Political autobiographies are often predictable and usually rather dull. My Life, by the late Labour MP for Croydon North Malcolm Wicks, is neither of these. For those who are familiar with Wicks, this will come as no surprise; he has always had a gift for well crafted writing and eloquent storytelling, and his voice can be heard clearly through these pages. However, his book is distinctive for two other reasons; first, it has been published posthumously, and is in some respects incomplete. Given a terminal diagnosis of cancer in 2011, Malcolm began to put together his story knowing that he was dying, and by the summer of 2012 recognised that he was running out of time to complete what he had started (‘I’m up against a bit of a deadline’ as he put it with characteristic under statement and sardonic humour). Working closely with his son, Roger, Malcolm decided that the way forward would be to produce a volume that is in two parts – the first a memoir, and the second a collection of three of his recent essays and thoughts on ideas and policy. It works surprisingly well, due in no small measure to the skilled editing of David Utting. As Roger Wicks observes in the introduction, it is unlikely that the book would have been produced in different circumstances; it was the prospect of time running out that focused Malcolm’s attention and energy on leaving a legacy that he hoped would be read and would make a contribution in the years to come. It certainly deserves that respect. For his friends and family, however, the book will be especially precious, and as Roger comments, it represents a ‘small secular blessing’.
The second distinctive aspect of the book has attracted considerable attention since its publication. Almost 38 years after the event, Malcolm has used the book as the platform to admit that he was responsible for what is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant cabinet leaks ever. In 1976 Wicks was a civil servant in the Home Office and he leaked details of cabinet discussions that revealed the Callaghan Labour government was plotting to do a u-turn on its policy of introducing universal child benefit. The book makes it clear that the reason for his decision to leak cabinet minutes was because of the underhand tactics being employed by the Callaghan government with “the manoeuvring, the downright lies, and the attempt to play off Labour MPs against trade union bigwigs.” The conniving and misleading attempts to blame trade unionists’ lack of support for the policy was simply a smoke screen to allow the Government to renege on the policy they now saw as unaffordable. The leak of Cabinet discussions effectively prevented that happening and ensured universal child benefit was phased in. At the time there was a major furore in trying to identify the source of the leak, involving both a civil service enquiry and investigation by Special Branch. Both failed utterly and the enquiry report from Sir Douglas Allen (Head of the Home Civil Service) concluded “we have not come at all close to the real source of the leak.”
Frank Field (who was the recipient of the leaked documents, and a friend of Malcolm’s of many years standing) has provided the Foreword, shedding further light on the leak episode, but also reflecting on the character and qualities of Malcolm. The strong sense of values and commitment to principles which drove Wicks to leak the papers are evident in many ways throughout the book. The story which Wicks recounts of his early teenage years at boarding school (Elizabeth College in Guernsey) and his experience of the Combined Cadet Corps provides clear signs of the early determination, confidence and moral certainty which would become such dominant character traits. As Wicks observes, “It would be putting it mildly to say that I did not take to the Cadet Force”, following in his Father’s footsteps (the late Arthur Wicks, a local government councillor and subsequent Chairman of the London County Council, and of the Greater London Council), Malcolm was “a pacifist by inclination”. He had no interest in square bashing or rifle drill and did all he could to register his conscientious objection through a ‘somewhat sarcastic approach to militarism’. He acknowledges that “with the benefit of hindsight I can see how it satisfied my rebellious instincts.”
While still at school Wicks established a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) group and went on his first Aldermaston March aged 15, evidence which he recognised was probably indicative of his “first real political commitment.”
For a person who would go on to become Minister for Lifelong Learning it is particularly appropriate that Wicks’s early academic progress was unexceptional and he admits “hardly satisfactory.” He described his school experience as one that “started badly and then climbed remorselessly towards a mediocre level of academic endeavour and achievement.” Scraping just a few GCE ‘O’ level passes it was not until Malcolm was taken out of school and went on to do his A levels at the then north-west London Polytechnic, that he began to enjoy education and take it seriously. Universities showed little interest in his applications to study for a degree, the sole exception being the London School of Economics (LSE). It was an extraordinary sequence of events which saw Wicks enter LSE in the first intake of a new undergraduate degree in social policy in the department headed by the legendary Richard Titmuss and featuring other luminaries including Professors David Donnison, Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend. Wicks had an interest in social and public policy gained from his father’s work in local government, but studying the subject would shape his future career, first in academia and subsequently in politics.
Wicks was a lifelong member of the Labour Party. While at LSE he dabbled in student politics and was arrested during a protest against Ian Smith’s UDI declaration for Rhodesia, but he was by no means a student radical. Despite taking part in an LSE sit-in, Wicks admits in an anecdote well known to his family and close friends, that he would leave the occupation to pop back home for the bacon and eggs which his mother unfailingly prepared for him each morning. He was not a leading light in the students’ union and few people perhaps would have predicted a political path for him, but his focus was beyond student politics and would lead him more and more into the Labour Party and later to the Fabian Society and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).
Despite forming an ambition to become an MP at the age of 12, Wicks came to the role relatively late and entered Parliament in 1992 aged 44. He brought with him considerable experience as a researcher, academic, civil servant and Director of the Family Policy Studies Centre (an independent think tank on family trends and public policy). He soon made a mark, not least in achieving the highly unusual success of seeing a Private Member’s Bill pass into legislation (The Carers Act, 1995). For the first time this recognised the importance of carers looking after family members, and put their right to have their own needs assessed on statutory footing. It gave carers a toehold in the policy process, arguably led to greater awareness of carer issues and provided the foundation for further legislation. It was – quite rightly – an achievement of which Wicks was very proud.
With the arrival of a Labour government in 1997 Wicks might have expected, and certainly his supporters did, that he would advance rapidly and gain ministerial office, but it was a slow journey. His book has a section on ‘not becoming a minister’ exploring the apparent happenstance and cock up that can impede promotion for no good reason. It is without bitterness but it does reveal the bemusement and frustration which Wicks felt in the first two years of the Labour Government having been a shadow minister while in opposition. At last the call came (in July 1999) and Wicks became Minister for Lifelong Learning – the first of his appointments that would take him to three different departments over the next nine years.
‘What Ministers Do’ provides a detailed essay in the second part of the book, originally published in The Political Quarterly. It isn’t self-promoting analysis of the importance of ministers or of Wicks’s own (significant) contribution to policy, so much as an insight to the day to day functions and routine. It highlights the pressures of work, whether in an ambassadorial role; as authoriser of decisions; providing accountability to parliament and in policy making and implementation. As is characteristic of Wicks, he is generous in acknowledging the invaluable support of “dedicated and competent officials.”
The two remaining essays in the book deal with some big concepts and ideas in social policy – issues of citizenship and values. One essay is based on a lecture Wicks gave for the IPPR at the House of Commons on 24 April 2012, when he already knew his time was running out although most of those in the room were unaware of his diagnosis or imminent demise. In the lecture Wicks addressed the challenge for the next Labour government of rebuilding trust in the social security system and the need for that to be built on the twin pillars of rights and duties. A central building block he argued, should be “the renaissance and modernisation of the contributory principle” as the basis for a new social contract between citizen and state. Such analysis provides a welcome clarity and fresh thinking which the Labour Party would do well to study; not surprisingly, given his long standing expertise in social policy, it is a programme for the future that – as Frank Field points out – pays proper heed to the past, and “is one of his many parting gifts.”
by Melanie Henwood