Do fishing and politics mix? Most of us hit the riverbank for calm rather than debate. Nevertheless, the calm of any waterside can make a perfect backdrop for friendly discussion, especially on those days when the weather is mild and fish aren’t biting hard. Many is the time I’ve “put the world to rights”, so to speak. If the company I keep makes me think outside my usual comfort zone and opinions, even better.
You’d go a long way to find a companion as affable and engaging as Daniel Kawczynski, however. My chance meeting with the rather remarkable Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham is at a special International Fishing Day with Rowley and Fenemere AA, a fishing club who have done wonders reviving a stretch of the beautiful Upper Severn.
For one thing, he is an absolute tower of a bloke. At 6ft 5 it’s quite unusual for anyone to make me feel short, but he does just that. If I struggle to find shoes and waders, goodness knows how he manages. He’s a calm, well-spoken giant, though. He also strikes you as something of a rare phenomenon in modern politics; a charismatic Pole who is pro Brexit; a former city slicker whose real heart is in the countryside, winning widespread support in this most rural and English of settings.
My own family background is not exactly conventional either, it’s fair to say. My wife is Polish and my mother Swiss, while my family could probably be described as disillusioned centre-left and rather divided over Brexit. I’m already expecting we’ll have plenty to talk about.
Polish blood, English values
With the River Severn such a part of life here in the West Midlands, I’m a little surprised Daniel hasn’t tried coarse fishing earlier. He’s certainly a self-confessed country boy, who likes walking through forests or picking mushrooms on rare days off. That said, his life could have worked out very differently.
Above: Daniel chats to Max Taylor, chairman of the local fishing club.
“I was based in London for years” he explains, “but I’ve always preferred the countryside.” He worked for over a decade in the telecommunications business, before his first love of politics led him to run for election. “I had my ‘rookie seat’ in Ealing Southall,” he explains. The idea with such an impossible challenge is to test a young candidate’s mettle and make sure they are reliable and not prone to gaffes.
“It’s a Labour seat through and through, with one of the biggest concentrations of Sikhs and Bangladeshis in the country” he recalls. “I spent a year getting to know everyone I could. I went to every Gurdwara and probably ate enough curry to sink a battleship” he smiles. “I learned a lot and loved the experience.”
In spite of the supposed decline in tribal, two-party politics, Daniel still thinks that most of the electorate “vote for the party, not the person.” And so it was only after his move to a more rural constituency that he got his break, when his wife set up an equestrian centre and the family moved west.
Although he has only the merest hint of an accent, Daniel is still evidently proud of his Polish roots. After moving to England at only six, he remained bilingual, actually changing back to his original surname at sixteen years old (his mother had actually given the family an anglicised surname instead). As his stature grew in the party, one or two suggested he might need to change back to this, but he wasn’t having any of it.
“A senior figure in the party said that while they wanted me to stand for election, they feared nobody would vote for someone with an unpronounceable foreign surname. I said that if that was the case I wouldn’t stand!”
The rest of the story, as they say is history, as Britain’s first ever Polish-born MP won a clear majority in his seat not once but on four occasions. He seems less surprised than others might by this, in the heartland of Benjamin Disraeli and traditional Conservatism.
“If you show respect, the British are amongst the most tolerant and welcoming people you’ll meet anywhere in the world” he says. “They judge you on what and who you are, rather than where you are from. This is something we should celebrate more often.”
From barbel to barbarism
While there are no fish just yet, the tip of the rod twitches every so often to raise our hopes. The fish certainly don’t have any manners and this tends to happen just as we’re reaching an interesting talking point.
“So what exactly happens when a fish bites? And how big do these ‘bauble’ get?” asks Daniel. Max and I are chuckling as we tell him a bit more about barbel, the sizes they reach and how they don’t so much bite as try and pull the rod in.
As I ask him about the hectic life of an MP, I can see why he’s relishing a little calm here by the river. Usually respite comes with a game of golf, although he laments that he’s only managed one round from his current membership this year! As Max Taylor, the chairman of Rowley and Fenemere Angling Club, tells him, a season ticket here is just £35- although the Right Honourable Member for Shrewsbury is welcome to pay the extra few hundred quid difference if he likes!
Our next topic is the adversarial, sometimes bitterly divided nature of current politics. For me, at least, it is worryingly toxic. I’m betting that every high profile public servant must get trolled relentlessly and worse these days? Sadly, I’m not wrong. Online and non-virtual abuse is depressingly normal. Just days earlier, in fact, Daniel was subjected to a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse in the street just going about his daily business.
“You have to be thick-skinned, and there are situations when your faith in people is tested to the extreme,” he says. “You have to anaesthetise yourself to the worst of it and try to focus on all the positive things happening. There are far more good people than bad in the world- you know that as well as I do.”
I’m still not sure I could do his job. The battles between parties seem enough to deal with, aside from the infighting and the endless Brexit machinations. For Daniel, though, the media often contributes to a perception of conflict that reinforces a tribal, shallow understanding of the real issues.
“What you see on the television is often pure theatre” he says. “Prime Minister’s Questions is pantomime at times and it can be so unreflective of what really goes on.” Does he feel the current antipathy and bitterness personally I wonder? “Hating and judging others is so draining and unproductive” he says. “I have friends who are Labour MPs. We are always talking and testing our understanding of issues. Disagreeing, yes, but in a constructive dialogue.”
Both parties are broader churches than most might imagine, is the message. My own local MP Ben Bradshaw, for example, is towards the pragmatic right of the Labour Party. How far would he be from someone on the very left of the Tories? I can hear some of my more left leaning friends sighing; but is this such a terrible thing?
It might not be so very exciting or dangerous, but the older I get, the less the radical extremes appeal to me. Life is seldom black and white, but nuanced. Glib conclusions won’t do. There are Labour MPs who voted for Brexit, just as there are Tories like Daniel who will fight vigorously for better funding of schools and public services in their areas.
Contrary to my preconceptions then, I find myself agreeing with a great deal of what Daniel has to say about current politics; and where our views differ I am all the more eager to hear his experiences. He has strong views on Brexit, in particular, but is a keen listener as well as a persuasive politician. He’s interested to hear about my Polish inlaws and the sometimes topsy turvy views of my family (my 73 year old father was a remainer, while my younger brother voted leave). I am still wrestling with my conscience on that particular bone of national contention; but his direct experience of a sprawling, often highly unrepresentative organisation are pretty stark. We might have to leave this debate by the river.
He certainly doesn’t share my fears about far right populism in the wake of the vote, however, at least in Britain. “There are always gullible people in any society,” he says, “but my assessment of the British people is that they don’t trust extremes.”
That said, he is wary of both far left and right and the “snake oil salesmen” as he puts it. In other words, those who tap into sweeping stereotypes and the worst of our fears and prejudices; and this is coming from a man whose family members of previous generations were executed during the Nazi occupation of Poland, for the crime of providing refuge to Jewish neighbours.
A bite at last…
As absorbing as it is to chat away and watch the river roll past, the barbel are not so obliging for our MP this morning. The twitches don’t develop into bites, although Daniel does get to see a barbel up close when one of the other anglers catches one. Sweden take the lead in today’s meeting of nations with a beautiful nine-pounder for Magnus Ugander (below). Daniel is impressed with its size and beauty.
We tease him slightly about his lack of angling experience, but our Anglicised Pole has been hugely supportive of fishing and country sports in general. He was also guest of honour at the opening of new facilities with the local fishing club, keeping up his promise of giving it a try by coming today.
He is also a hugely active ambassador between Britain and Poland, as it happens. Not just in terms of trade (he makes numerous visits to Poland every year and works his socks off for Anglo-Polish relations), but culture. In fact, it was he who the Angling Trust approached previously, to help foster better understanding between British and Polish communities about the norms of catch and release fishing.
As for his own habits, he is slightly baffled that anyone would want to eat the fish of our rivers and lakes. “Carp is not good to eat!” he pulls a face. “In Poland there is still the Christmas tradition of buying one for the table. I refuse to eat it! In fact there are only two things I refuse to eat: carp and liver.”
I’m with him on that one –and it’s refreshing to hear (I’ve tried it too, it’s fairly bloody awful)! That said, having been to Poland many times myself, one of the common misconceptions is that they “eat everything they catch”. The younger generation of Poles are increasingly catch and release. Fisheries like our own are becoming more normal and in fact the Polish record carp is bigger than the UK record currently!
Heaven only knows what a barbel would taste like. Fortunately for us, it’s beef and sausages for lunch as we enjoy eating in the fresh air with a truly international cast of anglers, Swedish and Lithuanian friends alongside English, Polish and Welsh.
Sadly time runs out on our attempt to catch Daniel his first barbel then, but it has been a fascinating day nonetheless. If we can only find another day when Shrewsbury’s MP isn’t frenetically busy, it would be great to see him get that fish, not to mention a great alibi to converse further.
Further reading and links
You can read my special report on the amazing transformation of the Upper Severn near Shrewsbury, thanks to the Rowley and Fenemere AS and the Angling Improvement Fund, in the Angling Trust “Lines on the Water” blog shortly.
You can find out more about Daniel Kawczynski and his current campaigns at www.daniel4shrewsbury.co.uk