Thursday, 23 October 2008

David Evans RIP

In a funny way, David Evans - the former Conservative MP for Welwyn and Hatfield who died this week - has a good claim to be right up there with Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock and Norman Tebbit as among my formative political influences.

Collecting signatures for a petition against the national identity card scheme for football supporters was, at the age of 14, my first piece of direct political activism.

Evans had persuaded Margaret Thatcher to pursue the policy, though this was dropped not just due to supporter's campaigns against it, but because Lord Justice Taylor's report into the Hillsborough tragedy concluded the scheme should be dropped on safety grounds. (Football's transformation from sporting pariah to fashionability after Italia '90 might otherwise have been impossible).

As Chairman of Luton Town Football Club, Evans claimed to have a hotline to the masses.

In football, he was a utilitarian opponent of the beautiful game, with his plastic pitch and ban on away supporters.

In politics, he was proud to shock and sought to be the most outspoken champion of the "nasty party' agenda - vocally backing not just hanging, but flogging too. Today's Times obituary also notes his penchant for straightforwardly racist and homophobic comments.

Evans' felt he was the victim of social snobbery within his own party when seeking a seat - "I didn't have the right accent" - and in the liberal media. As John Mullan wrote in a piece on changing attitudes to accents in the Guardian in 1999:

Scarcely any Guardian or Independent article involving David Evans, former Tory MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, failed to mention his car-salesman's accent, a sound to chill the blood of any liberal - it seemed the incarnation of Thatcherite brutalism.

Yet Evans also embraced this thuggish persona with gusto and made it his political calling card - even if today's Telegraph obituary quotes a friend who believes this populist public persona was "David being flippant – the froth on the pint of beer. He was a seriously good guy")

Hmmm. Speaking to sixth formers ahead of the 1997 election, Evans attacked had attacked Melanie Johnson, his unmarried Labour opponent, as "a single mum with three bastard children". So his heavy defeat on a 12% swing - like that of the homophobic campaign of Adrian Rogers in Exeter and the failure of attacks against Gisela Stuart for being German-born in Birmingham Edgbaston - also seemed to symbolise a rejection of thuggish populism which was no longer as popular as its advocates thought.

Evans tended to go rather further than most of his Parliamentary colleagues, because he was confident that his was the authentic voice of the Tory grassroots.

He may have been right in the 1980s. Let's hope he would be wrong today.

I am not sure there is a direct heir to David Evans on the Tory backbenches now. The disappearance of his Alf Garnett-style xenophobia from mainstream politics would certainly be a sign of social progress.

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