‘How do we stop the country from tearing itself apart?’: Lord Bates’ pursuit of the common ground
People react to conflict in different ways. Some actively seek it out, others actively avoid it. For Michael Bates, politics has become an almost inhospitable environment. To find the common ground, the Conservative peer and former minister has embarked on a walk from Belfast to Brussels. Nearly 200 miles into his journey, Sebastian Whale joins him in west Yorkshire
As his colleagues tore chunks out of each other in the Upper Chamber, Michael Bates was deep in contemplation.
It was Thursday 4th April. The Tory peer had already navigated the baying crowds outside Parliament, who had been haranguing passers-by and thrusting placards in their direction. He was listening to a debate on a bill that would grant MPs control of the order paper. Eurosceptics were outraged at the substance of the legislation and the speed at which it was travelling through parliament. A bad-tempered and protracted row ensued.
Lord Bates, a minister in DfID and a former Conservative MP, took stock. In his 11 years as a member of the House of Lords, he had never known ill-feeling like it. “For some people, they see conflict and it bounces off them. It doesn’t bother them at all,” he tells me. “But for me, I absorb it to the point where I can’t bear it.”
Feeling utterly powerless, Bates wondered how he could make things better. As he had concluded so often before, he decided to go on a walk.
My taxi pulls up outside Café Number One in Birstall, a small village about seven miles outside Bradford. Bates, dressed in a red personalised polo shirt over a long sleeve compression top, navy trousers and walking boots, is sitting in the sun sipping water. His forehead is lightly pink from the midday sun. His brown and yellow walking stick, given to him by his wife, Xuelin Li, is resting against the wall.
For the second time in his career, Bates quit the Government to undertake a walking challenge in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation. Just last year, he also resigned at the despatch box after missing an oral question in the Chamber. “Whereas some people might just think, ‘sugar’, for me I couldn’t believe it. I’d let the House down, it was just a terrible sinking feeling,” he explains. His resignation was rejected by Theresa May, then in China.
On Good Friday, Bates began his journey from Belfast to Brussels, where he is due to arrive by 12 May. His travels will take him to Leeds, Selby, Hull, Rotterdam through to the Belgian capital. He has just stopped for a cheese toastie after completing a seven-mile trek from Huddersfield, hot on the heels of the 26.3 miles on the undulating hills of the Pennines the day before. So far, he has clocked 177 miles, and will finish today on 190. Tired and sore, he jokes in his Newcastle accent: “I would have pulled a sickie if you weren’t coming up.”
For someone of Bates’ temperament – unerringly friendly, courteous and well-mannered to a fault – today’s politics has proved a tough business. “There seems to be a kind of vitriol, anger and intolerance of views which has grown to an absolute crescendo,” he says. “The minor problem that we are having is how do you deliver Brexit; the big problem is how do we stop the country from tearing itself apart.”
Bates was also growing fatigued of ministerial obligations. As a member of the Lords Treasury team, he would be given lines to take on ‘honouring the decision of 17.4 million people’. “You can’t just say we must deliver something for one part any more than a government might campaign to be elected for their party but really it should govern for the whole of the country. We need to seek solutions which are on common ground,” he says.
“I just need some time to process it, which sounds indulgent. But I think I might be more use doing that for a period of time than continuing to repeat the lines.”
The walk is his ninth with his second wife, who is further up in Leeds planning extra visits ready for his arrival in a couple of days. They met in April 2011 at an event that Xeulin, who is Chinese, was hosting. Bates was about to start a walk from Olympia to Westminster ahead of the London 2012 games. While others declared him mad for embarking on the 2,912-mile journey to raise awareness for the Olympic truce, Xeulin said it was the “most inspiring thing” she had ever heard. She offered to come out and support.
“So, that was it. As somebody once said, you may be a nut but if you’re screwed on the right bolt then that’s not a bad thing,” Bates quips. They got engaged in Paris and married on the day the Olympic truce came into force.
In the ensuing years, they have completed walks from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro (for which Bates resigned in 2016) and London to Berlin, covering 25 countries. Having set themselves the target of doing 10,000 miles in 10 years and raising £1 million for various charities, the Bates’s are close to finishing 8,500 miles in their ninth year of walking. They have raised around £850,000. In the pipeline is a walk in Japan before the Olympic Games. At 57, Bates still hopes to complete challenges in the Middle East, Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
The pursuit of unity has been a thread throughout their endeavours. There is a reason he began his journey in Northern Ireland on Good Friday, he tells me. “It is an occasion where two communities with entrenched senses of grievance and difference had somehow managed to set those aside for the greater good,” he explains.
It is poignant, then, that we find ourselves in Birstall, which sits within Jo Cox’s former constituency of Batley and Spen. Cox, who said more unites us than divides us, is a personal “hero” of Bates. “She was somebody who reached out beyond the political comfort zone to actually try and do something. She was kind of rare in that sense,” he says.
His expedition has further reinforced his views about where divisions lead – journalist Lyra McKee was murdered in Derry the night before his first day on the tarmac. “You’ve got to be really careful with division. For a lot of people, they can handle it. It’s just a bit of argie-bargie. But for some on the fringes, it becomes a lot more sinister. We’ve got to be mindful of that.”
After an hour of chatting, Bates zips up his bag and straps it around his waist. I put on my rucksack and give a thumbs up. Next stop Bradford city centre.
Bates, who was born in 1961, joined the Conservative party in Gateshead at the age of 18. He worked for the party until his election in 1992 as MP for the former constituency of Langbaurgh. During the Major government, he served in frontbench roles in the Treasury and Whips’ office and was PPS to Northern Ireland Minister Sir John Wheeler. Before joining the Lords in 2008, he took on an MBA at Oxford University and worked as a consultant at Oxford Analytica.
During that time, he joined the Whitney Conservatives, where he met a young up and comer called David Cameron, who many people feel is responsible for the current mayhem in British politics. While Bates took on the walk to find common ground, he has been surprised to find that many people don’t want to talk about Brexit. “I kind of imagined that everybody was out here tearing themselves apart about Brexit in the way that we are in Westminster. Actually, they’re not. They’re getting on with life and it’s just another one of those irritations about ‘them lot in London’,” he explains.
He has been particularly struck, he tells me, that many of the young people he has spoken with have said they would like to leave without a deal. “Let’s just leave, stand on our own feet,” a receptionist at a Travelodge told him that morning. “I never hear that view among young people that I’ve talked to in London,” he muses.
His forthright conversations in the Republic of Ireland have also stayed with him. Bates says he hadn’t appreciated how much impact Brexit is having on other countries and their view of the UK. A man in Dublin told him it’s “like the neighbour who’s decided to set the house on fire and doesn’t even want to share the water with you”. “There is a real sense of anger,” Bates adds.
But what would Bates like to see happen? “My feeling at the moment is that what we need to do is to somehow settle this as soon as possible and move on, then do a huge effort to try and repair some of the damage that has been done as a result of this,” he replies.
“By that, I mean something on the scale of what we were doing to plan for no deal – budgets of £3bn, all departments involved, everybody thinking, reaching out to industry – everything. Mobilise. We need something on that scale to heal the damage on the community level in the UK, but more importantly, with our friends on the Republic of Ireland, Holland, France, Germany – there’s a lot of damage being done there, and we need to do that.”
Upmost in his priorities is to preserve peace on the island on Ireland. “The situation in Ireland is precarious. There’s no doubt that whilst I’m not drawing a parallel about it, the fact that Ireland is now focussing again on the differences between North and South, rather than their shared interests that they had been under the Good Friday Agreement, that is playing into the hands of some people who have malign motives in this,” he says.
Bates is loyal to Theresa May and insists a change of leader would not shift the dial. “The idea that one person is going to be able to deliver a solution, it’s just not going to work, as much as you might wish it.” It is of no surprise that he welcomes the cross-party Brexit talks with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. “You can’t dodge the arithmetic.”
We stop for a break in a pub on the side of a main road called The Hand and Shuttle. Inside we find Tom Canoville, the landlord. Born and raised in Bradford, he walks us through his life – his ups and downs, playing for England schoolboys at football. His cousin, Paul, was the first black player to play for Chelsea. Though largely sceptical of politicians, he admires what Bates is doing. “Michael for PM,” he yells as we depart for the last mile of our journey.
Though his walk was hastily planned, Bates hopes to continue the work when he returns to Westminster. Are his methods unconventional? Absolutely. But few can take issue with the spirit of what he’s hoping to achieve.
“When I’m walking, life is really simple,” he says. “Each day you set off with a clear goal and you know when you’ve achieved it at the end of the day. You get to experience places that you’ve never been to before…And you think you’ve moved the dial a little bit hopefully towards something that’s reasonably good.”
You can follow Lord Bates' progress on his blog: http://www.walkforpeace.eu/