I was going to title this ToryDiary “In defence of Philip Davies”, before I realised that not only is a defence unnecessary, but that the MP for Shipley would be unlikely to appreciate being defended by anyone.
After all, this is the man whose response to a critical article in today’s Times (published in full by that paper, to their credit) shows he is more than capable of defending himself:
“I am very happy to leave the matter in the hands of the [parliamentary standards] commissioner. This is an old accusation which had no merit the last time The Times printed the very same story and still has no merit. I have every confidence the commissioner will conclude that this vexatious complaint, from a second-rate journalist peddling an agenda for his friends at the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, has no merit at all. I guess that The Times must be short of stories in the summer recess and so has decided to rehash a discredited old story to fill up some space.”
It does indeed seem like thin gruel to suggest that Davies, a former bookie and constant opponent of regulation on business, had to be induced somehow in order to oppose regulation on bookies – still, as he says, the commissioner will no doubt have her say soon enough.
Let us instead take the opportunity to praise rather than defend the tribune of Shipley’s people. He’s outspoken, he’s stubborn, he’s a dedicated user of the House of Commons’ rules in all their vicious glory. He has never seen a left-wing sensitivity that didn’t look perfectly primed for treading on, to the outrage of his critics and the satisfaction of many of his voters. He doesn’t court the approval of the lobby, and he doesn’t back down from his opinions even when they make his colleagues cringe – knowing that to falsely apologise for something he really believes would be to defeat the point of his existence. In short, Parliament would be the poorer without him.
Back in 2006, at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, I had the task of introducing him at The Freedom Association’s first Better Off Out conference rally. I suggested he was the man to take up the mantle of Eric Forth, the Bromley MP who had died a few months earlier. For the Daily Telegraph, which was running a “Mods and Rockers” theme to contrast between Cameron’s modernisers and their opponents, this was “the ultimate rocker accolade”. I didn’t say it lightly – Forth was a Commons institution, a self-described “parliamentary yob”, a politically incorrect champion of the filibuster and Davies’ mentor.
The man from Shipley has more than lived up to that title over the last decade (to my relief – it would have been awkward if he’d renounced his views in return for a post as Junior Under-Commissioner for Drain Maintenance). His talking out of Private Members’ Bills drives many MPs, on all sides, round the bend, but he is a stalwart bearer of the torch which Forth passed on:
“…lots of these [Bills] have all got a worthy sentiment behind them but you can’t pass legislation on the whim of a worthy sentiment because it affects people’s lives and livelihoods…It is a very unsatisfactory way to pass legislation.”
His firm application of that principle hasn’t always made him popular with the media, various groups of voters and other MPs. To name but two examples, sinking attempts to further regulate landlords, and trying to prevent the aid spending target being embedded in the statute book, drew bitter criticism. But anyone who thought such incoming fire would make Davies run, rather than dig himself in deeper, has completely misunderstood his views and his character. If anything, it’s likely to encourage him – the saying “when the flak increases, you know you’re over the target” could have been invented as his personal motto.
The question of whether to value his existence cannot be answered by simply judging whether you agree with him or not. I share most of his views on the EU, but disagree with him strongly on same sex marriage and government snooping powers. Some readers will agree with his recent claim that men get a raw deal in the justice system, while others will see it as unjustified “meninist” moaning. Even he hates the practice of some of his own principles – loathing tobacco smoke while opposing nanny state clampdowns on smokers, for example. Judging his merit on whether his position is identical to yours is to miss the point.
His value is two-fold. First, his presence on the green benches ensures that there is someone in Parliament willing to stand up for a range of views which, if it were left to the leaderships of each party, would be unheard and unrepresented in Westminster. MPs have become more independent-minded in recent years, but it takes a rare bloodymindedness to put one’s head down and charge through consensus and taboo every time you come across it – like Forth before him, Davies performs that public service on principle, regardless of the risk or cost to his own interests.
Second, Parliament needs champions – not just those who write or lecture on the importance of an activist, rebellious Commons, or who mull the constitutional arguments about scrutiny of the Executive, but those who actually deliver one in practice. Governments of all stripes will take the chance to abolish powers and rules they dislike, and such functions require someone using them regularly to keep them polished and functional. His presence makes it far harder to erode the Commons. He would hate the comparison, but in that respect he is like a parliamentary Swampy, camping out high in the boughs of the Westminster tree to defy the ministerial bulldozers.
So yes, he may make almost everyone wince at one point or another – but when he said he opposed political correctness, at least he really meant it. Yes, he may drive his colleagues batty with irritation by sinking their carefully crafted Private Members’ Bills or wasting their time with hours-long speeches purely to carry a debate over a deadline – but if he wasn’t willing to take the criticism for ensuring the powers of individual MPs are exercised and preserved, who would? And yes, he doesn’t care if his views offend the orthodoxies of polite London society - but plenty of voters would do so, too, given the chance, and they deserve a voice as much as anyone else.
A House of Commons without Davies, or someone like him, would no doubt run more smoothly. MPs’ and ministers’ blood pressure would be lower. A variety of special interest campaigns would be much happier. But since when was it the purpose of Parliament to allow for the smooth running of politics, or to deliver a quiet life for politicians, or to fulfil the every wish of any lobbyist who might come along?
As Forth always used to argue, easy, unquestioning consensus is a reliable breeding ground for bad laws and worse government. For reliably opposing consensus, and making as much noise and mess as is necessary to do so, we should thank Philip Davies – and the voters of Shipley who keep sending him to Westminster.