Michael Heseltine is that rare thing: a Conservative Europhile. Throughout his 50-year political career, he has championed European integration as the best means of advancing prosperity and security. He was one of the few senior Tories to advocate membership of the single currency after Labour’s election victory in 1997. That project stalled long ago but Heseltine and his fellow pro-Europeans now confront a graver possibility: that the UK could leave the EU altogether.
When I met him recently, the former deputy prime minister told me that Brexit would be “catastrophic” for Britain. “It would have an appalling effect on the way the rest of the world sees us, the UK having opted out of the top table of politics which we’ve occupied for so long and so successfully . . . It would leave Europe exposed to a dominance by Germany that Germany doesn’t want and nobody else wants,” he said. “We are the only credible balancing power to stand alongside France in that central concept of a balance of power . . . I cannot myself believe that the British people are going to vote for that [withdrawal].”
I met Heseltine at the Department for Communities and Local Government, where he serves as an adviser to the secretary of state, Greg Clark. He remains the majority shareholder of Haymarket Media Group, the publishing company that he co-founded in 1957 and that earned him his fortune, an estimated £250m. At the age of 83, he has an admirable vitality, rattling off the projects he has been involved in: housing estate regeneration, city devolution and the National Infrastructure Commission.
Heseltine was smartly dressed in a dark suit and blue tie, his still-buoyant hair swept stylishly back. His mind was as sharp as that of a man decades younger. “Ah, it’s the cuts!” he immediately joked, when we were plunged momentarily into darkness. He spoke steadily but softly, prompting me nervously to nudge my Dictaphone closer to him midway through our conversation.
Heseltine served as an MP for 35 years, 13 of these in the cabinet. “I was there through all the great formative moments of the European Union, so I’ve lived through the arguments,” he told me. “As I hear them rehearsed, I can always remember the context in which they first developed.”
He defended the EU with Olympian grandeur. “I suppose I didn’t live through the great time of British imperialism much referred to now by the Brexit [campaigners]. The concept of sovereign nation states – sovereign nation states spent over 1,000 years fighting each other. That was the only way you could resolve the problems of Europe,” he said. “You sent troops, frigates, battleships, whatever it was. That was the ultimate way. Somehow or other, there’s a pseudo-glory attributed to this appalling human catastrophe.”
He paused and then said: “I have many criticisms of the European Union. There are many changes I’d like to make. But what do I spend every day of my working life doing? I sit here in central government, trying to change the way Whitehall works . . . I don’t get into a canoe and sail off into the Irish Sea and become a sovereign person away from the United Kingdom.
“I love the United Kingdom but there are endless things that could be improved. That is my position on Europe. How the heck do you improve them if you’re not there? Indeed, didn’t we learn the lesson that when we weren’t there, they designed a different Europe to the one we liked?”
Heseltine recalled with pride how it was the Conservatives who first recognised the UK’s need to join the European Economic Community and who achieved membership under Edward Heath in 1973. It was Labour that remained ambivalent, with Harold Wilson, like David Cameron, forced to concede a referendum in 1975 for the sake of party unity. Today, the positions are reversed: more than 90 per cent of Labour’s MPs support EU membership, while nearly half of the Conservatives are opposed. The defining Tory divide is no longer between Eurosceptics and Europhiles, but Eurosceptics and Brexiters.
The Prime Minister, a lifelong Eurosceptic, is what passes for a Europhile in today’s Tory party: a committed supporter of the EU. But Heseltine is a reminder of what a true Europhile looks like. He continues to advocate UK membership of the single currency and told me: “One day, we will join the euro . . . There’s no hurry and I don’t think it’s going to happen in my lifetime. It’ll be controversial. But when we adopted the metric measurements, there was great controversy over that – the metres and the litres. Nobody can remember what the argument was. You talk to the younger generation [and] they think you’re slightly off the planet. The Americans fought a civil war over the dollar, not that long ago in terms of human history. It took a long time to make the dollar work.”
Heseltine spoke of his profound disappointment at the Tories’ anti-EU turn. “I’m disappointed, particularly for David Cameron. I’ve seen the Conservative Party adopt leaders of a Eurosceptic nature but they didn’t win,” he said. “David Cameron has shown the Conservative Party how to win. And, in the end, winning is rather important in politics. One of the great differences between Labour and the Conservative Party is that Labour has a tendency to pursue a dream in opposition. The Conservatives are much more single-minded in pursuing the power with which to fulfil their dreams in government.
“David Cameron personally made that possible, being significantly more popular than the Conservative Party. I do find it disappointing that people who owe their seats in government, who owe – many of them – their seats at all to him, are now making his job as Prime Minister a great deal harder than it ought or need to be.”
How did he feel when Boris Johnson, who succeeded Heseltine as the MP for Henley in 2001, came out for Brexit? “I was disappointed he was able to resolve these huge issues in so short a period of introspection. But I’m not going to get involved in the personalities of this issue. Boris must explain himself.”
Although he avoided the question of who Cameron’s successor should be, he spoke with notable warmth about George Osborne, whom he described as a “remarkably strategic chancellor, bringing about really big, important changes in this country”. Having told me in 2014 that he was “a great fan” of Johnson (“a big guy, a big politician”), Heseltine offered no praise for him on this occasion.
He blames Margaret Thatcher for injecting Euroscepticism into the Conservative bloodstream. It was after the passage of the Single European Act in 1986 and the onset of economic recession, he said, that she “did what politicians understandably do. She sought a scapegoat – Brussels.” The truth, he added, was that, as Cameron’s renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership with other national leaders demonstrated: “The elected heads of government have the power.”
He continued: “The Brexit side have become so swallowed up in their own propaganda. They really believe this thing about Brussels. But, of course, it rings well with some of our xenophobic newspapers and with some elements of our population.”
He disagreed with those Conservatives who argue that Thatcher would have joined them in voting Leave. “She would have voted to stay in [the EU]. That’s what she always did. There were two Mrs Thatchers: what she did and what she said. Party management often demanded language which perhaps didn’t completely reflect the decision-making for which she was responsible . . . She knew that Britain’s self-interest was inextricably interwoven with Europe and that’s why she was personally responsible for the biggest sharing of sovereignty in British history – the Single European Act.”
Could the Tories split after the June referendum? “The Conservative Party is the most sophisticated political party in human democracy,” Heseltine insisted. “They will come together.
“That doesn’t mean [that] they will all agree, but all parties are coalitions.”
Before we parted, I asked Heseltine about Jeremy Corbyn’s prospects as Labour leader, and for his assessment of Cameron’s future. “We had Michael Foot. I’ve seen it all before,” he said. “I think they’ll find it difficult to get rid of him but that’s not my problem.” He chuckled.
He said that whether or not Cameron should resign as Prime Minister in the event of a vote to leave the EU was “a judgement for him”. Yet he warned the Brexiters that victory would bring a miasma of problems.
“Who goes off to Brussels and negotiates the new treaty and how long is it going to take?” Heseltine asked. “Well, we know that we have an election and a change of leader in the Conservative Party in the course of the three and a half years to come. There’s no evidence that you can get a new agreement in that time. The great Canadian example [the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, a free-trade deal with the EU] – that’s taken seven years, and it still isn’t ratified.
“What is the Brexit solution to this? Who goes off to negotiate with the certain knowledge that they haven’t got the beginnings of a majority in parliament? Now, their case would be: ‘But the people have voted to leave’ – but on the basis that there is a negotiation, which they’ve been told would be very successful and very easy.
“Suppose there isn’t a negotiation that is successful and easy,” he said. “You’ve got no parliamentary mandate and you’ve just got one heck of a lot of questions and no leadership in parliament.
“What does that do for us? What does that do for all those companies coming from all over the world, saying, ‘We’re going to spend £1bn creating a factory in Europe; I don’t think I’ll go to Britain’? Why? Because they can’t answer any of the questions: we don’t know whether we’re in, or out, or what the terms are.”
The great Tory Europhile concluded on a dark note. “The more you do go into it,” he said, “the more frightening the whole thing becomes.”
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism