Monday, 10 May 2010

Evan Worse

This is a cross-post from The Hearth of Mopsus by James Rattue

I find myself today in the unusual position of feeling I must defend erstwhile Oxford University Lib Dems election supremo and MP for Oxford West Dr Evan Harris. As has been recently alluded to at Heresy Corner, it is no secret among some that in those far-off days of the fallout from the merger of the Liberals and the SDP, when we were both involved in Oxford student politics, I and the Dr found ourselves adversaries in certain matters. At this distance I can judge it all as involving questions of style rather than real principle although it seemed terribly important at the time, as student politics often does.

Evan was, we found, incredibly difficult to work with, and after he won Oxford West and Abingdon in 1997 I concluded (and was not shy of saying) that he was doing less damage and more good as a backbench Liberal Democrat MP than he’d done at any stage of his political career hitherto. When Charles Kennedy appointed him Party spokesperson on women’s rights it even provided some laughs, which I suspect Good-Time Charlie fully intended it should.

Evan gradually became more and more concerned with secularism, assisted dying, and other such issues. As I underwent a parallel and opposite movement of becoming an orthodox-minded Christian and eventually an Anglican priest, I couldn’t be expected to sympathise much with this, but I curiously respected it. At Oxford Evan talked very little about ideas or beliefs. He did have something of a narrative of what had led him into politics, involving growing up in Liverpool and observing the incompetence and neglect of the city at the hands of the Labour Party, but that was as far as it went. Yet his secularist stance was something he pursued despite strong opposition and which won him few friends; one can only conclude that he actually believes it. I have no idea what led Evan to follow this line, and it would be interesting to find out; it certainly wasn’t anything he ever talked about at Oxford.

On Thursday Evan lost his parliamentary seat to the Conservatives, apparently as a result of boundary changes, by a tantalising 176 votes; once upon a time I might have nursed a touch of schadenfreude, but that’s long past. It’s the way things work in UK politics – but there was an extraordinarily fatuous and vitriolic column by George Pitcher in the Telegraph crowing over the Doctor’s defenestration. ‘Revd’ Pitcher places Evan Harris’s title in quotation marks, as though he isn’t qualified to practice medicine at all - see how offensive it looks when I do it? – describes him as ‘a stranger to principle’, and alleges that his election as an MP was simply a convenience to allow him to pursue his campaign on behalf of the National Secular Society.

As I say, I don’t recall Evan saying anything about secularism until long after his election; something unknown has happened to him to convince him about it. But then George Pitcher doesn’t know anything about Evan. I don’t agree with Dr Harris, never have done really, but I can only see someone who has grown as a result of his experience of public office and, probably, working in the medical profession as opposed to simply shoving leaflets under students’ doors. I suppose I’m the naïve one for expecting better from a priest.

The Hearth of Mopsus