Tony Banks, in his own words: a recollection of Forest Gate's much missed local wit, sage and MP

Friday, 19 December 2014


There are few British politicians, living or dead, who could be relied on to light up a room with their utterances. In an era when blandness is the hallmark of Westminster MPs, Tony stood apart from the greyness, and was one of that rare breed.

He was the local MP, for Newham North West (later renamed West Ham) from 1983 - 2005, and lived, for most of that time, in Sprowston Road, pretty much opposite Romford Road's former Live and Let Live pub. He retired as MP when his old constituency was abolished and became Baron Banks, of Stratford. He died of a massive heart attack just a few months later, while visiting friends for a Christmas break, in January 2006.

As we approach the 9th anniversary of his death, it seems an appropriate time to recall some of his wit and barbed comments - and so, perhaps, add to the jollity of the festive season.

Potted biog

First, a quick potted biography.

Tony was born in April 1942, the son of a diplomat (whose language he never quite learned to master). He went to school in Brixton and university in York and the LSE.

He joined the Labour Party in 1964 and was elected to the Greater London Council in 1970 - on which he sat until 1977, then from 1981 until its abolition in 1986. He was a member of  Lambeth Council from 1971-4.

Banksy - as he was known -  was Assistant General Secretary of the Association of Broadcasting Staff (AGS, ABS) from 1973-83. In June 1983 he was elected MP for Newham North-West, with a majority of almost 7,000. He was chair of the GLC in its last year of existence, after which he was elected chair of the group of London Labour MPs. He held a number of shadow portfolios until Labour formed the government in 1997.

Tony quickly became known for his forthright language and acidic utterances; and it was a considerable surprise (not least unto himself and the party's prince of darkness, Peter Mandelson) when Tony Blair appointed him as Minister of Sport in May 1997. He was in heaven.


Tony, swearing his oath of allegiance
to the Queen, with his fingers crossed - one of
many gestures that got him in trouble
But his sharp tongue and unwillingness to toe the line lead to the inevitable: removal from office two and a half years later, after one gaffe too many, to occupy the non-job of "Prime Minister's envoy"  to win the 2016 World Cup bid. The bid, of course, failed, as did his attempt to become the Labour candidate for the London mayoralty in 2004.

He left the Commons a year later and was dead within another twelve months.

His last few years must have seemed like failure to the outside world, but he was characteristically philosophic about it - as will be seen, below.

He had trenchant and colourful views on many of his contemporary politicians, as the following illustrate.

On Margaret Thatcher

 She is happier getting in and out of tanks than in and out of museums or theatre seats. She seems to derive more pleasure from admiring missiles than great works of art. What else can we expect from an ex-spam-hoarder from Grantham, presiding over the social and economic decline of the country.
She is as about as environmentally friendly as the bubonic plague. I would be happy to see Margaret Thatcher stuffed, mounted, put in a glass case and left in a museum. She believes that anybody who opposes her - whether the Opposition or one of her friends - must, by definition, be wrong. She is a natural autocrat surrounded by a bunch of sycophants, many of whom have betrayed everything in which they once claimed to believe. She is far more influenced by Attila The Hun than Saint Francis of Assisi. She is a petty minded xenophobe who struts around the world interfering and lecturing in an arrogant and high-handed manner. 
But Banksy was considerably less ambiguous in his views
She is a half-mad old bag lady. The Finchley whinger. She said the Poll Tax was the government's flagship. Unfortunately for the Conservative Party she keeps bobbing up again. Her head keeps appearing above the waves.

On the Poll Tax:

It was a tax which was drawn up by some half-wit in the Department of the Environment. A tax which was unfair, unloved, unclear - a good description of Margaret Thatcher's government.

On John Major

I have always found it a personal advantage to loathe my political opponents. It is not usually difficult, but the Prime Minister is certainly not one of those. How could I? We both grew up in Brixton. We both like beans on toast. Where on this conjoined road of shared experiences did the Prime Minister go so badly wrong and become a Tory? I think it was when he got turned down for the job of bus conductor. He had his heart set on punching tickets and helping little old ladies on and off the bus, but he was spurned. At that point he vowed hideous revenge on us all, but to be able to get it, first he had to punch the little old lady from Finchley off the bus. Having achieved that he has now turned his attention to the rest of us. Our fate is to be even more horrible than to be frog marched out of Downing Street. We are to be buried under charters. (19 Nov 1991)
He was a fairly competent chairman of Housing (on Lambeth Council). Every time he gets up now I keep thinking "What on earth is Councillor Major doing?" I can't believe he's here and sometimes I think he can't either. (24 Apr 1994)
Throughout the year, he stood like the little boy on the burning deck of the Titanic, with his finger in the dyke, an apple on his head and his foot in his mouth" , awarding John Major, 'Survivor of the Year. (27 Dec 1996.)

John Major, like Tony, was an-ex Brixton
boy, former Lambeth councillor and
Chelsea FC and Surrey CC fan

On other, contemporaries

Kenneth Clarke:
In his usual arrogant and high-handed fashion, he dons his Thatcherite jackboots and stamps all over local opinion.  He's like Hitler with a beer belly.  He is a pot-bellied old soak. (21 Jun 1994)

Michael Portillo:
At one point Portillo was polishing his jackboots and planning the next advance. The next thing is he shows up as a TV presenter. It is rather like Pol Pot joining the Teletubbies. (Oct 1997)

Taking as good as he gave

The Banksy abuse was not a one way street. Every sharp pen in Fleet Street and beyond rose to the challenge of trying to emulate his invective, as the following indicates:

The Times :

Banks' lip, his street cred suits and streetwise insults bring the flavour of Newham to the corridors of Westminster
Overand and Sea - West Ham fanzine:
The Newham Nutcase , (Oct 1997)

Evening Standard :
The names Peter Stringfellow and Tony Banks rarely appear in the same sentence. After all, one's a sharp-dressed, silken-tongued smoothie and the other owns a nightclub (21 May 1996)

Daily Telegraph:
Everyone knows that Banks was going to be the cabaret turn in Blair's government; first there was the record of his parliamentary brawling, then there was the way in which he was blissfully unprepared for ministerdom - he hit the ground stumbling. On his first day, he bounded in half an hour late in jeans, having had to find out where the ministry was, and proceeded to lead the press upstairs to inspect his pokey office. To fantasy footballers everywhere, it was brilliant - as if the fans were bawling national anthem's in the directors' box. To the civil servants used to stiff-collared subtlety, it was disconcerting. (18 Aug 1997)

Matthew Parris:
A total ape, baboon, buffoon,. clown, harlequin, jackass, jester, joker, monkey, pantaloon, pickle-herring, scallywag, tomfool, half-wit, barmpot, headbanger, eejit numpty.   (The Times)

Chelsea  fan

Tony was a huge - and unswerving -Chelsea fan, from the days when it was an unfashionable club. On being appointed Minister of Sport, he said he would give the job up if he was required to be impartial, and on the occasion when Chelsea were at Wembley, during his period in office he sat with the fans, rather than in the royal box.

On being selected to stand for Parliament in Newham, Tony was asked by the Newham Recorder if he was going to switch his political allegiances from Chelsea to West Ham, to which he replied. "In life, you can change your religion, wife and even politics - but never your football team." He lived that sentence, almost to the letter!

And the club were never far from his thoughts, so in Parliament:



When I first heard about this new drug Viagra, I thought it was a new player Chelsea had just signed. (30 May 1998)
He even portrayed his role in government, in self-effacing Chelsea terms:
My role is to serve as the long-stop, for those who are cricketers, or as a sweeper for those who are interested in football. I see myself as perhaps the Ruud Gullit of the government team, although the Honourable Members will probably notice, I am considerably shorter, I am not black and I do not have dreadlocks. (27 Jun 1997)

To his amusement, he shared his support with John Major - who he was always pleased to say sat at the opposite end of Stamford Bridge to him, and the completely loathsome David Mellor, whom, quite inexplicably, he quite liked .

The slimeball Mellor was, of course, caught up in a sleazy affair with an  "actress" Antonia De Sancha, which resulted in claims that he  had sex with her, wearing a Chelsea kit - memorably recreated by the ever-helpful Sun (see photo). On seeing this, Banksy quipped, of his mate:
I couldn't possibly emulate the feats of one D Mellor. Since the great days of Jimmy Greaves, it's the only time anyone's managed to score four times in night in a Chelsea shirt. The question we are all asking is, of course, did they change ends at half time? (Aug 1997)

David Mellor, the ugly face of politics,
Chelsea support and taxi passengers

Newham

He was characteristically blunt, when discussing his views on his constituents:

To Private Eye, - describing the children in his constituency, he said that they were: "More likely to be out nicking TVs than watching them." (Feb 1990)



I seem to represent some of the dirtiest constituencies in the country, and what's more I say so in the local papers. That was the gist of my New Year's message to the good folks of Newham - that they were a pretty filthy bunch who should clean up their act. (1994)
I have a personal concern about blight; the (Channel) tunnel goes immediately underneath my house. I am quite happy about that, but is there any compensation in this for me? My property, along with many others, has been blighted; its value has gone down. People do not want to buy a house over a tunnel (Nov 1995)
Although the tunnel will go immediately under my house in Forest Gate, I cannot wait to sit in my front room and hear the rumble of the trains on their way to Stratford. (29 Feb 1996)
For the benefit of those Hon Members who think that I live in a concrete jungle I should point out that many cattle once wandered on Wanstead Flats, which is in my constituency, and it was a delight to see them. I have not seen them around recently, but I suppose they have gone the way of all flesh (13 Nov 1996)

In his own words:

I am a vegetarian. However, I am nobody's turnip. I came to vegetarianism fairly late in my somewhat dissolute life; it has been a journey of discovery ... I am however, no food fascist. If people wish to eat meat and run the risk of dying a horrible, lingering hormone-induced death after sprouting extra breasts and large amounts of hair, it is, of course, entirely up to them. (8 Mar 1995)
'm personally going to be pushing very hard for synchronised nose-picking. I think it has a great future, judging by the number of MPs who indulge in it. (1 Feb 1998)

On cash for questions:
Since I was elected, I have tabled 6,919questions. If I had received £1,000 for each of these, I'd have netted a cool £7million, which would have meant that I could have faxed this speech from Mustique. (13 Jul 1994)
Tony was just like Ruud Gullit
- except he was shorter, not black
and didn't have dreadlocks
On sex:
I certainly didn't manage it until I was quite a bit older than most people. It really annoys me, even now, when I realise that so many of my most creative years were wasted in an unnecessary and unwanted celibacy.

To fellow Newham MP, Nigel Spearing, in the Commons, on a debate on drugs
If my Hon Friend wants a spliff, I will no doubt be able to supply him with one, but it will not be one that I have rolled myself. (9 Jun 1995)
I was totally and utterly gobsmacked when I got The Call (to be Minister of Sport). I mean that. I'm not just saying it. It was a complete and utter surprise. Because I had no reason whatsoever to expect a call. Perhaps, some might argue, no justification.  So, when I got the call I thought it was a spoof. Then, when I heard the very efficient voice on the switchboard at Number 10 Downing Street, I thought: 'Oh, no, I'm going to get told off."' Perhaps the lavatories were blocked or something. Could I possibly come round with me plunger. And then it turned out it was Himself, saying 'I'd like you to be the new Sports Minister ... I actually said 'Fuck me!' Then I said 'I don't quite know what to say', except then, of course, I managed to say 'Yes'. There wasn't much of a pause. Nanoseconds. I went for it. (19 Sept 1997).

He was equally blunt on the role of local MP, when discussing his retirement , with the BBC's then political editor, Robin Oakley:
To be honest I found it intellectually numbing, and tedious in the extreme. I most certainly won't miss the constituency work. I've got to tell you that honestly. It's 22 years of the same cases, but just the faces and the people changing. It might sound a little disparaging to say this about people's lives and their problems and we did deal with them ... but I got no satisfaction from this at all. I really didn't. And all you were was a sort of high-powered social worker and perhaps not even a good one at that.

Last words

My epitaph will be: 'He Was a Complete Tosser'

Footnote

Thanks for much of the material to West Ham fan, Tory, broadcaster and publisher, Iain Dale, the source of many of the quotes, above, from his jolly little stocking filler, published in 1998 The Wit and Wisdom of Tony Banks - a Tribute to a Parliamentary Character. There's much more of a similar nature in there, so if the above has tickled a rib or two - get the whole cage in motion by purchasing, or otherwise acquiring, the volume!

Happy Christmas - one and all!

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