Unparliamentary Language: Steve Bassam
Agnes Chambre sits down with parliamentarians to find out more about the human side of politics. This week, Labour’s chief whip in the House of Lords Steve Bassam on his days as a squatter and taking in a Syrian refugee
What were you like at school?
I failed my 11+ but I did well in the end; I got O-levels and A-Levels and went to university. My mum was really upset. I think she had this image of her only son going off the grammar school or something and that didn’t happen. But she was delighted when finally I made a bit of myself at school. Most of my friends left school at 15, 80% of them walked out of the door and went to work in the fields, factories and workshops. I was the first person in my family ever to go to university.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
From my mother. She is a bit of a hero in my life, I have to tell you. She’s now sadly not with us but she said to me once: “Focus on what you really want to do and work hard at it and by working hard at it, you’ll achieve what you want to achieve.” I thought that was good advice.
And the worst?
The careers master who told me I was probably only fit to be a lowly civil servant. He said my next best bet was to become a librarian.
What’s an interesting fact about you?
That I once took 10 for 24 in a cricket match; I bowled the entire team out. Very few people know that.
If you choose one superpower, what would it be?
What do you mean? Like a government?
No, like a superhero...
I’d like to have the power to stop wars.
When you’re feeling stressed or angry, what one thing is guaranteed to cheer you up?
Thinking about Brighton winning the next match and it always works, because this time they’re on form and on fire.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
My mother was a cook and housekeeper in this big house, she was the last living cook and housekeeper in the village I grew up in and I can remember staring out of my bedroom window looking down the full length of the village green and it being a bright, sunny, sunlit evening and then gently drifting off to sleep. Quite a nice memory, actually.
If you woke up in the morning and you were the last person on earth, what would you do?
I’d probably go and find a beer. If it’s that bad, I’d need something to put me straight.
If you could have three dinner party guests, dead or alive, who would you choose?
George Orwell, Eleanor Marx, and Nye Bevan.
What would you talk about?
The English language.
How would your friends describe you in three words?
Obsessive about politics.
What would the title of your autobiography be?
Enjoying Life: With the best to come.
Who would play you in a movie of your life?
Why Hugh Grant, apart from the striking resemblance?
Because he’s an ironic joker.
What’s something you’ve done once that you’ll never do again?
I was a squatter in the ‘70s for a couple of years, genuinely because I was homeless. I worked with a bunch of people who were trying to highlight homelessness and poor use of housing in Brighton. We staged this stunt in court which involved us presenting evidence of the council landlords’ abuse of the property. We explained to the judge that we found a broken loo and put it on the bench as evidence; that was exhibit A. Exhibit B was a lead pipe so no water could get into the property which would make it unusable. We gave it to the dear old judge, and he got very upset by this. Suddenly I put on a Groucho Marx mask with a whirling bow tie and a flashing red mask and the squatters who were in the court starting singing and chanting and stuff. It was good fun at the time. Then the next day there was a headline in The Sun which read ‘Squatter Nosed Out in Clown Court’. That’s definitely the best headline I’ve ever had.
But you wouldn’t do it again now?
I think I’m past that now.
When was the last time you made someone laugh?
I think I made my wife laugh yesterday, but I can’t tell you why.
When was the last time you cried?
I went to the Jungle in Calais last year and the whole thing was just unbelievably tragic. I’ve done quite a bit of work on fundraising and stuff, supported by colleagues in here. My wife and I took quite a lot of stuff over there and we organised giving the kids in the Jungle football kits. We’ve currently got a young Syrian woman living with us.
How long has she been living with you?
Four or five months now. She’s lovely. She managed to get out of Syria to do a Masters and she’s finishing that and she has now, partly with our help, managed to make an asylum application. So I think that’s been a really positive thing.
I’m really very disturbed by the way the government’s policies developed over refugees and their inability to grapple with the overwhelming humanitarian need of the kids. It really distresses me. That’s why one of my political superheroes is Alf Dubs.
What has been your most embarrassing moment?
I was going to a party in Brighton a long time ago. A group of friends came round to have a bite to eat before we went. I didn’t know who they all were and I got talking to this one, a very attractive woman and I was talking to her for a very long time. In fact, I felt I was being chatted up. When we got to the party, someone said to me, ‘Steve, Julie was really into you.’ And I said ‘yeah, she was really nice’. And they sort of said, ‘no no Julie was very interested in talking to you. Don’t you realise who you were talking to? Julie Christie. The film star!’ I have never been so embarrassed in all my life.
Did you ever see her again?
Yes, some years later.
And did she remember you?
She certainly did, yes.
What’s your signature dish?
People here think I do a pretty good mass chilli on election day. I’m good at it but it’s easy really. Do you like chilli?
Ok, well next time we have a party we’ll invite you along.
What inanimate object are you most attached to?
My Red Box. When you cease being a minister, you get a Red Box given to you. So I get this box and my wife says what’s the point of you having a Red Box, you’re never going to use it again. I said it’s a memento and I want to keep it. She said ‘ok, well we better put the key somewhere safe’ and put the key in the box and closed it. So I have this pristine Red Box that I can never open.
What is your greatest fear?
It’s probably a repeat of something that happened to me once. I came off my bike and that nearly killed me. I’d hate that to happen again.
Have you ever broken the law?
Any specific incidents?
No, I’m not going to go over that.
What advice would you give 15 year old you?
Keep going. Life can only improve. And it did.