Former MPs Ann (Congleton) and Nick (Macclesfield) Winterton are very much Marmite figures. People either detest them for their right-wing views that seem to date back to Empire days (Ann is opposed to gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia), or love them as hard-working constituency MPs who stood up to authority and always spoke their minds.
The blurb for this book opens with: “With two MPs for parents, Sarah Winterton was one of the proudest women in the country” so you’re not expecting a critical appraisal within its 300 pages but to its credit it’s not a hagiography either. Sarah refers to some of the scandals that beset the Wintertons — that joke, those expense scandals, the friendship with Ian Smith — and while she explains them away a little too easily, she does at least address them honestly.
So, despite the fact that it’s been written by a loving daughter, it’s a good read and throws light on life in Parliament. It’s well-written and engaging, though the title’s obviously misleading: the Wintertons never were muzzled to begin with, so to suggest an unmuzzling is clearly a marketing ploy, but Sarah herself proves that she’s as blunt as her parents, with some pithy comments on leading politicians. (“To what question was ever Theresa May the answer?”).
It’s a book of two halves. The first half is personal: family life, biographies, how her parents met, getting elected. It’s a scene-setter really; people who dislike right wing Tories might find it a little over the top but it’s informative and honest.
The second half is more about Parliament itself and is more interesting, describing how much the Wintertons love the place and, in general, being a defence of MPs in general. There are a few bad eggs but most MPs are decent and hard working. It’s even exciting, such as when it talks about Nick’s role in the DeLorean affair, which took some bottle.
As said above, Sarah doesn’t shy away from the scandals. The famous “joke” Ann told at a Congleton Rugby Club dinner is covered, though it’s explained away rather too weakly: there is no reason for a public figure to tell a racist joke; it can arguably be excused away by saying Ann was from a different generation and couldn’t see how unacceptable it was. But you can forgive Sarah that, it’s her mum after all.
Oddly, while Sarah reports how devastated Ann was after being dobbed in about the joke (the Chron at the time was told a senior figure from a tabloid newspaper was in the audience), and given the generally admiring tone of the book, she doesn’t address what a good agriculture minister Ann would have been. She lost her shadow agriculture position over her lame jokes, but would have made a fine farms minister. Not only did she come from a farming area and know a lot about the industry, she was also allegedly the one person in Parliament who, at the time, understood the European Common Fisheries Policy. What a wasted opportunity, all down to one lame joke.
The Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009 is also discussed at length; in fact the report on the Wintertons, who breached the rules by renting a property from a family trust, is published as an appendix. Again, it’s a rather rose-tinted explanation. MPs should not push the rules as far as they can but should be leading by example. Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, once had a tabloid newspaper set its attack dogs on him, but they came up with nothing. The man who makes a career exposing hypocrisy and wrong-doing knows that he himself must be clear of any such behaviour.
On the other hand, Sarah explains why the expenses were pushed so hard by MPs — it was because Parliament felt unable to award MPs a decent pay rise, so the authorities gave the MPs a nudge and a wink as to how to make up their expense claims. This is an explanation that demands attention. MPs are often accused of being in their local paper all the time and it’s true but that means they’re spending their weekends at hundreds of events a year. We used to feel tired just seeing the photos of Ann from some weekends’ work. In the book, Ann claims that each event she attended cost her around £50 in general costs and raffle tickets, so you can see why MPs would see exes as a legitimate source of boosting their revenue. Not many school fair tombolas and raffle stalls give receipts, either.
Mistakes: we only found one, a claim that Congleton Carnival was the biggest in Europe, which it wasn’t. As unbiased observers, we’d also dispute the claim that Ann was known as Mrs Congleton around her constituency; it’s the first we’ve heard of it. We’d also dispute that Congleton was full of smiling people the day the Brexit result was announced; it wasn’t. It’s perhaps also surprising that less is made of Ann’s religious beliefs: she was a leading opponent of abortion, embryo research and euthanasia, vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, headed a bill aimed at stopping medical euthanasia (the last is mentioned), and supporter of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. The book says she “didn’t make a song and dance” about her religion, yet it was core to a lot of what she did.
But Sarah does make the very good point (and she makes a number of very good points) by pointing out that both Remainers and Brexiteers told massive lies and got away with it, while in 1963 John Profumo told what Sarah calls the “tiniest of tiny porkers” and had to resign. How times have changed.
Overall, a good read, and much better than you might expect from an adoring family member. Winterton fans will love every page, Winterton-antis might snort a few times as they read but still enjoy most of it, and even blowhard antis will probably concede that some of Sarah’s good points are valid ones.