Wednesday 26 October 2016

Vicar's daughter will need all the faith she can muster when crunch negotiations with Europe get under way

Published 16/07/2016 | 02:30

Brexit secretary David Davis. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Brexit secretary David Davis. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with David Davis - the new British Minister in charge of conducting the Brexit negotiations - and I thought him one of the most optimistic, grounded and positive politicians I have encountered. The optimism was particularly striking given his background. He was born to a single mother, Betty Brown, in York in 1948. His natural father abandoned Betty, and she was faced with the choice of an illegal abortion, an unwilling adoption, or the problems - and stigma, at that time - of bringing up her child alone. Bravely, she kept her son and he retained a life-long respect, as well as love, for his mother's fortitude.

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Subsequently, Betty married Ronald Davis, a fitter's mate, and they moved to a poor part of south London. The family - which now included David's half-sister - had very little money, but there was warmth, love, and from his step-father, Ronald, a valued sense of fatherly care and mentoring.

David Davis talked a lot about how important a father's role was in family life - perhaps because his biological father never bothered with him. It was Ronald Davis, and also an encouraging step-grandfather (who had been a Jarrow marcher and a member of the Communist Party) who became young David's role models.

"If you don't have strong male role models from the age of about nine, then you've got nothing to aspire to," he told me. "We know from experience - unfettered young males are a bloody disaster, from violence to suicide. They need stronger males to guide and control them."

He is rooted in his working-class, Labour-supporting background, and yet he became a Conservative. Germaine Greer might partly be to blame. He was tutored by Dr Greer at Warwick University, and though he liked her, he thought she talked "complete bonkers" when she started railing against "the patriarchy", and how feminists had to get rid of male power. David Davis (who has been married to his wife Doreen since 1973 and has three children) is himself a social conservative, favouring restrictions on ultra-liberal abortion, and although tolerant, not a great fan of same-sex marriage. Because of his background, he believes in solid family structures.

Yet, at the same time, he is a civil libertarian and has opposed the introduction of national identity cards on the grounds that the state should not spy on its citizens. He has been a long-term critic of the EU - he worked on the Maastricht Treaty - and has a brilliant reputation in committee hearings.

Davis has been a surprise appointment by the new UK Prime Minister Theresa May, but he shares many basic values with her.

As a vicar's daughter - it may be a gender-based stereotype, but her upbringing within the ministry of the Church of England is key to May's outlook - she also has an awareness of the poor, and those who struggle, as her first PM speech underlined.

Such an awareness was less visible among the gilded 'Notting Hill set' associated with the regime of Cameron and Osborne, from the rich and liberal metropolitan elite.

May's background wasn't working class in the same way as Davis's - her father's ministry was at St Mary the Virgin in Wheatley, Oxfordshire - but she did grow up with that mission of social responsibility which Americans would say is characteristic of 'PKs' ('Preachers' Kids').

She has said that her Anglican faith is "part of who I am and therefore how I approach my thinking".

As part of her Christian commitment, May has worked with Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, on issues of modern slavery and human trafficking. Those who have worked with her all say she is serious, hard-working and has scant time for cronyism or gossip around the Westminster bars: the vicarage earnestness prevails.

Her self-confidence - especially in her swift sackings - has astonished commentators. That may derive, to some degree, from being an only child, uniquely invested with her parents' hopes and aspirations. The new British cabinet has been notable for its constellation of able women and its inclusive element of Asians, plus a gay minister - Education Minister Justine Greening came out recently as a lesbian. And yet it is also seen as a more democratic mixture than previous Tory administrations, with most of the new ministers educated in state schools - Boris Johnson, alone, being the last survivor of the Eton brigade.

Interestingly, too, several of the new cabinet have made public their Christian faith: Andrea Leadsom, the Minister for the Environment, has emphasised her Christianity (as did the defeated Michael Gove).

Dr Liam Fox, responsible for International Trade, is a Catholic who has opposed liberal abortion laws. Patrick McLoughlin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is also a Catholic (and privately, so is the Governor of the Bank of England, the Irish-Canadian Mark Carney, though he seldom references it).

People bring their values to the political table, and the values of the new British administration seem more grounded in everyday experience and less associated with wealth and the 'Chipping Norton Set' than the outgoing 'Camaroonians'.

Still, when the crucial negotiations over Brexit get under way, May will need all the faith and confidence that she can muster.

Political life in London has been as dramatic as any Shakespeare play over the past three-and-a-half weeks, but now the gritty work of steering through turbulent waters really begins.

Irish Independent

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