Mark Francois is a Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence and the Member of Parliament for Rayleigh and Wickford.
I was born in Islington, north London, in 1965, the son of working class parents. My father, Reginald Francois, was an engineer who had fought in the Royal Navy in the Second World War (he was on a minesweeper on D Day). My mother, Anna Carloni, was Italian and met my dad after coming to the UK as an au pair in the early 1960s.
We moved out to Essex in 1971 and settled in the New Town of Basildon, much of which comprised ex-Londoners. I attended St Nicholas comprehensive school in Basildon, which was a ten minute walk from the council estate that we lived on. I had a modest but very happy childhood with two loving parents.
My first political thought was probably during 1973 “three day week”, when the lights suddenly went out and the TV failed during a power cut, right in the middle of an England World Cup qualifier. When I inquired of my father what had happened he simply replied “It’s the unions, son” to which I retorted that I didn’t know who they were but it seemed pretty unfair that they wanted to stop people simply enjoying the football!
However, what really brought me to politics was the defence issue. I was fascinated by the Second World War (not least because my dad had fought in it) and my bedroom was full of Airfix models and plastic soldiers. As I grew into my teens I began to read about the rise of Adolf Hitler, the errors of appeasement and the intriguing figure of Winston Churchill – who predicted what was coming but whom, initially at least, very few in the post Great War Establishment wanted to believe.
The more I read about Churchill and the House of Commons, in which he made such great speeches, the more fascinated I became. By the time I was around thirteen I had decided that I wanted to become a Member of Parliament, which delighted my father when I told him. About a year later he sadly passed away.
I was in the sixth form at school and then Bristol University in the early to mid-1980s, when CND were again on the march and there was much debate about cruise missiles and Trident. From what I had read about history it seemed to me that these people, and their Labour Party fellow travellers under Michael Foot, were perhaps well meaning but also hopelessly naive. In contrast, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party believed in strong defences, NATO, the nuclear deterrent – and stood up to Argentina over the Falkland Islands as well.
However, I found that I also instinctively agreed with the Conservatives about other things as well – their emphasis on hard work and enterprise, their belief in the Nation State and their willingness to promote aspiration, for instance by allowing working class people a chance to buy their own council houses. This was one of our best ever policies and one which was tremendously popular in Basildon, with its large number of council estates.
My father had worked overtime to buy me an Encyclopaedia Britannica, which greatly assisted my studies. I was one of only two out of the 226 in my original year group from St Nicholas to make it to university – and I have held strong views about the lack of aspiration among some teachers for working class kids in “bog standard comprehensives” ever since.
I joined the Conservative Party on my first full day at Bristol University and also the University Officer Training Corps later the same day. An MA in War Studies from Kings College London followed, prior to local Government, a run out against Ken Livingstone in Brent East in 1997 and then election to Parliament for Rayleigh in 2001.
I am proud of where I came from and of having two loving parents, who greatly encouraged me. However, I have always held in contempt those champagne socialists – from wealthy backgrounds but hopelessly wracked by middle class guilt – who earnestly profess their love for working class people but would scarcely dream of inviting any of them to dinner. It is the Conservative Party which really believes in aspiration – and that’s why I will always be a member of it.
This is one of a series of essays published by Renewal, which brings together a range of Conservative MPs from working class backgrounds, including Patrick McLoughlin, Sajid Javid and Mike Penning.