Sitting on the hard, Eurosceptic right wing of the Conservative party, Dr Liam Fox is the MP for North Somerset. In 2005 he stood unsuccessfully for party leadership. During David Cameron’s first term as Prime Minister, Fox had a brief stint as the Defence Secretary. He is currently a credible contender to be the next party leader.
The night before the interview, I had the immense pleasure of hearing Dr Fox lay out the case for Brexit in a lively after dinner debate with Lord Robertson, the former Secretary General of NATO. Fox shone, carrying the room with punchy eloquence and some convincing assurances about how life would look beyond the Eurozone.
I arrive a little late at BBC Scotland’s inconspicuous offices in the shadow of Salisbury Crags.
Liam sits there impeccably dressed, hunched over his IPad. His Chief of Staff invites me to sit. The IPad is set aside and we exchange a few pleasantries about his performance the night before.
The first thing that strikes me about Dr Fox is just how anglicised he has become. He was born in 1961 and grew up in a council house in East Kilbride, one of Britain’s ‘new towns’, those prefab panaceas for our bombed-out, overcrowded cities. Fifty-four years later and the West of Scotland is often almost imperceptible in his frank tones.
I ask him where he feels most at home, in the South West with neighbours like Jacob Rees Mogg or back in Scotland?
‘I feel at home in Somerset. I’ve been the MP there for almost a quarter of a century. That’s where my wife and I live. That’s home’.
Do you feel this country has changed almost existentially in the time you’ve been away?
‘It is very different. The constant hype around independence has gone from being a pride in Scotland to being xenophobic; it’s become unpleasant. I draw a big distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Being proud of who you are is a good thing but when it’s largely based on your antipathy for someone else it’s not healthy’.
For Boris it was a night of snorting what he now claims was icing sugar. For The Prime Minister, it was something a little more off-piste, if Lord Ashcroft is to be believed. Everyone was young once.
In Liam’s late teenage years he took the decision to support Glasgow University Union barring gay members on the basis that he didn’t want them ‘flaunting it’ in front of him.
This antique episode in the MP’s life has received what some might call undue attention. I ask Liam whether the nation’s obsession with politicians’ pasts deters people from going into politics to such an extent that parliament risks becoming blander?
‘Well it’s a very strange cultural thing. People say they don’t want colourless politicians and yet they’ll attack any colour they can find. I think the way politics is carried out is going to make people less likely to embark on a political career from another profession and that’s going to mean politics is drawn from a narrower background which isn’t good for law-making. If we’re not careful we’ll end up with the most colourless, least experienced people’.
Dr Fox is noted for being a vocal Atlanticist. I ask him whether he gazes across the Atlantic and worries that the special relationship is in danger or whether he looks at Trump and concludes that Hillary is heading for an easy win?
‘I don’t think it’s very clear exactly what will happen yet. First of all the special relationship is one that’s based on our mutual interest in intelligence and our mutual interest in security. That’s too important to be affected by which party is in government in Britain or which party is in government in America’.
So Trump doesn’t fill you with dread?
‘No, but I do think the current system raises questions about whether the duopoly in America is as relevant in the 21st century as it might have been in the past. For a prosperous country that has exported its values around the world, based on diversity, it seems a touch anachronistic to be locked into a two party state’.
I enquire tentatively whether the same could be said at all for the UK? Immediately, I regret it. Liam looks at me as though I have just come out as a Corbynista and responds, ‘quite simply absolutely not. We’ve just been in a successful coalition with the third party for five years’.
For a long time, Dr Fox has been an outspoken subscriber to the notion of Broken Britain. In the contest for Tory party leadership in 2005 he pledged to fix the nation. I ask whether he believes things have improved, and if not, will we see him return and come to the country’s moral rescue?
‘I still think there are issues we need to deal with. Male suicide rates are a worry. Everyone talks about the need for diversity and yet nobody seems to worry about poor white boys. We need to stop obsessing with particular minorities. Before anything else in politics I’m a meritocrat. We’ve got to start looking at our society as a whole; in some places people are being more disadvantaged than others’.
So is society sicker now?
‘I don’t think it’s any better’.
So will we see Dr Fox return to cure the nation? Do you see yourself as a future party leader?
‘Who knows. Anybody who says never, has never seen Jeremy Corbyn’.
If it’s not to be you, who would you support as Cameron’s successor?
Liam pauses and then answers evasively, ‘there’s a whole lot’, before going on to denounce the current obsession with personality politics, ‘the idea that you pick a personality and hope an agenda will follow them is dangerous’.
I can’t help but wonder if this response reveals more than is immediately obvious. The wave of populism sweeping through politics is something that favours very few. Dr Fox displays remarkable intellectual wattage and speaks excellently, but I wonder if he has qualms about how well he would do against some of the party’s biggest beasts in a personality contest.
At this point, Liam’s Chief of Staff interrupts with the announcement that I have two minutes before Dr Fox has to disappear upstairs for a radio appointment. So I conclude the interview where Liam’s political career began, by asking him about his time as a GP.
‘I think that one of the good things about having been in medicine is that you have a genuine idea of what a crisis looks like. I mean a baby born with an umbilical cord around its neck feels like a crisis. Somebody having a cardiac arrest feels like a crisis; somebody writing things you don’t like in a newspaper is an irritation. Working in medicine gives you a sense of perspective’.
And he’s right. Unkind things, whether in newspapers or more often on the Internet, should be seen as little more than irritating. But his response jars a little. I would imagine that being the Defence Secretary and taking decisions which may result in innumerable deaths, might put most things seen in a doctor’s surgery in perspective. But that, I suppose, is a peculiar blessing of distance. A crisis doesn’t feel like a crisis when it’s tens of thousands of miles away.