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8 June 2021

From the NS archive: Mr Nice Guy

10 May 1991: Norman Tebbit on Europe, the poll tax and why he could have succeeded Margaret Thatcher.

By Sarah Baxter

In this interview from 1991, Norman Tebbit was out of the government but was still the MP for Chingford. His parliamentary career still had a year to run but at this point he could look at John Major’s government and the wider political scene with a degree of detachment. In this interview with Sarah Baxter – taking in Europe, the poll tax and the next generation of Tory and Labour politicians – he also expressed his view that he could have succeeded Margaret Thatcher. What held him back was his reputation, as Baxter put it, “as the Chingford skinhead who yelled ‘On yer bike’ at the unemployed. It made him famous and, if he is to be believed, much misunderstood.” In Tebbit’s own eyes he was a caring politician, something Labour never understood: “And a lot of my colleagues didn’t either.” He remained proud of the achievements of the Thatcher government and his own role as employment secretary in tackling the unions: such achievements had made Britain “governable”, he reckoned.

***

Norman Tebbit wants to talk in the bar. His room, though comfortable by Westminster standards, is stuffed with papers and, anyway, “Beryl is in there, writing a letter to the Evening Standard”, he grins.

Tory confidence in the council tax has just been punctured by the publication of a feisty letter from his secretary, Beryl Goldsmith. (“Fair, unblemished, ‘runaway winner’? Mr Heseltine must be joking,” he snorted.) Not long before, Tebbit had used the same new paper to round on the Tory ultras who preferred to remain ideologically pure than to remain in power.

He was determined, come what may, to be more political than Beryl. The council tax, however, was stretching loyalty to the limit. “I’m reasonably satisfied, yes,” he grimaces. There were “bits and pieces” that had to be got right; local government spending, for example, mustn’t let rip; banding wasn’t too bad, given Lamont’s £140 subsidy; but then … “I think the poll tax is a perfectly viable tax. That’s my view.” Alas, “many people in the party felt the poll tax had to go”.

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There seems little point in getting rid of Mrs Thatcher and keeping the poll tax, I venture. “Well, I’ve often wondered what was the point of getting rid of Mrs Thatcher, but that’s another question. . .” Mrs Thatcher, whom he sees, though “not a great deal”, would have been a formidable act to follow, but, says Tebbit, “I think I could have done it.”

It was not only the Brighton bomb that barred his way to No 10, although, “one you’ve left the government, you’ve rather put yourself out of the running”. The chief obstacle was his reputation as the Chingford skinhead who yelled “On yer bike” at the unemployed. It made him famous and, if he is to be believed, much misunderstood. Tebbit once sued Hugo Young of the Guardian for wrongly attributing to him the phrase: “No one with a conscience votes Conservative.” Damages were paid, but the image stuck.

“Labour didn’t understand that I could sing more than one song. They didn’t understand what I was about and a lot of my colleagues didn’t either.” No one had expected him to disband the loutish, far-right Federation of Conservative Students when he was party chairman and nor was he “a thick-headed bully who was trying to make strikes illegal” as employment secretary. He sounds wistful. “So perhaps they were wrong about a lot of things.” Tebbit feels deeply that he cares, too.

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Somehow, the way he says it comes out all wrong (note the negatives): “As long as tax keeps going down, as long as public spending is under control, as long as the free market is there, I’m not going to cry into my beer because disability allowances have gone up or widows are looked after better – I’m just not upset about that at all. In fact, I’m rather pleased about it.”

Tebbit only has himself to blame for being misunderstood, for he talks about public services as if they were lame-duck industries. On education, for example, he complains that ministers boast of higher spending and better pupil-teacher ratios, when they have “lowered the productivity of teachers and increased the cost of what they’re doing”. He also speaks of the “corporatist” Macmillan era as one in which, “there wasn’t much difference between what he and the national socialists were saying, if you take away the violence and anti-Semitism.”

It is odd that Tebbit should carry on in this fashion, for he is convinced that this is where Mrs Thatcher went wrong. Her rhetoric didn’t match her deeds, as he frequently used to tell her. “People didn’t believe we kept pouring money into the health service and education and yet there was the awful pile of public expenditure expanding.” Or, take British Leyland. “It was quite clear that we weren’t going to pull the plug on it and yet we always talked as though we were.”

For his own part, Tebbit never wanted to sound like mild-mannered John Major. Tebbit made his name as a backbencher by following Enoch Powell’s advice: “Never go into the chamber without a verbal hand grenade or two in your pocket”. This was how he captured the blue-collar vote for Mrs Thatcher (being nice to blacks and poor people had nothing to do with it). “I think I found it easier, partly through background, partly through sex, to talk to the Cs and Ds direct. Blokes still call out from building sites, “Ere, Norrn. ‘Ow yer doing mate?’ Now I can’t imagine them doing that to Maggie.”

Major, he suspects, may be jeopardising his achievements. “Is the party changing in a way that will take it away from the Cs and Ds again?” he ponders. “I think I’m probably the worst person to ask, because one’s so subjective, so bound up in it all.” “Sure, we’re different animals,” he says of John Major. “We’ve a different style of politics.” But he defends him as well, in a lukewarm sort of way. “If you go back to Mrs T in the Seventies, people were not at all sure about her. They didn’t know if a woman could stand the pressure. In the same way, John only became prime minister last November. People haven’t had the opportunity to assess him.”

 Tebbit approves, by and large, of Major’s stance on the Kurds, particularly the UN bashing component of it that appeals so strongly to Tory patriots. He is rather less happy with the party’s continental drift. “You can change the way you finance local government; you can nationalise or denationalise; you can increase family benefit or abolish it. But our relationship with Europe is fundamental. And yet, curiously, it is the sort of fundamental discussion which the parties are uncomfortable with. The danger is that the issues will not be properly debated because we’ll all be playing the game tactically. We don’t want to go in for crazy boat-rocking or accusing colleagues of stupidity, ill faith or bad judgement, but one has to say that there are very great issues of principle here and we would be wise to treat them as such.”

Is Europe worth splitting the party over, I ask? Tebbit pauses, before muttering, “Ummph”. He then gives the time-honoured politician’s reply: “I don’t think that will be necessary.

“I believe, in the idiot words that are so often used, that ‘Britain’s place is in Europe’. Of course it is. We’re moored 20 miles off the French coast. We have a very strong interest in the creation of a stable and open market trading system on continental Europe, but that’s different to political and monetary union. That would mean that we were no longer capable of running our own affairs. We could have a general election to change economic policy and find that policy was unchanged. I think the British people would be very angry and so would the French and Germans. That’s why Jacques Delors has become more and more agitated, because he doesn’t have quite the support that he did. German reunification has underlined what happens when a single currency is imposed. First of all, it means you have a single currency as of that hour and secondly, if there is economic divergence, it becomes a very painful way of reducing it. Thirdly, there is no such thing as an independent central bank. That is a myth. The German economy has been successful not because the German bank is independent, but because German politicians have been doing the right thing.”

There will be a time, he believes, when the fudging will have to stop, but by then he may have retired from parliament. And however courteous he is towards Major, he knows the present cabinet cannot quite be trusted. For this he blames Mrs Thatcher, with whom his own relations were sometimes strained. “She knows I’ve said this so I’ll say it again: she was an extraordinarily good judge of ability but she wasn’t a particularly good judge of character.” This, he believes, was most obvious at the time of the leadership contest – the period of The Plot. ‘‘When the first ballot did not go well for her, the difficulty confronting her was not getting a majority in the second ballot. The real problem was what she would do with her cabinet. There was more than one who would have openly campaigned against her.”

He will only swipe at one suspect, party chairman Chris Patten, in code. The social market, which Patten champions, “is a bit like new Daz,” he scoffs. “I remember that Enoch observed: ‘Beware the adjective social, it will surely negate or reverse the meaning of the noun to which it is applied.”

He cannot resist a dig at Michael Heseltine (I presume), while praising David Owen. He admires Owen’s views on Europe and hopes he will endorse the Tories at the next general election, but thinks it prudent to keep him out of the cabinet. Owen might, after all, try to make the Prime Minister look small, and, “there might not be room for two doing that”. Tebbit has more faith in the next generation of Conservative ministers than in the present cabinet. “A lot of the most able people who are knocking on the door of the cabinet – the Portillos and people of that kind – are Thatcherite. The really bright guys coming up are on the right.”

Strange to tell, he suspects that Mrs Thatcher had a rather more profound impact on the opposition than her own party. Such was the success of her mission to bury socialism that she almost made the Labour Party fit to govern. “That’s the party that has really changed. On the surface, in terms of its rhetoric at least, it has moved enormously. We’re not going to go back to nationalising industries. We’re simply not going to do it. Even Kinnock has to bow his head to the idea that high taxes are a bad thing. He now only threatens to impose them on a small minority of people.

“I don’t rate John Smith particularly highly,” says Tebbit. “He’s a very good lawyer, he can pick up a brief and understand it well enough to put a good case in front of a jury, so long as it doesn’t last too long.” As with the Tories, the next generation shows greater promise. “I think there’s quite a good sprinkling of young ones in the Labour Party. Far better than we’ve seen for a long time. I think the Browns and the Blairs are quite good; and so are some of the women. Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman are both accomplished, but I don’t think they’re particularly good. Mo Mowlam is; and they’ve got something we haven’t, which is women whips. Lin Golding, in particular, is very good.”

Looking back over Mrs Thatcher’s 12 years in power, the economy failed – for the best of reasons – to turn out well. “No, you can’t just say it was Lawson’s fault,” he concedes. “It can’t just be pinned on to one man and, anyway, he wasn’t First Lord of the Treasury – Mrs Thatcher was.” There were mistakes, largely because, “it was better to run the risk of inflation than to run the risk of a great slump after the’ ’87 crash.”

He wouldn’t have put it this way, but Tebbit believes that some of the most lasting achievements of the 1980s will be ones with which he was associated as employment secretary: ending legal immunities for trades unions; banning the closed shop; restricting picketing; and enforcing ballots. “Ten or 15 years ago, if you remember the debates about what was wrong with Britain, it all centred around industrial relations. Today, no one talks about industrial relations any more.”

In all of this, the driving force was Mrs Thatcher, he says. “She dealt with some of the problems of British society that were held to be insoluble. She persuaded people that there were no such things as insoluble problems – problems could always be solved. She changed the debate about Britain, the debate of the late seventies, the ‘Is Britain Governable?’ story that one read time and again in newspapers all over the world. That debate has disappeared. Britain is governable.” The ultimate proof? “There are even people who think that Kinnock can govern it – and that means it must be easier than falling off a log.”

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)