Michael Heseltine. Photo: Getty
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Why Michael Heseltine is still raging against Brexit

This year, at the age of 83, the Tory peer became one of the oldest rebels in history.

In 2017, for the first time in his 52-year political career, Michael Heseltine was sacked from the government. As the Tory peer ate dinner with his wife on 7 March, the Conservative Chief Whip called to inform him that he had been removed from his five advisory roles for supporting a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal. And so, at the age of 83 (he turned 84 a fortnight later), Heseltine became one of the oldest rebels in history.

“I’ve only really fought my party on three big issues,” the former deputy prime minister reflected when we recently met at his office in Victoria, London. “The first was when they proposed to vote against the race relations legislation in 1968. I refused to do that and three weeks later my party changed its mind. I fought against the poll tax and got rid of it; no one wants to bring it back. And I voted to give parliament the ultimate power over the Brexit negotiations – and the government has now come round to that view. So there is a pattern to my revolts.”

Outside of government, Heseltine remains immersed in the world of ideas. On his desk were the historian Michael Burleigh’s new book, The Best of Times, the Worst of Times, and a 76-page report that Heseltine recently wrote on industrial strategy. “There is an essential partnership between the public and private sectors upon which modern commerce and industry depend,” he writes.

Heseltine, who co-founded the Haymarket Media Group (which accounts for the bulk of his £300m fortune) and who served in the cabinet for 13 years, understands that dynamic better than most. He has a fondness for state intervention and grands projets more typically associated with French Gaullists and German Christian Democrats than British Conservatives. In 2012, he was moved to tears when he was awarded the Freedom of Liverpool for his pivotal role in regenerating the city after the 1981 Toxteth riots. For these reasons, among others, the man who tried and failed to succeed Margaret Thatcher in 1990 is often described as one of the greatest prime ministers Britain never had.

Cartoon: Ralph Steadman 

As we spoke, Heseltine measured his words with care, often pausing for as long as 40 seconds before answering my questions. His blue eyes twinkled with mischief and his trademark leonine mane was still visible.

Heseltine praised the government’s recent white paper on industrial strategy but did not disguise his fundamental disagreement with his party: “The single best thing to advance the industrial and commercial interests of our country would be to abandon Brexit. That is the thing that would have the most immediate economic effect, if only putting us back on the growth trajectory of our European neighbours”.

Like his fellow Conservative Ken Clarke, Heseltine is a member of an endangered species: the Tory Europhile. When I interviewed him shortly before the EU referendum in April 2016, he maintained that the UK would eventually join the single currency.

After the Leave vote, does he believe that Brexit can be stopped? “I think public opinion will change. There are signs that it is shifting already,” he said. “As it shifts, the Labour Party will shift.”

The Conservatives, he suggested, could follow. “The Tory party is the most sophisticated political machine in democratic politics. It’s interested in power and, in the end, it always puts that at the top of its agenda. So if it sees public opinion remorselessly moving, the Tory party will have to find a way, and it will find a way, of embracing that.”

Heseltine has calculated that the demographic shift from “the elderly who are dying to the young who are emerging” is worth an extra 800 Remain votes in every parliamentary constituency each year.

How he would he act if forced to choose between Brexit and a Jeremy Corbyn government? He chuckled with amusement. “I have a cop-out answer: I don’t have a vote!” (Peers are barred from voting.) But his tone swiftly turned more grave. “I can tell you, there are serious numbers of Conservatives who are aware of the danger of that question. But you can’t hypothesise about the impossible. I am a member of the Conservative Party and I intend to remain a member.”

Did he consider leaving the party over Brexit? “No, never. Parts of my party have left me, but there are large parts of it which have not. And I’m extremely moved by the scale of support that I get every day, wherever I go.” 

At the age of 84, Heseltine maintains the work rate of one much younger. And he dismissed any possibility of retirement. “What would I do? What would I get up in the morning for? Or perhaps I don’t bother to get up. I make no special claim for it, I simply cannot contemplate doing nothing…Yes, it’s slightly harder to face the cold winds than it used to be. But when I have faced them, I feel the better for having been out there.”

He spoke with melancholy of the generational schism that Brexit has exposed (71 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Remain, while 64 per cent of the over-65s voted Leave).

“It saddens, particularly because it’s so true. You can’t help but have sympathy for an elderly community around whom the world is changing faster than it ever has before.”

But he said he was “on the side of the young. It’s their future, and the more you watch and listen and talk to them, the more you see they are assimilating these changes and prospering from them. Sadly, in the Brexit context, yesterday prevailed. But yesterday can’t stop tomorrow.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.