In my 37 years in the House of Commons, I have always been aware of the role that my religion has played in my political life. I was educated by the Jesuits at Stonyhurst in Lancashire. The school’s motto is “quant je puis – as much as I can”. We were instilled with a sense that our education was a springboard to a life of purpose. We were taught self-discipline and never to give up. We look back with pride at the many young men from the school, then known as St Omer’s, who were martyred, some of whom were later canonised. These were followed by seven VCs, whose portraits hang in the school refectory.
My entry to the House of Commons was in a by-election in May 1984, following the death of Sir Hugh Fraser, the Catholic MP for Stafford. The night before the final selection meeting, I went into our Chapel Room with its mid-15th-century medieval crown beams. The reason for this was that during the renovation of Battlefield Church, near Shrewsbury, the 15th-century oak carved Madonna and child pietà from the church had been left with us for protection, as the restoration commenced. The church was named after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. I visited the pietà to spend a moment of reflection in the room and to ponder my reasons for hoping to enter parliament.
Indeed, at every important turning point in my career, I have sought calm and retrospection before major political battles, such as Maastricht and the Referendum vote. Also, in my votes against abortion and for the protection of women and children and third-world sanitation and water and reduction of debt. To inform my judgment and purpose, I walk down to the little Norman church of St Michael, which is a mere 50 yards from our house. It is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust and I visit it regularly, taking time to mow the grass and keep it in good condition. This has become a regular part of my week, particularly during the enforced lockdowns of Covid.
At 11pm on 31 December, I raised a glass with my wife, Biddy – Brexit was finally done
This year I listened to midnight mass on the radio and then watched Pope Francis celebrating mass from St Peter’s on television. On Christmas Day, I walked to the church and rang the 13th-century bell, as an act of homage and remembrance to all those who have passed through its portals over the centuries, with a prayer for our country’s deliverance from Covid. The church was built in 1135 on an Anglo-Saxon site.
Our church buildings tell the story of England. I like to sit there and reflect on the century upon century of faith and devotion by young and old, rich and poor. There is a fragmentary 12th-century wall painting depicting St Stephen and a lead-lined Norman font, now returned from Gordonstoun School, which mysteriously arrived there “for safekeeping” when Prince Charles was at the school.
The Cressett family of Upton Cressett fought at Crécy in 1346 in the king’s division and were later greatly engaged in the Wars of the Roses. Young Edward V stayed here on his way from Ludlow castle to the Tower. Francis Cressett was treasurer and confidante to Charles I and tried to rescue him from Carisbrooke Castle in 1648. The family visited the Jesuit college in Rome several times. Prince Rupert stayed in the gatehouse for a time in the Civil War. Another, James Cressett, was ambassador to Hanover for a decade.
Upton Cressett is no stranger to major turning points in our political and constitutional history. Indeed, on Boxing Day, a courier from Downing Street arrived shortly before lunch with the 1,246 pages of the EU Trade Agreement as a Christmas present from Boris. I chaired the legal analysis of the Agreement by the European Research Group’s “Star Chamber”. In the darkness of Covid, there is always hope. Upton Cressett was itself ravaged by the Black Death. How lucky we are today to have the genius of our medical scientists in the development of the vaccine, but do we take too much for granted in our modern world?
I believe we do. As the eldest member of the House of Commons, born on 10 May 1940, as Churchill became prime minister that evening, my lifetime stretches back a whole generation. I remember the war and the day in July 1944 when I answered the door, and my mother collapsed. I had just been handed the telegram to inform her that my father, Captain Paul Cash of the Royal Artillery, had been killed in action in Normandy against the Panzer divisions, winning the Military Cross.
I remember VE day and holding my mother and grandmother’s hands as we sang hymns of deliverance at the service of Victory and Remembrance. But I also recall the real austerity of the post-war period, where we learned to live with ration books. It was ironically a happy time because we had much to be grateful for, with a strong sense of hope and ambition for the future. Things gradually improved. Great strides were made in achieving prosperity; with better education, better technology and better medicine. Then came the computer, the mobile phone and the internet. We achieved higher and higher standards of living and lower unemployment.
Perhaps we came unwisely to make assumptions that it would all continue forever, and then came Covid. So I look back in time and with faith and reflection, but also with hope that the new vaccine will take us forward with a sense of renewal for 2021.
With Brexit we can now make our own laws in our own free parliament, a priceless freedom. At 11pm on 31 December, I raised a glass with my wife, Biddy, as we reacquired our democratic freedom and heard the chimes of Big Ben. I reflected again on how much I owed to my Catholic faith and to the inheritance of my upbringing and religious education, which has helped me so much over my past 37 years in “the Mother of Parliaments”.
This phrase was coined by John Bright MP, who was our cousin in the mid-19th century. His political statesmanship was embedded in his own Christian faith, as a Quaker, as was that of his cousin, Frederick Lucas MP. Lucas, a friend of St John Henry Newman, converted from Quaker to Catholicism in a week and then founded The Tablet and became a leader of the anti-slavery movement. Faith and politics go hand in hand.