Crusading MP Tom Watson explains why he’s reading Pope Francis, believes in God and longs for new, kinder form of politics
“Why? He doesn’t believe in anything” asked one Labour member when they heard I was about to interview Tom Watson. The West Bromwich MP has resigned from Tony Blair’s Government, waged war on illegality in the Murdoch empire, won a Government inquiry into historic sex abuse and left Ed Miliband’s top team. Yet plenty of politicos, particularly Labour ones, whisper that he has no principles.
“I don’t think it’s true,” Watson tells me with a half shrug of resignation. “The truth is that I’ve been on a journey in my politics. It’s been in a little bit of a state of flux, to be honest, as I try to figure out what the future holds. And I think that can make some people suspicious.”
We’re sat in the shadow of Birmingham Cathedral and he is clearly nervous. I have pitched this interview to him as a chance to speak about what he believes in. He is more used to being quizzed on the Kremlinology of Labour politics. “I agreed to do this quite casually,” he says, “and then I actually found myself really worrying about it: trying to figure out what I really think about the world. It’s been a really interesting process.”
Is our Blairite commentator right? Does he believe in anything, really? “The first meaningful interaction I ever had with Tony Blair was back in 1995,” he says. “We were debating his plans for Clause IV – I was the party’s youth officer – and he said to me: ‘You’ve got to understand that what all of this is about is turning us from an ideology-based party into a values-based party.’ And as it happened, I completely believed in it.”
Little more a decade later, of course, Watson would cause a media-political storm with his resignation as a defence minister and an open letter calling for the man he “completely believed in” to clear out. Why? “I couldn’t see the values in action. We were in this awful arid desert of pragmatism. The people I had joined the party to help were becoming increasingly marginalised by a Westminster elite dinner party debate.”
Watson’s “political journey” has led him to some unexpected places. He lambasts the welfarism of the Blair years. The system of income transfers that were devised by Gordon Brown were “well intentioned” but also devalued work. “Companies like McDonald’s use the benefits system as a business model,” he says. “That’s how we end up with 80,000 people on zero-hours contracts, paid below the living wage, in their restaurants. The state made that viable for them. And I’m not sure that Tony Blair would even have noticed, to be honest.” Watson pauses for a second before adding: “But perhaps I’m being unkind.”
Kindness is a recurring theme. It’s oddly jarring to hear a politician use that word – particularly one with such a reputation for being something of a bruiser – but there’s no doubting his sincerity. “I know this might sound naïve, but I really believe there’s not enough love and kindness in our politics,” he says.
What does he mean? “I’ve been re-reading Roy Jenkins. In that generation it was normal for politicians to worry about what inequality does to us as a society – even Roy, who went off with SDP and who I thought was a traitor – and that just seems to have been lost. We haven’t, in the Labour Party, really confronted the legacy of unkindness that Thatcherism created.
“I was on an estate in Pimlico the other day. They’re doing some redevelopment and it means knocking down an old peoples’ home. But it’s alright, say Westminster Council, because they’re going to rebuild it on the site of the playground for the local school. And when they were asked where the kids would play, the council said they’d persuaded the developers to build a new playground… underground.”
He shakes his head in genuine anger. “Underground! There’s an example of a lack of love and kindness – and of basic common sense. And you just think: how have we got here, where it seems reasonable that kids play underground so you can knock up a few million-pound flats?”
Watson is a fan of Maurice Glasman, with whom he is working to try to help Iraqi and Syrian Christians, and also of Pope Francis.
“I’ve been reading his stuff,” he says. “He really inspires me. Did you read his Lent message? It quotes Corinthians: ‘that by his poverty you might become rich’. I honestly believe that we need a new politics that is inspired by that same service, love and compassion.”
Does Watson believe in God? There’s no hesitation, no calculation: “Yes.” He describes his relationship with Christianity as “unusual”. His parents didn’t raise him within the Church, but his mother was influenced by the work of Alan Ecclestone, an Anglo-Catholic priest and fervent Marxist. Watson eventually underwent confirmation into the C of E while an undergraduate. He is insistent that he does not want to talk about his family but confirms, after much ungallant badgering on my part, that his children are being raised in the Catholic Church and that he is happy that this is the case.
Does he pray? “You might not think this counts. But, yes, in times of great stress and need I talk to God.”
Why did he decide to join the Church at a time when most of his peers were exploring the less salubrious offerings of higher education? He shifts in his chair, perhaps with Alistair Campbell’s “we don’t do God” still ringing in his ears even after all these years. “Why does anyone?” he asks. “It’s the inner voice.”
When Watson left Blair’s government, he surely can’t have anticipated the scale of the consequences for him, his family and the political establishment. The repercussions of what happened next are still being felt today.
Rebekah Brooks, then a senior player in Rupert Murdoch’s British press operation, reportedly vowed she would “never forgive” Watson for what he had “done to my Tony”. In her attempt to avenge Blair, Brooks inadvertently set in place a train of events that would land her in court, close the News of the World and see her former lover Andy Coulson sent to prison.
Facing attacks from News International, Watson began to work with other victims of intrusive and illegal press attention. Was he motivated by revenge?
“Not really. It wasn’t vengeance but just this absolute fury at the injustice of it. This institution – these powerful people – were getting away with it. And everyone was just letting them, even though they really were ruining innocent people’s lives.”
It was a brave thing to do, although Watson doesn’t see it like that. “People say that to me but I don’t think of it as courageous. I was scared. All the time. That doesn’t feel like real courage to me. But I didn’t honestly feel like I had a choice.” He admits, too, that his political battles have had a profound personal impact. “It has all done incalculable damage, to me and to the people I love.”
How did he feel when the verdicts came last month? “I felt sick before they came, on the morning, and then just a tremendous feeling of sorrow and loss. I felt deep sorrow for Andy Coulson.”
Can he forgive Coulson? “He has my forgiveness, yes. I don’t think he needs it – I’m not sure he’d want it – but yes, I forgive him. I hope he can take responsibility for his actions and go on to have a productive life. I don’t want his life to be over.”
Watson is now embroiled in another battle for truth, this time over allegations of historic child abuse by senior politicians and public officials. He is adamant that he does not choose these crusades – that victims seek him out.
“A social worker – a brilliant man called Peter McKelvie – came to see me. He’d followed the hacking stuff and he wanted my help.” Is he confident of success? “Not confident. I’m very frightened about that. But I am hopeful. I’m pleased with Theresa May – she’s announced a very wide-ranging enquiry, which is good. I just hope that we can get justice for people who’ve been so let down. What some of them have been through, you can’t imagine.”
I mention the Catholic Church’s painful history on these issues. “Yes, absolutely. But it would be very wrong and quite dangerous to single out the Church and say that it’s been a problem there, and that’s that. What we’re discovering is that there was a time when we as a society didn’t love our children enough and didn’t protect them properly. This is not about the Catholic Church or religion; it is about institutional failures throughout.”
Our time is almost up. Watson’s phone – buzzing throughout – is filled with hundreds of notices from Twitter (he has 150,000 followers). “Have you got everything?” he asks, and I’m genuinely not sure.
The key to Watson’s principles is in his paradoxes. He is visibly embarrassed about the people who recognise him as we talk, but he has built a huge public platform from which to speak. He is notorious for brutality towards his enemies, yet is obsessed with the notion of kindness and holds no grudge against his former tormentors. He is cynical about politics but passionate about its ability to do good.
I think that Watson, at heart, has yet to come to terms with the position he now holds in public life and the power he wields. He is perhaps more comfortable on the outside – questioning, interrogating and campaigning. Maybe that is why he sometimes seems happier resigning than he does being promoted. He knows – having seen it again and again – that power can corrupt, and I think he is actively frightened of being corrupted himself. And yet he feels called to moral crusades on behalf of those he sees as voiceless. “I’ve never felt more driven in politics than I do now,” he tells me.
A politician who pursues power but also fears it – if Watson can reconcile that contradiction he may yet return to Labour’s frontbench fold. Having listened to him explain who he really is, I can’t help but hope that he does.
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