Peter Stanford speaks to Sarah Teather, the MP who defied the coalition on welfare and gay marriage
We have grown collectively cynical of late about politicians and their motives. Perhaps we always were. But among those men and women of principle who enter the political bear-fight, there seem to be two career paths: the independent-minded backbencher, fearless in standing up for what he or she believes to be right, to the horror of party whips and the applause of the public; or then the embedded fighter, the MP who agrees to become a minister, determined to avoid making the shoddy, short-term compromises usually necessary to climb the ladder of preferment and instead to inject a bit of moral backbone into those who hold the levers of state.
The two routes occasionally cross. Labour’s Frank Field, a former columnist in this paper and almost universally admired for his willingness to speak truth to power, lasted just a year in Tony Blair’s Government, having been drafted in 1997 with an express mandate to “think the unthinkable”. More recently Sarah Teather endured a bit longer as a Minister of State at the Education Department, one of the contingent of Liberal Democrats to join the Government payroll as part of the coalition agreement in 2010. But after two years when this hitherto high-profile conviction politician effectively disappeared from view, she was returned to the backbenches and has since been re-born, voting against her party, for instance, as one of the most eloquent opponents of the cap on welfare benefits. So is she back where she feels most comfortable, with room for her conscience to breathe?
“I’m not sure if I accept the idea that I disappeared,” says 38-year-old Teather, who became the youngest MP in the Commons when she won a famous by-election victory in Brent East in 2003. “It is something to do with being a minister and using the tools that you then have. When you join a government, you agree not to air your differences in public. Instead you get to air them at the table where the decisions are being made. So you trade a high profile in the press for the power to be at the meeting when the decisions are made. And then when you leave, you no longer have that access, so you have to make your points in a different way.”
For instance by voting against the Government on welfare caps, or against the majority line in her party on David Cameron’s gay marriage proposals, and, in the case of today, by agreeing to give interviews. We are sitting in a narrow, high-ceilinged room at the back of her constituency office on Willesden High Road in north-west London. It’s a modest place, with damp patches on the wall, but that’s an improvement, she points out, on her last local HQ that had a tendency to flood each time the rain came. There are no airs and graces about this ex-minister.
I first met Sarah Teather in 2003 during her by-election campaign at the height of the Iraq War. I happened to live in the constituency she was about to seize for the Liberal Democrats, coming from third place to first, and she made an immediate impression in a brief exchange on my doorstep. Small in stature, she has strong convictions and lives them out unflinchingly. During the MPs expenses scandal, I remember seeing her on the Tube late in the evening, working her way through her papers. No receipts for taxis, no allowance for second homes (which she could have claimed, under existing rules, even though her constituency is within 20 minutes on the underground of Westminster), and a self-possession that never tips into arrogance.
It was only later I realised she was a fellow Catholic. “It wasn’t something that I talked about all the time on the doorstep,” she says with a giggle. Was that because her party, led now in Nick Clegg by a self-proclaimed atheist (albeit one whose wife is a devout Catholic and whose children attend Catholic schools) has a bit of a history of being an uneasy place for those with a strong religious belief? I’m thinking of former MP and now peer, Lord (David) Alton, who left the Liberal Democrats in 1992 because of disagreements over his pro-life position.
“I sometimes describe myself to people as a liberal Catholic and a Catholic Liberal,” Teather replies, “and both can be hard places to inhabit. There are an awful lot of people in my party with a strong religious faith, but there is also an aggressively secular strand amongst our activists, typical of any centre-Left party.”
It brings us back to the personal being political, and principle – in Teather’s case informed by the teaching of her Church – sometimes forcing you to take outspoken stances. “Some things are private,” she asserts, “but some private things do have a public dimension. It is never an easy thing, though, to translate faith into politics because politics is an imperfect world, and legislation in particular is a very clumsy vehicle”.
Two recent episodes where Teather has faced that particular dilemma demonstrate how hard it can be. One got her bouquets and one brickbats. When she voted against the coalition Government on the imposition of a welfare cap, she took her decision, she says, on “what was in the best interests of the common good”. It is a redolent phrase in Catholic social teaching – not that many in the Commons would have recognised it as such – but she could not “in good conscience see any good outcomes. And worse, it seemed to me that the intent behind it was poor. It was all about creating political dividing lines by appearing tough on welfare claimants. I have a moral objection to that.”
Her clarity of thought saw her widely applauded, especially among groups working with the disadvantaged and those on the margins, though the measure did make it on to the statute book and will, she believes, cause real problems in her inner-city constit-uency of Brent Central (boundaries were re-drawn in 2010 and, sadly, my neighbourhood was parcell-ed off elsewhere). Incomes are low, jobs are scarce but rents, in line with much of London, are high. Families will face tough choices and some will be forced to leave the capital and their established networks.
What, though, of her position on gay marriage? Her decision to vote against saw her attacked by precisely the same people who had previously been lauding her independence of mind. “It was an extremely difficult choice,” she says, “and in many ways I’d rather not resurrect the whole argument again. It wasn’t one of those issues that I went into politics to tackle, but once a vote became inevitable I spent ten or 11 months weighing up the issues – of equality on the one hand and family life and what it meant for the definition of marriage on the other. I did a lot of reading and eventually I came to my conclusion, based not on any effect it would have in the short-term, but on the change it would mean for marriage over a longer period of time.”
Was she tempted to abstain? “No, because I had thought very hard about it, and finally reached a position, so to try and dodge expressing a view didn’t feel right.”
Pause, for a moment, if you will over Teather’s words. Whatever position you take on gay marriage, it is rare to hear a politician (a) revealing that she spent almost a year reading about and thinking over a difficult issue, struggling to formulate a view, (b) that she made her choice on the basis of what it would mean not in five or ten years, but 50 or 500, and (c) that she then would not let herself take the easy, comfortable or politically expedient way out.
Teather waves away any credit I suggest she deserves, and instead produces a telling quote from the English Dominican, Herbert McCabe, that I hadn’t heard before, but will keep close at hand in future. “There is a depressing tendency on the part of both conservative and liberal Christians to assume that the discussions of Christian morality are going to be mostly about sex.
Sex is obviously a profoundly important mode of human communication, but to treat of it in isolation from all the other social, political, and economic relationships between people is asking for trouble – asking for intellectual trouble I mean; in the practical field it is asking for a quiet life. So long as Christian morality is thought to be mainly about whether and when people should go to bed, no bishops are going to be crucified. And this, as I say, is depressing. If the Christian moralist is doing his job properly he has been promised that he will encounter the hostility of the world, of the established power structure.”
Was that part of her reading, or did she come across McCabe at university? “No, he was Oxford and I was Cambridge,” she says. It was while studying for a degree in natural sciences at St John’s College that she became a Catholic.
“I had grown up in Leicestershire in an Anglican family, though I had two Catholic godparents and my mum had gone to a Catholic school. So there were clues there already. By the time I was at university, I had fallen out of love with Anglicanism and, if I’m honest, was put off by the activities of the Christian Union when I got to college.”
She was – and remains – a keen singer (even giving fund-raising concerts with Fr Pat Browne, Cardinal Hume’s former private secretary who now acts as Catholic chaplain to the Houses of Parliament). At university, most of the friends she’d made, especially through singing in choirs, were Catholics. “And so I’d know all the gossip about what was going on at Fisher House (the university Catholic chaplaincy). It just seemed a natural thing to go along there with them. I can’t quite remember the precise reason or even the precise day, but once I was there I just found myself thinking, ‘oh yes’. I was a 19-year-old and had no grand thoughts about the Magisterium. It was the sacramental stuff that drew me in.” And keeps her there? “Oh yes, I’ve never regretted it for a moment. It has given me a lot of joy.”
So what next for the impressive Sarah Teather? The first priority is that she has a marginal seat to defend at the next election. She says she misses being a minister only because she had to leave behind pet projects – especially her work at the Department for Education on reforming special needs education. “It was something I cared about very much. I was ill as a teenager and missed four years of school in total, and spent a lot of that time using a wheelchair.”
Would she like to return to the front bench one day, or is she more your natural, independent-minded backbencher? She laughs. “I’m not sure if I’ll be given the opportunity,” she says, “or what I’d say if I was. But right now, I’m happy exactly where I am.” The jury, it seems, is out, but whatever choice she makes, we will be reading a lot more about her.
Peter Stanford is a writer, broadcaster and former editor of The Catholic Herald
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated May 10, 2013