They do things differently in Totnes, and they have a Member of Parliament who does it her way too. Jess Bowie travels to Devon to spend the day with Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP and select committee chair who has no fear of speaking the truth to power.
As she tries to manoeuvre her Nissan into a parking space near Dartmouth harbour, Sarah Wollaston is talking about drugs. After discussing the cases of cannabis-induced psychosis she observed during her years as a doctor, and the “massive experiment” of legalisation underway in Washington and Colorado, she says: “I mean, I don’t use drugs and I never have done.”
That’s disappointing, I tell her – I’d been hoping for a scoop.
“‘Sarah Wollaston: a big drug user!’ That would do, wouldn’t it? And who knew!” she laughs. “No, I’m not going to do a Louise Mensch…”
So she didn’t spend the 90s getting high with the violinist Nigel Kennedy and dancing at Ronnie Scott’s?
“I didn’t, strangely enough. But actually I thought: good for Louise. The press release she put out about that was very funny. You know, it doesn’t bother me at all – I don’t have any kind of moralistic view on it, other than I just don’t think people should support drug cartels. Otherwise I couldn’t really give a stuff.”
Non-judgemental, with opinions guided by the facts. It’s the kind of statement people have come to expect from the 52-year-old Totnes MP, who was selected in 2009 in Britain’s first open primary and elected to this Devon constituency the following year. Since then, the former medic has frequently been a thorn in David Cameron’s side over health policy (“No more open primaries!” he reportedly said, after Wollaston publicly criticised the Health and Social Care Bill) and she’s certainly no stranger to the Whips’ Office. “I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I was!” she says.
Wollaston, who has recently been elected chair of the Health Select Committee, is a curious mix of outspoken and softly-spoken, independent-minded but unfailingly serene. Indeed, the most agitated this One Nation Tory gets during our day together is when I ask her if she is actually a Liberal stooge in her own party – and even then her frown disappears almost instantly.
Wollaston’s constituency is vast and rural, taking in part of Dartmoor National Park to the east and the fishing town of Brixham to the west. Our first appointment is at Dartmouth Academy, an ‘all-through’ school for pupils aged three to 18. It’s an improving school, but it has financial problems, some of which relate to its rural location. Sparsity, as it’s known, is a real issue in Wollaston’s constituency, and small fluctuations in pupil numbers can have catastrophic effects on some state schools’ funding.
While Devon is generally affluent, and a member of the ‘F40 Group’ of counties which receive the lowest education funding, there are pockets of deprivation: 38% of pupils at the Dartmouth Academy are on free school meals, a number which rises to 60% at primary level. Nick Hindmarsh, headmaster here since 2011, is turning the academy’s reputation around and Wollaston is hoping that next time Ofsted visits the school will make the step forward into ‘Good’.
The academy has recently been refurbished, so before we sit down for a formal meeting with Hindmarsh, he gives us a tour.
“You can’t believe how different this is from the last building… the feeling of space is amazing,” Wollaston says admiringly, as we’re ushered through an open plan library and past a cluster of Year 6s doing maths exercises on computers.
Outside the reception classrooms, a tiny girl approaches and looks her headteacher up and down. “You look very smart today,” she says to him matter-of-factly. She is clutching a camera made from a tissue box and yoghurt pots. It’s a convincing model – and a good advert for a school which prides itself on its photography.
We head upstairs and find ourselves in the middle of a drama class of 11-12 year olds. Their teacher explains that they’re working on an interactive play called the Thing That Happened That Could’ve Been Really Bad or the Most Amazing Thing Ever.
In Hindmarsh’s office, we hear about the academy’s funding woes. Its financial picture is complex – not least because its sponsor pulled out last year. According to Hindmarsh, they are losing £40-45,000 a year.
“So the impression that the funding has been fixed is just not true?” Wollaston asks, taking notes.
Later, after discussions about Ofsted, school uniform, and local mental health provision for children, the conversation turns to image sharing and internet safety.
“That’s now going to be on the curriculum – are you happy with that?” Wollaston asks.
“Absolutely. The problem with sexting is horrendous,” Hindmarsh says.
He goes on to say that despite the school’s attempts to tackle it, many of the boys are sharing and collecting nude pictures of female classmates “in the same way people used to collect cigarette cards back in the day”.
Wollaston, who has raised the issue a number of times in Parliament, says it’s often the less popular girls who succumb to pressure to send intimate pictures of themselves, images which can then be used to bully and intimidate them.
Then, introducing some much-needed levity into the conversation, she alludes to the disgraced Tory MP Brooks Newmark: “One of my colleagues has just delivered a master-class in the dangers of sexting...”
DEVON’S ASTRAL PLANE
In the car, we head past rolling hills and spectacular views towards Totnes. The town is known for its independent shops – Costa tried to set up here not so long ago but rapidly backed down – and, thanks to its membership of the sustainable Transition Towns movement, for having its own currency, the Totnes Pound.
A beautiful, medieval town, it also has a hippyish vibe, with its high concentration of tarot readers and holistic healers earning it the dubious honour of being dubbed ‘Britain’s capital of pseudoscience’. This side of Totnes’s personality can frustrate its MP, who worries about its low immunisation levels. I later read that in 2012 Wollaston successfully campaigned to prevent a conference which promised “a deeper understanding of alternative cancer healthcare” from taking place in a local council hall.
For a long time Totnes was ‘twinned with Narnia’ after someone graffitied those words on the official sign (and no-one bothered to remove them). More recently, pranksters have twinned it with that hotbed of alien activity, Area 51. And, while there are certainly some Narnia-esque lampposts dotted around, we don’t see any UFOs.
BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION
In a small room in the Totnes Conservative Club, where Wollaston’s office is based, we sit down for a meeting with the South Hams Citizens Advice Bureau.
Emma Handley, its CEO, is accompanied by two CAB volunteers, Shirley and Paula.
They start by discussing the cuts to legal aid, and what they will do when the transition funding they’ve been awarded runs out next year.
“We’re nowhere near there, financially. We will still have that funding gap,” Handley says.
Wollaston nods sympathetically, and says she realises that “when it comes to making representations on the CAB’s behalf, it’s about demonstrating how much it would cost if the service weren’t there.”
Next on the agenda is the roll-out of the Personal Independence Payments scheme. The CAB representatives say they have seen serious delays – often of over six months – in the time it is taking for these benefits to be awarded. The delays are having a serious impact on their clients, many of whom are disabled and need urgent support with extra costs.
“The message from the DWP seems to be: ‘Stop chasing us.’ But it’s causing immense stress to our clients,” says Paula.
Another major issue is the HMRC. People trying to contact the government department about tax credits, overpayments or changes in circumstances are finding themselves endlessly on hold, and then cut off. And it’s not just members of the public: CAB staff with access to restricted HMRC phone numbers are also experiencing lengthy waiting times for responses.
“Will you drop me a line about the frustrations you’re hearing about?” Wollaston asks, offering to table a written parliamentary question on the CAB’s behalf.
As Emma, Shirley and Paula leave, I notice a Suffragette poster hanging above the table. Emmeline Pankhurst, one of Wollaston’s heroines, would doubtless be proud of the sight of four women putting the world – or at least this corner of it – to rights.
END OF THE PIER SHOW
Back in the car and with no time for lunch, we head to an open meeting in Paignton – another area of Wollaston’s patch where there is a lot of deprivation. Today there are about 16 attendees, although sometimes over 100 turn up, Wollaston says.
One constituent wants to talk about the Coastguard Agency’s decision to move the cliff rescue team away from the coast; another, NHS equipment returns; another, overdevelopment, and another, the £1.7bn bill that Britain has been given by the EU.
On this last point, Wollaston asks the assembled crowd whether Britain should pay.
“No,” they say, with one voice.
“The trouble is, if we don’t pay it, we could pay huge amounts in fines,” Wollaston says. “For my money, we need to have a referendum on the EU.” She then explains that she wants to stay in, but on renegotiated terms.
“We’re not going to get any concessions – you know that as well as I do,” replies a man with a long grey ponytail.
“Well... I think we will,” Wollaston says calmly.
“Will it stop all the immigrants coming in? Can we believe David Cameron? After all, he is a politician...” the ponytailed man says, implying that Wollaston herself is exempt from this hateful category.
A very well-spoken lady then raises the question of overdevelopment of agricultural land. “I’m of farming stock, my family has been in Devon for 100 years. We do need more houses, but we need them in the right place,” she says.
Councillor David Thomas from Torbay Council has been sitting quietly at Wollaston’s side. He now steps into the breach to explain the finer points of the planning situation to the lady.
A few minutes later, the questions about development are still coming thick and fast.
“These people you’re going to build 11,000 houses for – where are they going to work?” one woman demands, before gesturing to the rows of social houses outside. “There aren’t enough jobs for the people already living here.”
After the meeting ends I find myself chatting to the man with the ponytail. He isn’t happy about immigration, he tells me, and he wants things to return to the way they were.
I ask if South Devon has a big problem with immigration.
“Well, no,” he says. “But I went to Leicester the other day... It’s a takeover”.
He’s going to be voting UKIP in May. He’s got nothing against Sarah, he adds – it’s more as a protest vote.
At 4.30pm we sit down for a late lunch of lentil soup and granary bread in Totnes’s Green Cafe – a self-styled eco eatery. Given the nutritious nature of the meal, it seems fitting to ask Wollaston about public health – an area of policy she believes should have far more prominence. Does she get frustrated with the libertarian ideologues in her own party who see any kind of intervention as nanny-state-ish?
“Of course. But we live in a democracy, and it’s a point of view,” she says. “What frustrated me more than anything else was the way the industry was able to lobby so effectively, and, working together with those people who fundamentally oppose any kind of price controls, managed to get a mantra going that minimum unit pricing for alcohol would mean your granny wouldn’t be able to afford a glass of sherry on a Sunday. Her one last pleasure in life destroyed! Actually, if you look at what a minimum price of 45p a unit means, it doesn’t affect the cost of alcohol in the pub at all. What it does do is help young binge drinkers and heavy drinkers.”
Another potential obstacle to the public health agenda is of course David Cameron’s adviser Lynton Crosby, whose firm Crosby Textor counts tobacco giant Philip Morris among its clients. Wollaston has expressed her unease about his role before. How does she feel about him nowadays?
“I have talked to many people about this, and I am reassured that all he is doing is talking about campaign strategy,” she begins. There is a ‘but’, however.
“The trouble with campaign strategies is that they do set a tone for what’s important in the future. If the impression is that public health is a ‘barnacle on the boat’, then that reduces the chances of it going into the manifesto. For me, we have to have public health in our manifesto”
So is it time for Crosby to go?
“Oh no, I don’t want to pass my verdict, because I think personalising things doesn’t help. I think the important thing is talking about the issue. I feel I’ve said my bit loud and clear about having public health on the policy agenda, and I’ll continue to do that, but probably not link it to one individual. If you do that you can end up taking your eye off the ball, and there are many other voices within the party for whom the libertarian argument is very strong. So if you just focus on one person you forget there is a wider debate.”
Public health isn’t Wollaston’s only beef with Crosby. At a meeting of Tory backbenchers last year the election strategist famously told MPs to stop undermining the leadership on Twitter, asking that they be “participants, not commentators”. This didn’t go down well with Wollaston, who took to Twitter to vent her frustration.
She reinforces the point today.
“We are elected to participate, and part of participating to me is commentating. I shall continue to do that. It might not make everybody happy, but that is my job, as I see it.”
At a husting during her open primary, Wollaston reportedly told voters that, if elected, she wouldn’t be afraid to speak truth unto power. Maintaining an impeccable bedside manner, the former doctor has stayed true to her word. Like Totnes itself, here is an MP who does things differently. And, while David Cameron might have been put off open primaries, there’s no better advert for them than Sarah Wollaston.
This article first appeared in CSW's sister magazine Total Politics