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8 October 2015

Jeremy Hunt’s kindergarten economics, Thatcher’s explosive lunch and the other side of Denis Healey

Healey, who has died aged 98, persuaded the public that he was a jolly and rather lovable character. That was not how his parliamentary colleagues saw him.

By Peter Wilby

Give Tory ministers a couple of days with lots of other Tories and they take leave of their senses. At Conservative conferences – I know because I’ve been to a few – you could propose the murder of the first-born and still get ecstatic applause. It’s the effect of too much free drink dispensed by corporate charmers and too much contact with people who think exactly like you, only more so.

The latest example is the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who told a fringe meeting in Manchester we should all work as hard as the Chinese and that cutting tax credits will persuade us to do so. Hunt is an alumnus of Charterhouse School, an Oxford contemporary of David Cameron, a distant relation of the Queen and, thanks to his establishment of a PR company, a multimillionaire. A Chinese wife and an unsuccessful attempt to export marmalade to Japan make him an expert on Asian economies.

China is not a model to follow. It has thrived on masses of cheap manpower, some of it hardly better than slave labour. Its GDP per head is one-third of the UK’s – or one- sixth, depending on how you calculate it. Now, with a credit bubble near bursting point and an increasingly restless workforce, the Chinese economic miracle could hit the buffers. Besides, saying the answer to our problems is to work harder is the economics of the kindergarten. A country enhances its prosperity through investment in higher-level skills and more advanced technology. Anyone who has produced anything useful in the past 200 years, as opposed to designing slick PR campaigns, could tell you that.

 

Gorbachev grilled

If I’d known at Christmas 1985 about a meeting that had taken place at Chequers a week earlier, I would have sought the nearest nuclear shelter. The latest volume of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher biography recalls that the prime minister invited Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, to lunch. Almost nothing was then known about Gorbachev except that he was the most likely successor as Soviet leader when the ailing Konstantin Chernenko passed away (as he did three months later).

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The British interpreter told Moore that Thatcher “deliberately and breathtakingly . . . set about serially cross-examining him [Gorbachev] about the inferiority of the Soviet centralised command system and the merits of free enterprise and competition”. Communism, she told him, was “synonymous with getting one’s way by violence” and in effect she accused the Soviet Union of orchestrating the recent year-long British miners’ strike. “The lunchtime conversation,” Moore reports “. . . defied all diplomatic norms . . . the sharpness of its tone exceeded all the usual Foreign Office euphemisms for rude and quarrelsome meetings, such as ‘frank’ or ‘candid’.”

This was apparently some sort of Thatcher test. By tolerating this tirade, Gorbachev passed and was deemed, as she later put it, a man she could do business with. But what if he’d stormed out, presumably failing the test? How did Thatcher know he wouldn’t conclude the British had a lunatic in Downing Street and he should launch missiles against us once his finger was on the button?

 

When Healey raised eyebrows

Denis Healey, who has died aged 98, persuaded the public that he was a jolly and rather lovable character. That was not how his parliamentary colleagues saw him – he once almost broke Roy Hattersley’s jaw – nor by most others who had dealings with him. When I was at the Independent on Sunday in the early 1990s, he wrote a travel piece, accompanied by pictures he had taken. The pictures, the travel editor decided, weren’t fit for publication. Healey, proud of his photography as part of his famous cultural “hinterland”, rang the then editor, Ian Jack, to wish the paper an early death.

Jack apologised for whatever wrong had been done to him, but Healey continued to rant. What more did he want, Jack asked. “I want to make you eat sh*t,” came the ­answer. No wonder he was thought too divisive to be Labour leader.

 

An expat’s principles

The former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson, eager to lead the campaign to leave the EU, now lives in France. Defending his father against charges of hypocrisy, the former Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson argues that he is “putting his principles before personal advantage”. Fine. Can we now allow the same defence for leftists who live in large houses and campaign for higher-rate council-tax bands or a mansion tax?

 

Tipping points

Tipping in restaurants causes me deep anxiety. Do tips, as some argue, help to perpe­tuate low wages? Should I leave 10, 12.5 or 15 per cent? Should I leave extra cash when there’s a service charge on the bill? I have erred on the side of generosity ever since a Californian lawyer for whom I bought breakfast in San Francisco asked to see what I had given in payment of the bill. With a whelp of triumph, he established that I had left a 10 per cent tip. “Here, we leave 15 per cent,” he declared loudly.

Now the revelation that several chain restaurants take a slice of waiters’ tips adds further anxiety. Wahaca, the Mexican chain, is the latest accused of levying a standard percentage of sales from waiters, regardless of what they actually receive in tips. My usual practice is to press cash into waiters’ hands stating firmly that it’s for them, not the owners. Now that seems insufficient. Given that restaurant moguls claim their levies go to staff who don’t wait at table, perhaps I should now demand to see everybody involved in the preparation of my meal so that I can thank and reward each personally. I fear, though, that in Tory Britain employers will still find ways to keep money out of workers’ pockets.

 

Hitchens . . . huh?

Quote of the week from the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens. “The Blairites were in fact far more left-wing than Jeremy Corbyn.” As exam questions say: Discuss.

This article appears in the 07 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis