Not your usual MP
Paul Burbidge meets the soldier, turned farmer, turned journalist, turned Dorset MP, Richard Drax
Published in January ’13
When most men have a mid-life crisis, they get a motorbike or take up a new hobby. Richard Drax, however, decided to become the Member of Parliament for South Dorset. His mid-life crisis wasn’t of the traditional variety – niggling doubts brought on by personal or career issues; he was still very much enjoying life as a journalist with BBC South, as well as running the family estate from Charborough Park. Rather, his was a crisis over the direction of the United Kingdom as it plunged deeper into recession.
‘I was,’ he says, ‘becoming a bit of a Victor Meldrew – a grumpy middle-aged gentleman yelling at TV screens and throwing newspapers in the bin. I just thought that everything I love in this country was under threat. I’m not for one minute arrogant enough to think that one person can change the world. They can’t, but unless you do something, then you don’t have a right to complain. So I felt that if I try and do something, at least when I go to my grave, I can say to my children “I tried”.’
He resigned from his rôle with the BBC to become the Conservative candidate for the South Dorset seat in the 2010 election – a contest that saw him take on the Labour incumbent, Jim Knight MP. The 54-year-old admits he faced an uphill struggle to unseat the then Work and Pensions Minister, but he did so, and with a 7443 majority.
Richard Drax, or rather Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax to give him his full name, has had some unconventional, but nonetheless extremely valuable, training for life as an MP. He served for nine years with the Coldstream Guards after leaving school, before spending three years studying at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester.
He was used to fighting as a soldier and he certainly faced a hard battle to get into journalism at the age of 31. It is unusual for anyone to join the industry at such a late stage, but he wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer as he tried desperately to get his foot in the door.
‘I wrote to hundreds of local papers right across the country,’ he explains…, ‘I got two interviews, but I was determined to stick with it. I met the financial director of the Financial Times. He came in and said rather nonchalantly “What do you want to do?”
I said ‘I want your job and I want it tomorrow.’ At that point, I was so frustrated and it was bordering on impudence.
‘He said: “Okay, well maybe I’d better help you. I know someone in Yorkshire. Go see him and see what happens.” The editor of the Yorkshire Evening Press trialled me for two weeks, at the end of which, he asked: “Do you think I should take you on?” I said “I think you’d be mad if you didn’t.” To which he replied with a smile “Okay, you’re in”.’
His five years with the Evening Press helped him to land brief spells with Calendar (Yorkshire’s ITV local TV programme), Tyne Tees TV, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express. A short-term contract with BBC Television didn’t last, but it was the catalyst to him landing a job on BBC Radio Solent a year later in 1999 as the station’s Bournemouth reporter.
‘I went into that world for 17 years and had the time of my life,’ he says. ‘I don’t regret one minute, one week or one day of that career. It was absolutely fantastic.’
Many MPs earn their political stripes by serving as a local councillor, before graduating through the party ranks and being voted into the Commons, but Richard Drax feels his past careers gave him a very different kind of education: ‘It doesn’t matter if you’ve worked down a coal mine, served in the armed forces or been a banker, as long as you bring some life experience to the table. I think that’s of huge benefit when you go into politics, because the things expected and asked of you require a certain level of life experience for you to be able to deal with them. If you’re terribly young and go into politics, you are at a disadvantage in that you haven’t seen and done enough to be an MP. In some cases, this has become a problem and politics has become too professional. People are joining far too young in my humble opinion.’
Richard is the first to admit he is in a privileged position; he is fortunate enough to live on the beautiful Charborough estate, which boasts land and property throughout Dorset. Its influence even stretches as far as Barbados, where his father still runs the Drax Hall Sugar Plantation. With all this under his belt, the man who represents constituents from Swanage to Portland Bill is not in politics seeking to climb the career ladder: ‘I said I’d speak up and speak my mind,’ he says. ‘That’s what I’ve done and that’s what I shall continue to do. I’m lucky in the sense that I may be slightly older than a lot of my colleagues, I’ve been around a bit and I’ve seen a bit of life. I’m very fortunate to have a place like Charborough behind me. So I feel it is my duty to stand up and speak what I believe my constituents want me to say and, of course, what I have to say from my own life experience and the principals I follow.’
His commitments in Westminster and South Dorset mean he is forced to delegate much of the running of the estate to his experienced team, many of whom have served the family for decades, but he has found the time over the past six years to share Charborough with the county’s schoolchildren through his ‘Kids to Farm’ scheme. Around 200 of them visit every June to learn about everything from farming and forestry to the environment and bee keeping.
It’s often claimed that children know very little about where their food comes from in modern Britain. That’s a view Drax takes issue with, but he still believes the visits have opened plenty of young eyes. ‘There’s a surprising number who know a lot,’ he says, ‘I think the press has slightly exaggerated things like “no-one knows where their milk comes from”. It’s very easy to say, and the press likes writing it, but these children are not stupid. They know that milk comes from a cow. What they don’t necessarily know is that a cow has to have a calf to give milk. Some just think it’s a machine – you plug it in and milk comes out. It’s things like that which fill in the holes in their education.’
It is clear that Richard Drax’s entire life has been quite an education. He will hope to have learnt enough to survive the ballot box and earn a second term at the next election, which will not happen until 2015, but given that he has ‘form’ when it comes to fighting battles, whether as a soldier, journalist or politician, he’ll be up for the challenge.