KEEPING UP WITH CRISPIN, by Tom Hulme
Our Deputy Comms Lead Tom Hulme sat down with Crispin Blunt MP to talk everything from the military, Humanists and LGBT+ rights.
Hi Crispin, thanks so much for talking to us today!
Tell me a bit about your early life, I understand you were born in Germany when the country was still divided?
I am the product of a family steeped in regular military service. My father, Peter, began the Second World War whilst a boy soldier in Jersey, was commissioned in 1944 and saw action in Italy and Germany. His father, having been born and bred in Birmingham, came home from four years in the USA in 1914 to volunteer for the Machine Gun Corps, and then spent his whole career in what became the Royal Tank Corps, retiring as a senior Warrant Officer instructor at the Driving and Maintenance School of the Royal Armoured Corps Centre.
My other grandfather was a son of a Norwich doctor, who, unable to afford more than one son, commissioned into the county regiment, the Royal Norfolks, saw my grandfather Tommy commissioned instead into the Army Service Corps, which he rose to lead as a Major General, before being sent at the end of the Second World War to administer part of Germany under the Control Commission. He was joined by his daughter Adrienne, my mother, after her war service decoding Japanese signal traffic from Ceylon (Sri Lanka today). My father was posted to this Control Commission HQ and subsequently the Warrant Officer’s son married the General’s daughter. Two sons soon followed in 1951 and 1952, and by 1959 when commanding a transport supply company in Germany again, he was awarded the George Medal, having welded a driver out of crashed lorry leaking fuel.
About nine months later I arrived and started a fairly standard experience of Army Officers’ children, with a local British Forces Education Service school in Hamelin until boarding at a UK Preparatory school began aged seven when my father was posted to Singapore in 1968. Public school followed at Wellington College in 1973 to continue the strong military flavour to my upbringing.
You later moved to the UK to attend Sandhurst Military Academy. Did you always aspire to have a military career and were you proud to follow in your father’s footsteps?
I was first a schoolboy British military and naval history enthusiast, which led into history and current affairs. To play a part in our country’s story it seemed that the Army, and then politics was the best path. Knowing the pleasure and pride my success in getting a commission in 1979 brought my parents, despite my father’s strenuous efforts to stress it didn’t matter if it didn’t work out, did mean my own pride was reinforced in following in the family tradition.
You received your officers commission and got posted to Cyprus and Germany in the mid 80’s. Tell me a bit about your experiences from that time.
Having completed the Regular Career Course at RMA Sandhurst, I enjoyed the experience of being a young troop leader at Regimental duty in Essex, including Exercise Crusader in 1980, the month-long massive reinforcement exercise to practise the UK’s military response to a Soviet invasion across the inner German border (IGB). Our Commanding Officer ensured we did our duty with proper Cavalry elan, including his command vehicle having sufficient supplies of whisky to have some rename the Exercise Grousader. When comparing work drinking cultures No10’s latest efforts would have been pretty modest indeed by comparison!
In March 1981 I had a sublime summer in Cyprus, with frequent independent troop deployment to patrol the border with the Turkish forces, otherwise water skiing, snow skiing, cricket and sailing featured large as did enjoying Cypriot food. I celebrated my 21st birthday with a Scottish reeling party on a jetty on the beach inside the British Sovereign Base Area at Episkopi, before returning to England, posted to Durham University to study for a degree in Politics.
On returning to full time Regimental duty 3 years later in 1984, I completed my troop leading experience in Germany and as Regimental Operations Officer helped plan the regiment’s operational training as well as the planning for our role in the third world war when the Soviets rolled over the IGB, on which we would be first NATO military force to greet them. Our life expectancy wasn’t huge in those circumstances, as we planned the withdrawal in contact through the Harz mountains.
In 1990 you resigned your commission and began your political career, standing in the then Labour seat of West Bromwich East in 1992 (now ably represented by our friend Nicola Richards). What prompted this change in profession and what did you learn from those early days on the campaign trail?
When we were posted back to England at the end of 1986, the idea of exploring the option of politics became real. I had been President of the Durham Union Society, using debating to advance my practical engagement with political arguments of the day; CND, the Falklands war and the miners’ strike were topical, but I had not the slightest idea how strong the competition would be to get into Parliament, and whether it was remotely sensible to surrender a perfectly satisfying military career to roll the dice on politics.
I quietly applied to get on the approved Parliamentary Candidates list as the first hurdle to clear. In 1988 that worked and in 1989 Opposition held seats began the process of selecting their new Parliamentary standard bearers. Keeping the Army in the dark, I went for my first interview in Burnley one weekend in May 1989. Underprepared and utterly green, I was duly not invited back for the final. That was just as well as the Regiment was on exercise on Salisbury Plain on the day of the final and I wasn’t quite ready to give my excuses and resign.
Next seat up was Bristol South, notionally a marginal, but the left had had Jim Callaghan’s robust, right-wing Chief Whip, Michael Cox, deselected and replaced by “Red” Dawn Primarolo, who had a big swing against her in 1987, in what was traditionally a safe Labour seat. The Association indulged themselves in four rounds of selection and Robert Syms, John Bercow and I emerged as the finalists. On the day of the final, I told my Commanding Officer I wanted to resign my commission, calculating that even if I didn’t get the nomination at Bristol South, the prospects looked encouraging I would get nominated somewhere (albeit in an Opposition held seat) and have the chance to earn my spurs in a seat where no gain was expected following the 100-seat majority in 1987. The foam-flecked, right-wing rhetoric of the former Secretary of the Monday Club’s Immigration Committee duly secured John Bercow the nomination in Bristol South and a couple of months later I secured the nomination in West Bromwich East.
After a lunch with the Officers, I was taken out by the Councillor for Great Barr and he explained how he canvassed:
“I knock on the door and I say I’m Bob Lawrence, I’m your Conservative candidate for the Council and I’m in favour of hanging.”
Nearly three years of delightful learning in that wonderful part of the Black Country as the PPC followed.
After the election you went to work for the then-Defence Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. What was Malcolm like to work with?
Awesome, frankly! A new special adviser’s dream. He had been a Cabinet minister for 8 years by the time I was appointed; he never used a text for the political speeches I might otherwise have been expected to write, and his judgement was incredibly sound. Soon after I was appointed, the Treasury bowled a third heavy set of budget cuts at the Ministry in succession in the 1993 spending review, which, after the cuts following the end of the Cold War, 21991 “Options for Change”, then 1992 so-called son of Options, this £750M budget cut looked catastrophic in terms of capabilities to be lost.
Malcolm’s strategy, named “Frontline First”, was to ask all who worked for the Ministry to identify where savings could be made and worked better than anyone could have dreamt. 2,500 suggestions rolled in and we found £1.1 billion in savings from support and were able to create frontline capability enhancements such as putting cruise missiles on our submarines and give the RAF more flying hours.
His entire junior ministerial team were promoted to the Cabinet in the reshuffle that followed and his statement to Parliament in July 1994, announcing how this cut in the defence budget would be delivered, was received with cheers. He has remained a firm friend and if he hadn’t, out of a sense of duty and obligation to his former constituents in Edinburgh Pentlands, stood to try and regain his seat in 2001 and stood in England, history may have been very different.
You entered Parliament in 1997 when so many of your colleagues lost their seats. What are your memories from that election and the Tory wilderness years that followed?
I was selected shortly before the election, after my predecessor, Sir George Gardiner, was deselected at the second attempt. Two weeks later, he popped up as the Referendum Party’s candidate and there was concern he would sufficiently split the Conservative inclined vote to gift Labour a unique Surrey victory. However, he made little impact in reality and I haven’t had live TV broadcasting from my election count since!
For a young new MP, the wilderness years were as good a time to cut one’s parliamentary teeth as any, without the anxieties of a government whips office reining in personal enthusiasms. Indeed, I spent 5 years in the Opposition whips office helping bind the Conservative Parliamentary team together in the run in to 2010.
Tell me a bit about your constituency. What’s Reigate like to work and live in?
Reigate is a great place for young families, with strong local schools and a thriving voluntary sector with well supported local sports clubs. The Victorian railway town of Redhill, the halfway point to Brighton, complements nicely the medieval market town of Reigate. With the North Downs escarpment running through the centre of the constituency it has easy access to great walks and beautiful public space for everyone to enjoy. The principal challenges are about protecting and enhancing our environment, given that outside of this extraordinary period of pandemic, economic demand to live and work locally has remained high.
When the Conservatives returned to Government in 2010, you were appointed Minister for Prisons and Youth Justice under Ken Clarke. What are you most proud of from your time in government?
Abolishing the iniquitous sentence of indeterminate sentences for public protection. These sentences disgraced the 2003 Criminal Justice Act and getting rid of them in the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 was a significant advance for Justice in our country.
You’re a long-standing member of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanists Group and currently serve as its chair. Do you live your life by any kind of Humanist doctrine or is it more about an absence of religion?
I try to live by the instruction to love your neighbour as you love yourself. Recognising one’s obligations to each other and the sense in doing unto others as you would want done unto you as the basis of a better society than devil take the hindmost seems self-evident to me. These teachings lie within the great religions, but I’ve never been impressed with the claims of each on some supernatural power, for which only they have the key.
In 2013 you ran into some problems with your local party leading to you being temporarily deselected by your association executive. This happened not long after you made the brave decision to come out as gay. Do you think these events were linked and do you think gay candidates still face prejudice from their selectorates?
They were undoubtedly linked and the people who supported my deselection were unwise enough to say so. That made the ensuing campaign to get the support of the whole Association very straightforward as there was no performance or political positioning issue to address. 86% of local members voted in a secret ballot to endorse an out gay candidate.
I don’t think gay candidates still have to worry about this kind of thing, no.
During the EU referendum in 2016 were keen to reassure people that Brexit would not put LGBT rights at risk. How do you think we can improve the lives of LGBT people in our new place outside the EU?
An important part of our task in this Parliament is to clearly establish what Britain is for outside the EU. Our values must include being leaders on supporting individuals’ rights to be themselves, both in the UK and globally.
Earlier that year you raised eyebrows by stating that you had a history of using poppers during a debate on the ban of legal highs. Do you think the reaction to your comments showed a naivety from the government and wider society about gay culture?
Other than a typical Sun frontpage splash, No. The government’s response was to withdraw the proposed ban on poppers.
You’ve been unequivocal in your support for trans rights, often clashing with your colleagues on topics like self-ID. Why do you think the lives of transgender people have been brought under such scrutiny?
Trans people have been caught up in an unwelcome engagement in “the culture war”. They would firmly want this discussion to be taken on its merits of allowing them to live the lives they want to in the identity they feel. The Equality Act and common decency should enable this to happen and reasonable decisions to be made where competing rights might be engaged, but they are an easy target when extrapolating circumstances beyond reasonable and therefore have been played into the hands of those people who want to cross the road to have a fight. Calm reflection and some British balance and decency will see this resolved with trans rights secured and women’s reasonable anxieties addressed.
The word ‘woke’ has been bandied around a lot in the last few years and is often applied to LGBT rights. Does this word have any meaning in your eyes?
You’ve now been in Parliament for nearly 25 years. Out of all that time, who have been your favourite colleagues to sit alongside?
An utterly invidious question! If forced to choose, the Prime Minister was as much fun as any in my time.
If you were picked out first in the next ballot for Private Members Bills, what would you put forward?
The delivery of the right for humanist celebrants to marry. It has been a huge success in Scotland and its now well overdue for England and Wales to catch up.
Finally, and most importantly, what’s your favourite biscuit?