Written by Mark Stuart.
To his friends, Eric Forth, who served as a Conservative MP from 1983 until his untimely death in May 2006, was just an ordinary bloke who wore daft clothes. In the House of Commons, however, he was a larger-than-life character, who became famous for his brightly coloured ties, for his all-night filibusters and his status as ‘the Lord High Executioner’ of private members’ bills on a Friday. But is this a fully accurate portrayal?
Today marks the tenth anniversary of Forth’s death and it provides us with a timely opportunity for a revaluation of his parliamentary career. Forth, however, does not make the task of reevaluation an easy one. He created a caricature of himself, coming across as more right wing than he actually was. Forth may have had a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Elvis Presley in his office, but he was no cardboard cut-out right-winger.
Yes, he wanted to keep the Thatcherite flame alive following his beloved leader’s political demise in 1990, but his nine years as a minister from 1988 to 1997 were punctuated with pragmatic acts of kindness that did not fit the Rottweiler image. Special dispensations for the deaf negotiated with British Telecom and later the establishment of a code of practice for children with Special Education, do not match the caricature.
Forth’s psychedelic, flamboyant sartorial ‘style’ – the garish jewellery, the watch chains, the ever changing haircuts – was designed to make him stand out from the crowd. It was a trait that he had shown from a very early age, masking a much shier, diffident man underneath.
In front of his Conservative colleagues, Forth would pretend to be scornful of pandering to his voters in Bromley and Chislehurst, but any MP who visited his seat quickly realised he was adored by his constituents.
Even his antics in the House of Commons were designed to remind his fellow MPs of certain home truths about where their principles and priorities should lie, notably that the Executive needed to be held to account no matter how long that process took, in order to prevent the public from having unnecessary laws imposed upon them. It was pantomime, but with a purpose.
Forth really came into his own following New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. Alongside his friend, David Maclean, Eric launched a sustained guerrilla campaign against Tony Blair’s Government. The ‘Awkward Squad’, as it became known, used every procedural device in Erskine May to delay government business.
Few doubt that Forth became a master of procedure. Even fewer would question the undoubted morale-raising effect that his antics had on a beleaguered parliamentary Conservative Party, following such a shattering defeat. However, Forth’s overall reputation rests on whether his indiscriminate use of filibustering hastened the introduction of the automatic programming of government bills in 2000 (made permanent in 2004).
The accusation is that Forth upset the natural order of things between the two frontbenches, hastening the introduction of measures which have now made it harder for Oppositions to hold the Government to account. Supporters argue that New Labour was so Executive-minded that they would have introduced these changes anyway. Critics claim that Forth had a tendency to use a hand grenade when a rifle butt would have sufficed.
There is a third interpretation, however. By the 1997-2001 Parliament, times were changing irrevocably. Broader forces were at work, such as the changing gender balance of the House, the desire for more family-friendly hours (something Forth hated), the growing importance of the constituency and the rise of select committees, made Eric’s vision of where an MP’s priorities should lie – in the main Chamber, holding the Executive to account – largely redundant. Even when he was still alive, Forth became like an old stag roaring away. Ten years on, the vision of a Chamber-based parliamentarian that he fought so hard to preserve seems a lifetime away. Almost no-one, not even the most diehard members of the Awkward Squad, would want a return to all-night sittings.
Such questions and many more will be explored in a new authorized biography of Forth to be published in the late autumn of next year. Readers can expect some colourful language and some equally colourful characters, including insights from Forth’s widow, Carroll, who has sought to keep her late husband’s flame alive.
Whatever the final conclusions of this first ever biography of Forth, its subject would have sought to challenge the ‘cosy consensus’ (a favourite Forth phrase) surrounding his life. As Forth was fond of saying, ‘When nearly everyone agrees on something, it is probably wrong.’
One of Parliament’s most cussed, irascible characters, Forth was never scared to argue the opposite point of view, even if it meant that he was the only person prepared to do so. For good or for ill, he always sought out the controversial, asking that most important question in politics: ‘Why?’ And it is that willingness to challenge received wisdom which will stand as Forth’s lasting legacy.
Mark Stuart is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Screencap/C-SPAN