Russia, Johnson, Exeter and Sicily – an interview with Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter, City of Sanctuary

Ben Bradshaw in Labour’s Exeter office.

In the first of a series of interviews with politicians, environmentalists, campaigners and creatives in our region, Anthea Simmons spoke with Ben Bradshaw at his constituency office on 4 March 2022.

We got stuck into Russia immediately. Way back in 2016, Ben was one of the very first to question the role of the Russians in the Brexit referendum, and to warn the UK it should wake up to Russian tactics being used all over the world to destabilise democracies and divide citizens. He was pretty much laughed-at back then.

“Now I feel as if the world is finally waking up to Putin’s true intentions. It’s depressing for me and others who have been saying for years that we have got to stop this man because he’s only going to get worse…much, much worse.

I fear we have left it too late for Ukraine. Yes, we can provide them with equipment and there’s no doubt that Putin has found it harder than he expected. But if he gets Ukraine, he isn’t going to stop there.

I think he will have been surprised by the speed and unity shown by the EU, but the real hope for an end to this lies with the Russian people and/or a bullet…”

Why do you think he hasn’t been taken out already?

“The Russian people are brainwashed. The men who surround Putin are implicated, cowed. And some in the West, and particularly in the UK, have facilitated him and become addicted to Russian money. You can see that by how very slowly this government has moved on sanctions. There may yet be some big revelations to come out and we have yet to see any action being taken on the Russia Report, which Johnson sat on for as long as he could and which remains available only in a heavily redacted version.

But the Ukraine tragedy has definitely destroyed some Brexit illusions as it’s clear that the UK is isolated from the EU, though it was interesting to note that Liz Truss actually attended a meeting of EU foreign ministers recently. It should be sinking in that our real economic and strategic interests still lie with Europe. Our security, too, importantly.”

There are still some moderate Conservatives on the back benches. Why don’t they speak out against Johnson and his lies? Our region is dominated by Conservative MPs (32 out of 34) and readers are frustrated by their silence and complicity.

“Well. There was the purge. Boris Johnson ruthlessly purged the party of moderates, Remainers and lost a huge amount of experience and expertise as a result. There are a few who stand up to be counted and the party is not a monolith, not least because there is no ideological coherence. There are free marketers and interventionists. As a result, tensions are rising within the ranks but then they’re kept in check by the fear of bringing the government down and losing their seats.”

I think many of us are horrified to see Johnson and the front bench lie, week in, week out and only those who call them out being punished. We find the Speaker’s limp stance frustrating.

“The speaker does not have the power to act to challenge the lies or the liars. The fact is, we must have electoral reform. The current system delivers governments which can operate untrammelled and it has become clear just how very few checks and balances we have to limit such power. In the past, prime ministers behaved themselves inside reasonable constraints, but Johnson is different. His only priority is to remain in power. The ‘good chaps’ principle is no constraint on him whatsoever. The legislation his government is bringing forward is designed for one purpose – to increase the power of the executive.

Why else would a parliamentary party facilitate a cabinet that is so second-rate, with ministers who would never hold office under any other PM to date? Why? Because of his personality. He demands slavish loyalty so he is surrounded by dreadful people like Patel and her appalling policies on refugees etc.

And the Williamson knighthood…so tawdry.”

Some people I have spoken to are a bit worried about your retirement as MP at the end of this parliament and the possibility that a split progressive vote may let a Conservative in down the middle.

I think we have built a Labour citadel in Exeter and I am optimistic that my “successor will be a strong candidate who people will want to back and who will have my full support.”

Progressive alliance?

“That’s dead and rightly so in my view. Voters, generally, don’t like it. But an informal non-aggression pact and independent tactical voting campaigns? Yes. Absolutely.
I am actually very optimistic that electoral reform will be on the Labour manifesto. I think the unions will back it at the next conference. They have been moving in that direction since the last, so I hope we’ll be going into an election with reform on our agenda.”

And the EU and rejoining?

“Ukraine is undoubtedly resetting the debate and Labour will move things on in a positive direction, repairing the damaged relationship and moving to an arrangement that looks more like EFTA or Switzerland. I don’t think full blown rejoin is likely in the short to medium term.”

What would happen if the Conservatives got in again?

“I think that would be extremely worrying for the future of democracy. Look. I am optimistic that they won’t win. I find America much more worrying. I think that if Trump is not off the scene – because of criminal charges or conviction – it’s entirely possible that we’ll see him back in the White House.”

What have been the high spots of your time as MP for Exeter?

“I think I am happiest about the transformation in the quality of Exeter’s schools. They were pretty poor, but now they are amongst the best-performing schools in the country. Education transforms life chances so I don’t think there is anything more important that you can do, as a politician.

And, personally, I am proud of the speed with which the Blair government swept away all those anti-LGBT laws. It even took me by surprise. I don’t think, though, that we can assume that they won’t be reversed by this government, given their attitude to human rights.”

What will you do when you retire?

“The plan is to do nothing for a year. My husband and I have bought a smallholding in Sicily and we’ll spend time there, getting to know the land and growing stuff. Then we’ll see. People who have retired say they are busier than ever!”

You’ll need to learn how to preserve your summer surplus for the winter months, like a true Italian!

“Yes. I am looking forward to it. There’s a lot to learn.”

Do you feel more British or European?

“I’m both…and more! I have no problem with multiple identities. There’s no conflict in being Exonian, Devonian, English, British, European. We all have a mix.”

What do you do to unwind?

“Yoga. Walking. Exercise is absolutely vital for mental and physical wellbeing.”

What will your next culture fix be?

“I am going to see Andrea Levy’s Small Island at the National. It will be the first play I have seen for two years.”

Favourite film?

“Casablanca”

Favourite book?

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky. I don’t like hearing about Russian authors being removed from the curriculum. Russian culture is amazing, rich, incredible …and nothing to do with Putin and his regime.”

Favourite food?

“Sicilian. Mediterranean. Anything that’s locally-produced, fresh and in season.”

Cats or Dogs?

[without a nano second of hesitation!] “Dogs!”

And if there was a fire and you had to save one thing?

“My bicycle!”

[Indeed! Ben on his bicycle is an iconic Exeter feature!]

And a message for the millions of pro-EU citizens whose views have been trampled by this Brexit government?

“Just work to defeat these Conservatives in useful, practical ways. Keep talking to people. Keep writing your articles.”

Lastly, a message for our readers, please! A lot of us feel overwhelmed by the bad news – Ukraine, Covid deaths, cost of living rises, the attacks on the NHS, human rights, the rule of law, the lying and corruption…it can seem unremittingly gloomy and sometimes we just feel like this government is trolling us.

“I know, but what you must do is channel your outrage into useful and practical politics. You might say you are not party political and don’t want to be, but useful, practical politics IS party politics, so go out and do something. It’s not good for our mental health to spend all our time in negative thinking and despair.

If I need a lift, I go out canvassing door to door. Seriously. It’s very uplifting. Most people are not extreme. They are not bigots. They want what’s best for their country and their family. Honestly; try it! It will cheer you up!”

Then and now…Ben’s first campaign placard