The Skinhead's Last Stand: Norman Tebbit was once a powerful man. He backed the right horse,

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
3 JUNE, 1993. Before Baron Tebbit of Chingford arrives in the make-up suite at the Westminster studio of Sky television, Clare, the make-up woman, says: 'Ooh, he makes me laugh, Norman. He has me shrieking]' She is holding the little pot of stuff she will smear on Lord Tebbit's face, the little brush she will use to touch him up. Sky News is silently running on a large screen at the back of the room.

Clare says: 'He said he was going to bring me back a present from Switzerland. I said what is it? He said: a snowball] I said where is it? He said: it didn't quite make the plane]'

Lord Tebbit appears, grinning, and walks across the room with a slight limp, a result of his Grand Hotel bomb injury. He has a superficial perkiness, but looks weary, a man from whom power has slipped, and is continuing to slip. He wears a grey pinstripe Gieves &-

Hawkes suit off the peg; he 'can't afford'

to have them made. He looks smaller and thinner than you would think, slightly tanned, with a narrow bald head and straight, almost downy hair at the back. He is 62. His eyes keep flicking across at the television screen.

Eight years ago, he was touted as Margaret Thatcher's most likely successor, before people realised how much he needed her, how much a part of her he was; his cunning proletarian view of the world had worked only when Margaret Thatcher needed it to broaden the party's appeal, to include Cs and Ds, the self-made and the semi-skilled. But his power is waning now; a fortnight after this television recording, he will tell the press, when asked about Asil Nadir's donations to the Conservative Party: 'I don't know whether I ever knew that he'd ever given money or not.' Norman Tebbit? That sounds more like John Moore, like John Gummer. And Tebbit's particular brand of anti- charm won't scupper the Maastricht treaty. On 8 June, Tebbit will address the Lords on the subject; five days before, even he doesn't believe he has a chance.

Tebbit sits down. Some people come into the room: a studio guest, the producer, one or two others. Tebbit tells Clare: You missed your chance to be up here when we had the Times.'

Clare: 'Oh, I was probably making up Sooty. I always get Sooty.'

Tebbit: 'Sooty? I didn't think they were allowed to have Sooty on. I thought it had racist overtones. Ever since they did Mr Plod for violence against the golliwogs. The golliwogs were all not guilty. And that Noddy - I've heard he's a bit of a poof.'

Everybody laughs. Tebbit has good comic timing. Austin Mitchell, the Labour MP and Tebbit's co-presenter, walks into the room. Mitchell says: 'It's President Mitchell]'

Tebbit: 'President Mitchell? You couldn't be head of a bloody tortoise]' He points at the television screen. 'Ah, there's the Labour Party at work again, Austin. Timex.' Then he says: 'Both major parties, that's the heart of their programme - the appeasement of foreigners.'

Clare brushes powder on to Tebbit's face. Then he says something in a low, cackling voice; something approving about a particularly decisive and bloody moment in our recent history. 'Now that's foreign policy,' he says.

His relish is mildly shocking, even if it is from

Norman Tebbit. Does he really mean it - or was he just trying to get a laugh?

He's sitting here, snickering. Norman Tebbit, who personified the cruel, uncaring side of Thatcherism. He was the man who seemed to have no sympathy for slackers, but every sympathy for a rather vulgar kind of nationalism. He set the 'cricket test', questioning Asian immigrants for supporting Asian cricket teams; he used the phrase 'Paki- bashing', and said afterwards, 'I think there are good reasons for not hiding behind euphemisms'; he said, famously, 'My father did not riot. He got on his bike and looked for work.' Did he mean all of this? Or was it just a convenient image?

Now he's taking a stand, perhaps his last big moment in politics, against the treaty that is so closely bound up with John Major's credibility. People think his anti-Maastricht sentiments come from crude nationalism, from the feeling that no good can come from getting in with those Krauts, those Frogs, those bloody Belgians. Can it be that simple?

Sitting in the make-up suite, he is loudly bantering with one of the programme's guests, Stephen Haseler, his friend and author of Death of the House of Windsor. In a voice strangled for comic effect, Tebbit says: 'There will be a civil war in Western Europe within 20 years if they go down this path] It will all start with the Germans when they start their own regimes of ethnic cleansing. What if the neo- Fascists get control?'

Haseler says: 'You're either going to be in the position of 'I told you so', or in the political wilderness.'

'I'm in the political wilderness anyway - I've retired.'

In the corridor, Tebbit sidles up to me and says: 'I hope you're not going to use anything which . . . which might embarrass me.'

'Which bits might embarrass you?'

'Oh,' he says, and pauses. He thinks for a moment. 'Well, one thing in particular.' It's the bit about the decisive use of foreign policy.

'Because I didn't really mean it, you see. I didn't really . . . mean it that way.'

I had met Lord Tebbit a few days previously, for a formal interview, at the Royal Horseguards Hotel in Whitehall; the venue was his choice. His secretary had said: 'Well, he wouldn't have you in his house, you know.'

Lord Tebbit arrived in a black, chauffeur- driven Citroen XM with smoked windows, sitting in the back seat, talking on the telephone. It was the day the Danes had voted 'yes', against his wishes; he'd just arrived back from his trip to Copenhagen to try to get them to vote 'no'. But he was smiling when he got out of the car.

'Are you very upset about the Danes?'

'We-ell . . .' He shrugged, not saying much, not looking unhappy.

We walked along the corridor of this modest, businesslike place, and sat down on either side of a large table in a conference room. Tebbit small-talked for a while about Norman Lamont, who had not yet been sacked. He said: 'It would be curious for there to be pressure to sack him when he's right, as opposed to sacking him when he was wrong.'

Stealthily at first, he moved the conversation towards Europe. Re-entering the ERM, he said, which Douglas Hurd has mooted, would be 'a disaster': 'It's rather like trying to fly a British Airways aircraft, not according to what's on the instrument panel of that aeroplane, but according to what's on the instrument panel of a Lufthansa flight, which is going in a different direction.'

'So . . . what are your objections to Maastricht?'

At this, Tebbit talked solidly for over 15 minutes, brooking no interruption. He was not, he said, simply anti-European. No, he was, in a more complicated way, pro-European. The

trouble with Maastricht was that it would cause terrible economic problems for the countries on the fringe of the EC and, if this happened, 'we will see the invasion of West Europe by people just . . . walking. Just moving. They will be what in Hong Kong are known as economic migrants - you know, when they throw the Vietnamese out of Hong Kong. And those economic migrants will move into Europe. The first place they'll arrive will be Germany. They will probably there meet the economic migrants from . . . Greece.'

He said, also, that a great divide would

develop between countries within the EC, between the poorer countries and the richer ones like Britain, who would have to subsidise the poorer ones by raising taxes. It all sounded practical, self-interested, anti-idealistic, like an argument in favour of privatisation or against the welfare state. Why should we waste our money on these guys when they'd probably be better off fending for themselves in a proper competitive environment?

This, so far, didn't exactly sound like xenophobia; it sounded like the kind of pragmatic cynicism that often gets mistaken for xenophobia. It's not quite that he doesn't like Krauts and Dagoes; he just doesn't want to rush into anything. And, on a personal level, he savours the controversy it causes when he says so.

Of a post-Maastricht Europe, he said: 'Those in the South would be saying: the miserable mean swine in the North, they're rich and won't give us anything, and we miserable mean swine in the North would be saying: it's them in the South. Now that's the recipe for a revolution.'

Tebbit kept talking. After a while, I tried interrupting, to stem the flow; his tactic was to march straight ahead, as if he hadn't heard. And then, minutes later sometimes, he would catch up with my interruptions, sometimes just desperate things I had blurted out, and he'd go through them carefully, counting off the points on his fingers. There's a toughness here, a brazenness which is astonishing even when you know that this is Norman Tebbit, the man who put the unions in their place, the man Michael Foot referred to as a 'semi-house-trained polecat'. At one stage, when I had almost given up hope, he said, returning to a blurted 'why not?' from five minutes earlier: 'But you asked: why doesn't it address the problems of the 21st century? I'd like to take you back a bit first of all. The problem of Europe after the Second World War . . .'

Minutes later, I said: 'Have you got the time?' It seemed my only hope. He looked at his watch. I changed the subject, in order to ask some direct questions. Did he think the treaty would be ratified? Yes, he did. Would he call himself right-wing? He didn't like labels. 'Hitler and Mussolini, for example, were both Socialists.' He said: 'There's a vulgar form of abuse, which suggests that anybody who is at all nationalistic must be on the right.'

'Are you nationalistic?'

'I'm . . . patriotic, and I acknowledge the power of the tribe in which we live, which is the English-speaking tribe that occupies these islands. What's vulgar is to confuse a territory with a nation. There was a Jewish nation which didn't have a territory until 1948. At the moment, there is a Palestinian nation which doesn't have a territory. There is a country, a state, called Belgium. But I don't believe there's an ethnic Belgian.'

'Is there an ethnic Brit?'

'Yes. Quite clearly so. We meet them every day. There are many kinds of them, aren't there? But above all, I suppose, they're marked by . . . tolerance.'

Wouldn't you feel let down, if you were Tebbit? When he started in politics, his ideas were seen, within the party, as a bit racy, possibly even dangerous. Then, for a decade, he seemed to have broken through - he backed Thatcher when she was a long-odds outsider, and she rewarded him with office, although slowly at first, and although they fell out during the 1987 election. He tells me, wistfully: 'Whenever I was going to see Margaret Thatcher, or whenever I saw something in the papers about an issue, I was pretty damn sure I knew how she would react to it. With John Major I think it's very difficult at times to say how he's going to react to particular issues.'

He elaborates: 'He is much more like most Conservatives than I am, or indeed Margaret Thatcher is, in the sense that he became a Conservative not because of a grand vision at all, but because in his life he saw lots of bits and pieces of things which worked which were Conservative. Whereas Margaret sees this big picture, and then fits bits into it, he sees lots of bits, which he tries to make into a big picture.' Tebbit's face clouds over when the name John Major is mentioned. 'John Major,' he says, 'whose leadership of the Party I supported. Had I strongly opposed him, he wouldn't have made it.'

'And how do you feel about Major now?'

'Well, I've been disappointed.'

'I'M STILL proud of the fact,' said Tebbit, 'that when I walk down the road there's often a shout from the bus or the lorry or the building-site: ' 'ere, Norm, 'ow ya doin', mate?' And I'mproud of that because it means that I've got a line of communication to those people.'

He was born one of those people, in Ponders End, an ordinary north London suburb, in 1931, and it was his ability to appeal to those people, many of them originally Labour voters, that made his political career. In the early Thirties, Tebbit's father, Leonard, was the assistant manager of a pawnbroker's and jeweller's shop. A few years later, he ran a pub in Hertfordshire - unsuccessfully. This was when, famously, he got on his bicycle and looked for work, eventually finding a job in an abattoir in Letchworth.

Norman left school at 16, having already decided he wanted to go into politics. 'If somebody'd said to me when I was at school, that this is where I'd finish,' he said, 'I would have been - chuffed, I suppose is the word. But not astounded at the idea, because it was a thought which was always there in my mind, that I was going to go into politics.' When he was 16, though, political ambitions were something that 'I hardly dared admit to myself.'

He started work as an office boy at the Financial Times, wore a suit, and 'began to enjoy drinking good bitter ale.' Called up for National Service in 1949, he joined the RAF, learned to fly, went to a lot of wild parties, and, 'like most people at that time, had a relaxed attitude to drinking and driving.' Norman and his friends would block off a public road at night, and then race along it; once, he borrowed the station commander's car and had 'an encounter with an air-raid shelter'.

He loved the flying. He told me: 'Oh, it's an animal pleasure. It's the enormous excitement of having the responsiveness of a very powerful machine and in those days, again, one was able to behave slightly irresponsibly at times.'

He says: 'We were all so very free . . . we could just roam the upper air, absolutely free, and we were encouraged to engage in what were called 'freelance practice interceptions', when the military radar controllers would tell us they'd got an aircraft on their screen, and vector us on to it for interception . . . that sort of thing now would be very unorthodox.'

You can see the roots of his political persona, can't you? Tebbit comes from a unique time - he matured exactly as the working class began to be much more socially mobile. Also, not everybody was doing it; most of them still knew their place. So if you had enough push, enough swagger, there was plenty of room. Tough, laddish, self-made - he's not the kind of man who would have much sympathy with slackers, whingers, public-school ditherers.

He started dating girls - first Wendy Craig, the future actress, then his wife-to-be, Margaret, who was a nurse. They were married in 1956; they now have three children, John, Alison and William. Active in the local Conservative Association, Tebbit also qualified as a co- pilot for BOAC, eventually becoming spokesman for the pilots' union, Balpa. In 1966, he was accepted on the Conservative list of prospective parliamentary candidates; his friend Cecil Parkinson, chairman of the Hemel Hempstead Conservative Association, sponsored him. He won Epping in 1970 with a majority of 2,575, ousting a Labour incumbent.

The rest is more familiar: the waspish turn of phrase, the sneering face, the cackling voice, the pre-Thatcherite views on housing and unions, which seemed eccentric in the Heath government, but became the norm after he backed Margaret Thatcher. He was miserable under Edward Heath, whom he is still sniffy about: 'I do try to (talk to him), but, um, it's . . . sometimes rather difficult. He does behave in a rather . . . strange manner now. The last time I talked to him very much was when we had the great debate at the Oxford Union on Maastricht, which he was surprised to find that I won, hands down, with a very large majority, and he's been a bit huffy since then.'

Tebbit has always called himself an 'instinctive' Conservative. 'I take the view that, on the whole, people will act in what they perceive to be their best interest,' he said. 'One is anti- collectivist, one is individualistic.' The world might be tough when you're on your own, but it'll be even worse if you trust other people. So, as Secretary of State for Employment in the early Eighties, he undermined the closed shop and made it easier to sue trades unions; protecting the individual from the pernicious effect of people clubbing together. As Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, in the mid-Eighties, he wondered aloud how different the coal industry would have been if it had been privatised 20 years before. 'Now, there's a thought,' he said in a speech in April 1984.

He loved the Commons. He told me: 'I can recollect on more than one occasion sitting on the front bench and saying to people alongside me: 'you know, it's worth a guinea a minute just to be here, isn't it?' He became a pantomime villain in the early Eighties. In his autobiography, Norman Fowler writes of a time in 1982 when he, Fowler, had a moment of unpopularity with the public. Making an appearance in Sheffield, he noticed that many of the hate- banners had the word 'Fowler' inserted for the original 'Tebbit'.

'Does it hurt you at all, that people see you as a hard man?'

'No, not at all. I'm quite happy where I am. One has to work with the limits of how people perceive you, which is sometimes very effective. People make their attack on you from an entirely false premiss. It's very convenient.'

Michael Dobbs, Tebbit's policy adviser for several years in the Eighties, who says, of his relationship with Tebbit: 'I was about as close to him as his underwear', told me that 'he had a very clear idea of what his personal role was. He saw his role as a parliamentary thug. It was a means to an end, not an end in itself. On a personal level, he would get on very well with the union leaders.' Tebbit was not an economic guru. I asked him when he had realised that the Lawson boom would turn into a slump, and he said, quickly, 'More in retrospect.'

Had he been troubled by snobbishness at Westminster? Harold Macmillan is rumoured to have said, incredulously, that he'd heard a Cockney accent, and turned round to see 'one of her Majesty's ministers'.

'Oh yes, that's right. Well, one gets one or two people like that. Well . . . who was Macmillan? You just go round them. It doesn't worry me at all, except that it shows the paucity of mind of people of that kind, who can't recognise people for what they are. I think that's rather . . . sad.'

IN OCTOBER 1984, he was badly injured in the IRA bomb attack on the Grand Hotel, Brighton; his wife was paralysed from the neck down, although she has regained some movement since. Tebbit's life was saved by his mattress, which landed on top of him.

As a politician, he had realised that his best bet was to make himself indispensible to his leader - he became the man who diverted some of the flak from her on tough social issues, who tested the water when he made his vivid pronouncements. At Westminster, he was a good performer, a great man for meetings. 'He radiates menace, but without being overtly aggressive,' wrote Alan Clark in his Diaries. And: 'He goes straight to the heart of a

subject, never gets diverted into detail, always

sees the political implications.'

But mostly he existed as a facet of Thatcher. She promoted him surprisingly slowly, first making him a parliamentary under-secretary of state in the DTI in 1979 and keeping him there until 1981, and then promoting him to minister of state in the same department. It wasn't until 1983, four years after she became Prime Minister, that Tebbit, one of her earliest champions, got into the Cabinet, as Secretary of State for Employment.

He said: 'I backed the right horse in backing Margaret Thatcher - that was the key thing. The idea of backing this middle-class woman with the funny accent that wore blue twin-sets as the leader of the Conservative Party, was something which a lot of my friends found strange. Very strange. They told me they thought it was mad . . . I had moments of doubt. It was a case of: what were the other alternatives anyway? If there had been a man who had run her close, I would have gone for the man.'

They fell out in the run-up to the 1987 election, when Tebbit was party chairman. He was upset that he'd been left out of the inner circle which made the decision to allow Ronald Reagan to bomb Libya from a British base (Geoffrey Howe, George Younger, Willie Whitelaw and Margaret Thatcher). He began to distance himself - he got tougher and meaner, when she wanted to look softer and kinder. He kept on railing against the BBC. He produced some market research, done by Saatchi & Saatchi, which said that Thatcher was an electoral liability. Worried, Thatcher commissioned some more market research, using another agency, Young & Rubicam. The new research was kinder to her. But she wasn't going to let Tebbit, the party chairman, control the 1987 election campaign.

Dobbs said: 'The party chairman was treated abominably by Margaret Thatcher. Someone had told her he was using his position to replace her, to conspire against her with the view of replacing her. As it turned out, it was nonsense. He had already told me, and not her, that he was resigning from the Cabinet.'

'Was he hurt?'

'Hugely] There's a man cut to shreds for no reason at all. Very little justification for her lack of faith.'

I asked Tebbit: 'Are you sorry you never got to be Prime Minister?'

'It's not something I go into the corner and have a little cry about. Quite naturally, I would have, er, I would have liked to have done. My good fortune is that nobody will ever know whether I would have made a good Prime Minister or not.'

'Do you still talk to Mrs Thatcher a lot?'

'Yes indeed. Well, not a lot. But we do talk to each other.'

'Do you call her?'

'Sometimes. Sometimes she calls me. Um, not every day, or even every week, but we stay in touch.'

'And who else are you in touch with? John Biffen? Parkinson? Keith Joseph?'

'Biffo I see now and again, and always enjoy a few words with him, but we're divided by the length of the corridor in Westminster now, so we don't see each other very often. I've seen Keith quite a bit. He's a man of enormous courtesy and kindness . . . Cecil? I haven't seen him outside the Palace of Westminster. My friends in politics were mostly friends who were working colleagues, rather than friends who were friends.'

He paused, and said: 'It was a wonderful period of one's life, you know. I think I was extremely fortunate.'

'THE HOUSE of Lords? I think it's a very good system,' said Lord Tebbit. 'It enables us to offer recognition and reward to people in society of all kinds, in a very effective and cost- effective manner.' He took his seat in the Lords last year, at the same time as Baroness Thatcher.

8 June. Tebbit is due to speak in a two-day Lords debate on the ratification of the Maastricht treaty; the previous day he interrupted Jim Callaghan's speech, something virtually unheard of in the Lords.

It's already midnight, and there are a number of Lords to go before Tebbit. The place is quiet; several Lords look asleep. When one snores, suddenly and loudly, there are ripples of movement; the Lords sit up, snapping to attention, fiddling with their ties - several think it must have been them. The press has nearly all gone home.

It's a big chamber with a blue carpet, red leather seating, and a mass of gilt-encrusted Victorian decoration high up on the walls. The Lords blether on, averaging just over 10 minutes each. You go out for a drink of water and come back, and someone is saying: 'My Lords, in 1607 . . .'

The two most alert people in the chamber are Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit, both sitting up straight, about as far apart from each other as they can get. Thatcher seems supernaturally alert, sitting poised, concentrating, almost directly below me. Tebbit gets his turn at 1.30am. He stands up straight and speaks briskly. He talks about 'a vast army of economic migrants', about 'becoming a province of a federal Europe, just as Saxony is part of a federal Germany'. At one point, he says: 'My honourable friend.' A ripple of surprise goes around the chamber. 'Noble, noble,' the Lords correct him.

Tebbit brings the speech to a crescendo. 'This treaty will end in tears - it is better that it ends in tears now than that it ends in very bitter tears in 5, 10 or 15 years' time.' He sits down. Several of the Lords walk straight out, although he is by no means the last speaker.

It is 1.47. The Baron of Chingford and the Baroness of Finchley sit still, looking straight ahead, not smiling.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments