policy should be: ‘If a man walks down your street with a big gun and he’s going to kill you and he’s got a bomb strapped to him, we will shoot him in the head. Immediately. Ten times.’
Her candour has been rewarded with vicious enmity from Corbyn loyalists and avalanches of hate mail from Left-wingers who would prefer to her to be dutiful and deferential to the leadership. The message to those contemplating a career in Parliament is clear: If you want to stand, don’t stand out.
Trust in politics has been brought low by spin culture, the expenses scandal and the ‘dodgy dossier’ that took us into war in Iraq. But nothing has undermined public confidence quite like the ever-lowering calibre of MPs, as those with wit, originality, and non-conformist opinions are put off a political career altogether. In their place, we are given pallid placeholders who can be relied upon never to have a thought that isn’t approved in advance by the whips’ office. The sort of politician content with being a foot soldier is unsurprisingly not the sort to produce wise laws, sensible policies, or inspire affection among the electorate. Instead, the voters cast a despairing eye over row upon row of faceless grey suits and feel even more alienated from politics than before.
There is much talk these days about restoring trust and getting men and women of good character into Parliament. But neither can be achieved while spurning the up-front in favour of the focus-grouped and the brilliant, if bothersome, in favour of inoffensive mediocrity. If you want character in politics again, you have to allow some characters back into politics.
A poignant moment at Holyrood last week. During First Minister’s Questions, MSP Mark Griffin shared the story of his daughter who was born 12 weeks premature earlier this year.
Rosa weighed just one pound and doctors told the Labour man and his wife Stephanie that their baby girl was unlikely to survive. Miraculously, after five months in intensive care, Rosa is now home with mum and dad.
Mr Griffin revealed the hidden costs that parents are hit with in these situations, more than £4,000 in his case. His family could afford it but he met distraught mothers who couldn’t and sometimes had to go without seeing their children. He urged Nicola Sturgeon to back his Family Fund campaign to help parents like these.
MSPs broke into applause for baby Rosa and the First Minister promised to look into it. Parents going through such anguish shouldn’t have to worry about money on top of it all. Setting up a Family Fund is the decent thing to do.
Voters in New Zealand went to the polls over the weekend and they take their elections seriously down there. It’s a criminal offence for anyone to tweet about politics on polling day. I can’t decide whether this is an authoritarian outrage or something that should be piloted year-round in Britain.
Have your say on these issues by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.