Nick Thomas-Symonds: "Brexit has produced a more assertive parliament"
Like his political hero, Nye Bevan, Nick Thomas-Symonds hails from the South Wales Valleys. From excelling at school to a successful career as a barrister, his trajectory has always been upwards. Now shadow solicitor general, does the 38-year-old have higher ambitions? He talks to Sebastian Whale
Two people have been appointed a don at the University of Oxford aged 21. One went on to become leader of the Labour party and prime minister. The other is in the early stages of their political journey.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow solicitor general, emulated Harold Wilson in 2001. After graduating with a degree in PPE at St Edmund Hall, he was made a tutor at the very same college. Eighteen years later, the frontbencher is penning a biography of Wilson – his third such book after efforts on Clem Attlee and his political hero, Nye Bevan.
Like Bevan, Thomas-Symonds hails from the South Wales Valleys. Growing up in Blaenavon, he has lived within his constituency of Torfaen all his life. He went to St Alban’s RC High School in Pontypool where he met his wife, Rebecca, at the age of 17. His mother, who passed away at the start of last year, worked in a factory. His father worked in steelworks throughout his working life.
Thomas-Symonds took a shine to politics early on. He was the minute secretary of the Blaenavon Labour party at the age of 16, and later served as secretary of the constituency party. He was also a devout football fan, though suffered from a “slight talent problem” as a player. He was moulded politically by the 1980s and his mother’s “compassion” and desire to help other people. “We were seeing then the real adverse impact that the Thatcher government had on not just the valley that I’m from, but the other South Wales Valleys as well,” he adds.
As a teenager, Thomas-Symonds was invited to Michael Foot’s home on Pilgrim’s Lane in Hampstead after requesting a meeting to discuss Labour history. Having written a biography of Bevan some years earlier, Foot declared that Thomas-Symonds should be the person to write a new book. “At that point, I felt on top of the world,” he recalls.
Foot’s wife, Jill, collared Thomas-Symonds as he was leaving. She asked if he’d had a good chat with her husband, before adding: “You do realise though, don’t you, that he flatters everybody he meets. He works out the very best way to flatter them as well.”
To this day, the 38-year-old isn’t sure whether it was flattery or sincerity. He wrote a book regardless.
On the standout Labour figures of his lifetime, Thomas-Symonds cites Gordon Brown as “a giant of the times”. “If you look at politics today, clearly it has been shaped by the worldwide financial crash of 2008, which is still having a huge impact here and all over the world. History will look very kindly on Gordon Brown’s response to that,” he argues.
Thomas-Symonds remained a tutor at Oxford until his election in 2015, teaching classes on politics periodically while working as a barrister specialising in commercial and chancery law. During his 11 years in law, he accumulated various accolades, and was regularly featured in Chambers and Partners as a “leader in the field”.
Getting elected in 2015 was the logical step for a man whose trajectory had pointed upwards from a young age. But little could he have known what he was letting himself in for. The 2015 intake has been through an EU referendum, two Labour leadership contests, a general election, and suffered the loss of a dear colleague. “We are all deeply scarred by the loss of Jo Cox,” Thomas-Symonds says. “It’s three years nearly have passed now since she was killed for nothing else apart from doing her job. It’s always been very difficult to cope with.”
Thomas-Symonds was appointed to the frontbench just four months after being elected, serving as shadow pensions minister. He moved to Labour’s DWP team before resigning in June 2016. In October that year, he was made shadow solicitor general, and was given additional responsibilities as shadow security minister in July 2017.
His time on the frontbench has corresponded with creative use of parliamentary procedure by the Labour party. Following the 2017 election, the Government decided not to oppose Opposition Day debates, which close with non-binding votes on motions put forward by opposition parties. In response, the party began to deploy an antiquated 19th Century parliamentary mechanism called a humble address, which is binding upon a Government.
The party used the procedure to force the Government to release the legal advice from Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. When the full guidance was not published, the Commons found the Government in contempt of Parliament.
“It was a shame the government staggered its way to that position,” says Thomas-Symonds. “It was ineptitude in my view. It was also a sense that parliament’s asserting itself. When I taught politics, one of the lectures was about the growing executive domination of parliament. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how things come full circle.”
He adds: “Brexit has produced a more assertive parliament.”
As Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general, sits in the Lords, Thomas-Symonds responds to Cox in the Commons. The Attorney General has garnered attention for his theatrical and compelling delivery.
“He and I have very different styles. That contrast comes through when we speak. We’re from very different backgrounds and things like that, but I also think we were lawyers in different fields as well, which also shows,” Thomas-Symonds says.
“Obviously, Geoffrey was somebody who – he practised outside the jurisdiction as well – but you can see the jury speeches when he’s speaking. The kind of law I ended up doing, chancery commercial law, you had to be very forensic. The judges I appeared in front of did not want long, flowery speeches… The contrast in style – which is no bad thing, you don’t want to be the same – also comes from that.”
Hailing from a constituency that voted in favour of Leave, Thomas-Symonds says he supports the party’s position on a second referendum being a “preferable outcome” to a no deal exit. But he adds: “I would like there to be a deal that we could vote for and coalesce around.”
His main gripe is not with the Withdrawal Agreement: “My issue with the Prime Minister’s deal is the political declaration. I feel I’m being asked to go on a magical mystery tour.”
A high achiever from a young age, Thomas-Symonds has worked his way up the food chain during his first four years in parliament. As he already emulated Wilson once, I can’t help but ask if there is any other way in which he hopes to follow in the former PM’s footsteps.
“When I was growing up, I wanted to be the Member of Parliament for my constituency. What I’m here to do is to make a difference. As long as I make a difference, I’ll be happy doing what I do.”