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20 February 2020

Michael Heseltine: “Where do you put me in this great intellectual debate?”

The former Tory grandee on why devolution is key to northern prosperity and his own brand of Conservatism.

By Jonny Ball

In September of last year, Boris Johnson told cabinet colleagues that, contrary to reports claiming he was a rabid right-wing populist, his world-view could be summed up as that of a “Brexity Hezza”. By this he was implying that he was no hard-line free marketeer. Instead, he should be understood as a latter-day Michael Heseltine, the former Tory grandee known for his predilection for state intervention – particularly in neglected regions in the north of England – public investment and liberal one-nation Toryism, but with added Brexit.

After winning scores of northern seats in Labour’s so-called “red wall”, and signalling what this magazine has dubbed “the return of the state”, Johnson’s pivot towards a version of interventionist, blue-collar conservatism could have the likes of Heseltine enthused. After all, it was he who, as president of the Board of Trade, promised to intervene “before breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner”.

“I know that as a journalist you have to draw these boundaries, because that’s what people want to read,” Heseltine tells me when we meet in London. “It just doesn’t happen to be true.” A long-time Europhile who last year had the whip withdrawn after saying he would vote Lib Dem in the European Parliament election, Heseltine is no Johnson fan. Nor does he feel any particular affinity with his own public image as a left-ish Tory “wet”.

“Who privatised the most? Keith [Joseph] or me?” asks the former deputy prime minister, who in his long career held a string of posts, including secretary of state for defence, environment, and trade and industry. Joseph, an ideological monetarist and one of Thatcher’s most vociferously right-wing ministers, masterminded the Conservatives’ first state sell-offs. But, Heseltine points out, adding up the privatisation totals, “Right to Buy gives me the edge.” It seems odd that he’d proudly highlight his centrality in Right to Buy. The policy has been ditched in Scotland and Wales, and is widely regarded as having been a major factor in the housing crisis, leading to a shortage that has priced millions out of home ownership and saddled a generation with unaffordable rents. To his credit, he stipulates that receipts from council house sales should always be earmarked for reinvestment in new social housing stock (currently they are not).

“Who killed more quangos than me?” he asks. “No one. Keith Joseph got 61; I got 62. Who cut down his department faster, reducing the number from 52,000 to 39,000?” – Heseltine remembers the figures. “Keith didn’t get anywhere near me,” he says, proudly. “So where do you put me in this great intellectual debate?”

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In this “great intellectual debate”, the long-time advocate of regional investment and devolution who many once believed would one day lead the Conservative Party and the country, does cut an unusual figure. He was awarded the Freedom of Liverpool in 2012 by the city’s Labour mayor, Joe Anderson. For a Tory politician this is quite an achievement – in all of Liverpool’s five constituencies it is rare for a Conservative candidate to edge much into double figures. Previous Freemen of the City of Liverpool include the socialist MP Eric Heffer, leader of the National Union of Dock Labourers James Sexton, and all four of the Beatles. But while the then chancellor Geoffrey Howe, following the Toxteth riots in 1981, told the cabinet he favoured a “managed decline” of the city, Heseltine attempted to drive urban renewal.

“I spent time in Liverpool under Margaret Thatcher [as head of the Merseyside Task Force set up in response to the riots] and that was transformational… When the riots came I went to her and I said, ‘Margaret, there’s a classic dilemma… You and I both sympathise with the view that the police have to be backed, and I totally agree. But I have been around Liverpool and I think there’s something more fundamental here.’” Heseltine’s internal cabinet report into the causes of the disturbances, It Took a Riot, which was declassified in 2011 under the 30-year rule, described Liverpool’s river as “an open sewer”. Its housing was “indescribable”, its employment figures “appalling” and its social problems “severe”. The report recommended that “substantial additional public resources should be directed to Merseyside”.

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Those months were, in his own words, “the first of my exposure, my immersion in the real world of local communities”. They sparked a commitment to the city, as well as to northern prosperity in general. “I’m totally committed to the concept of a Northern Powerhouse,” he says. “But if I have a worry [it’s that] the need is not to empower the North but to empower Britain’s cities… I don’t use the words Northern Powerhouse except as an example of devolution. I’m for it, totally for it, and I was deeply involved in it, but let’s not lose sight of the wider purpose, which is devolution across all the cities.”

Heseltine’s report last year into the powers and functions of combined authorities, Empowering English Cities, offers a mea culpa for his role in abolishing metropolitan councils as a government minister. Reform, rather than abolition, would have “accelerated the process I was later to champion”, he writes. In recent years, he has become known less as an advocate of localism and more as a key figure in the fight for a second referendum – a cause he now accepts is lost. But why does he think so many in the so-called left behind, post-industrial, northern heartlands voted for Brexit?

“Austerity… They’d had enough, and I can understand that.” But Heseltine was himself supportive of the coalition, successfully contributing 81 recommendations on regional growth and autonomy to George Osborne’s 2013 budget. He also supported the punitive welfare reforms of Iain Duncan Smith, the former secretary of state for work and pensions.

Last year, a Centre for Cities study revealed that the impact of spending cuts had disproportionately fallen on deprived areas in the North of England, with towns such as Barnsley and Blackburn losing twice as much funding as their southern counterparts. Is the problem of the Northern Powerhouse in any way analogous to one of the problems he faced in the North West almost 40 years ago: that no matter how much extra funding is given to struggling northern towns or cities, it pales into insignificance when compared with the cuts to local authority budgets in those same areas? Liverpool, for example, has lost almost two-thirds of its government grant since 2010.

“Do you ever go to Liverpool?” Heseltine asks. “Have you ever seen it more prosperous? Have you ever seen it as more of a boom town?” He seems almost hurt by the insinuation that the city could be suffering as a result of fiscal constraints. “Have you ever seen more cranes in Liverpool? Have you ever seen it more dynamic? Let’s set aside the jargon of party politics – ‘The cuts! It was them!’ – and look at what’s happening in Liverpool, which is enjoying a renaissance outside anything seen this century.” It seems a curious position: that on the one hand austerity can cause such damage as to be the primary driver of Brexit, and on the other have little or no effect on “boom town” Liverpool. “Don’t quote me,” he adds, “quote the local mayor.”

Last month, Anderson, for whom Heseltine says he has “the highest regard”, was cited in the Liverpool Echo as saying he would “refuse to make any further cuts… because we are now at the stage where doing so will mean closing down vital services that people rely on”. His words evoked memories of the 1980s, when the unemployment and urban blight described by the former minister for Merseyside in It Took a Riot led to the election of a radical Labour council determined to take on Westminster over the city’s budget woes. Today Anderson says Liverpool is on “a cliff edge” near bankruptcy, in a worse financial situation than it was in the 1980s.

Heseltine is right to point out the mass of new buildings on the banks of the Mersey. The place is unrecognisable from the dark days of decline. And that is in no small part due to his own efforts: saving the Albert Dock, cleaning up the river, and regenerating the city centre. But you don’t have to walk far from the Liverpool One shopping centre, built in 2008 as a centrepiece of the city’s regeneration drive, to encounter some of the most severe levels of deprivation in the UK. Huge swathes of north Liverpool certainly do not feel prosperous. Figures show that between 2007, a year before the city’s designation as European Capital of Culture, and 2015, the end of the coalition years, many areas saw a dramatic worsening in their indices of multiple deprivation. Professor Michael Parkinson, an academic Heseltine Institute for Public Policy and Practice, a University of Liverpool department named in Heseltine’s honour, describes the failure to address the endemic social and economic problems in north Liverpool as “a stain on the city’s conscience.”

If Merseyside and the Northern Powerhouse project are to succeed, then it will take more than what Heseltine describes as “the traditional Whitehall solution” of “throwing money at individual identified problems”. Just as the wealth of a rejuvenated Liverpool city centre does not necessarily correlate with prosperity across the city, driving regional equality depends on more than a prime minister’s grands projets. It will take genuine devolution of powers and the end of centuries-old tendencies towards centralisation in Whitehall.

Government will have a key role to play – this cannot just be a private sector endeavour. “The market knows no morality,” Heseltine says. “Civilisation is about constraints on the market and moulding the market.” We’ll soon find out if Johnson, the self-styled “Brexity Hezza”, will abide by this philosophy to “level up” the North.

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