OBITUARY: Lord Joseph
Monday 12 December 1994
After the general election of 1959 a new MP, Margaret Thatcher, came top of the draw to introduce Private Member legislation. Bills introduced by backbenchers rarely reach the statute-book without the support of the government of the day; and it follows that the government must approve of their aims. Thatcher wanted to oblige local authorities to admit the press to their proceedings. The government headed by Harold Macmillan approved. In accordance with common practice on such occasions a junior minister was detailed to help the backbencher with the drafting of her Bill and its steering through Parliament. He was Keith Joseph, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Housing and Local Government. Thus began a personal alliance that was to have momentous consequences for modern Britain.
``Keith and I have no toes,'' Margaret Thatcher once said to me - by this she meant that they could never give offence to one another. Thus, in 1974, when Joseph decided to withdraw from the fight for the leadership of the Conservative Party, his full support went to the member for Finchley. Since he had the support of about 60 MPs - a support which was devoted, and not merely tactical - he provided her with an indispensable base for her attack on Edward Heath.
Yet they were the most improbable allies. On the one hand there was the hard-headed and decisive Thatcher. On the other there was the second baronet, brilliant but often indecisive, a man perpetually wondering whether a decision he had come to was right.Still, it was his thinking which laid the foundation for Thatcher's long tenure as Prime Minister: without his support she could never have become leader of the party.
Joseph never had that egotism indispensable to anybody who seriously wants to become Prime Minister. ``The tasks ahead,'' he wrote in 1974, just before he withdrew from the leadership race, ``are for giants. And I am no giant.'' When the Conservative Party began the campaign to replace Heath, Joseph was the candidate of the Right, William Whitelaw of the Left. At first he was decisive. A group of right-wingers having met the night after the general election defeat in October 1974, and being aflame with a rumour that Sir Ian Gilmour had conceived a plot to, so to speak, shoo Whitelaw into the leadership, one of them telephoned and asked me to inquire of Joseph whether he was a candidate. I did so. ``Tell them,'' Joseph replied, ``that I am a candidate, and will remain one to the conclusion.''
It was not to be. A speech made a little earlier - in September, at Preston - attracted fierce and growing publicity. He had argued that ``socio-economic classes three and four'' should resist the temptation to have more than two children per family. He was denounced as advocating selective breeding. Hurt at being, as he saw it, misrepresented, Joseph withdrew from the race, and passed the baton on to Margaret Thatcher.
Keith Joseph was a Jew, the improbable scion of Sir Samuel Joseph, the brilliant and ruthless creator of Bovis, the building company. Samuel was determined that his son should have every intellectual opportunity. Keith went to Harrow, and thence to Magdalen College, Oxford. He achieved a brilliant First, and was elected a Fellow of All Souls. An outstanding academic career beckoned, but he had other ideas, ideas which he pursued with that fixity of purpose which occasionally surfaced like an island in the sea of self-doubt. He entered the family firm. He fought in the war with the Royal Artillery Regiment, was wounded, and mentioned in despatches. After the war he read for the Bar, and involved himself in local government in the Conservative interest. Here he rose to be an Alderman for the Portsoken Ward in the City of London. His sights, however, were set higher.
In 1955 he fought in the general election campaign as Tory candidate for Baron's Court. He lost by the frustrating margin of 125 votes. The following year there was a by-election in Leeds North East. Joseph applied for the candidacy. A well-disposed family friend on the constituency executive advised him that Leeds would never choose a Jew. ``Just get me an interview,'' said Joseph. This was done, and Joseph carried all before him at the selection committee. He won the seat, thereby demonstrating that t he powers of intellect and decency, already effective with a constituency committee, would work with a larger audience. He served the constituency until his retirement from the House of Commons in 1987.
Joseph's rise in the House was steady, though unspectacular. Initiated in 1957 as a Parliamentary Private Secretary - in other words an unpaid dogsbody - he became Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Local Government and Housing in 1959. Between 1
961 and 1962 he was Minister of State at the Board of Trade. He returned to Housing and Local Government, with special responsibility for Welsh affairs (there then being no separate Secretary of State for Wales) in 1962 and served there until the defeat of the Conservative government in the general election of October 1964.
It was after this defeat that Joseph began to develop as a leading politician and social reformer. He became deputy chairman of the family company immediately after the election and used a part of his considerable fortune to start the Mulberry Housing Trust in 1965. The trust was designed to refurbish dilapidated residential property which would then be let (and, ultimately, sold) to the poor and the elderly, and was financed wholly from private sources. It collapsed in the 1970s following serious financial defalcations by senior staff: Joseph had been too trusting.
What was emerging was a man passionately concerned with social reform and with efficient management as a tool in that process of reform. In 1965 Edward Heath, the new Leader of the Opposition, who had very similar views to those of Joseph, appointed him to preside over a total revision of Conservative policy. Joseph organised a seemingly endless series of policy committees. He collated their reports and was thus instrumental in the drafting of the Conservative manifesto for the victorious general election of 1970.
He was rewarded by his appointment as Secretary of State for Social Services with a particular responsibility for the National Health Service. Joseph was later bitterly to regret the decisions he made in that post. He believed that the growing problem ofthe NHS could be resolved solely by reforming its management structure, and in implementing this did not appreciate that it would merely increase the expenditure on bureaucracy without a corresponding improvement in quality of service. Joseph was appalled by the monster he had created, and came to the conclusion that he had concentrated too much on management, and too little on philosophy.
Then, in February 1974, the Heath government fell, in circumstances almost of chaos. Harold Wilson formed a minority Labour government, to be succeeded, in October the same year, after another general election, by a Wilson government with a tiny majority. The turmoil in the Tory party was intense and Joseph, agonising over the failures of the 1970-74 period, decided that a complete rethinking of policy was necessary. ``All my life,'' he said, ``I thought I was a Conservative. Now I know that I have never been one. The scales have dropped from my eyes.''
Influenced by F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman - the apostle of monetarism, and then Professor of Economics at Chicago - and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), he developed the idea of a British economy based wholly on the idea of a free-market economy.With the aid of Margaret Thatcher he set up the Centre for Policy Studies. This was greatly to the chagrin of Edward Heath, who saw it, rightly, as a challenge to his waning authority in the party. It was also resented by Conservative Central Office andthe Conservative Research Department, for it drew away from them donations which they felt should be theirs.
Once Thatcher succeeded Heath as leader in 1975, Joseph adopted - but with much more authority - the same roving brief he had had between 1965 and 1970. Upon her victory in the general election of 1979 he was appointed Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but he was not a success there. In September 1981 Thatcher transferred him to the Department of Education and Science, where he was much happier. However his untiring willingness to listen to opposing views ensnared him in the jungle of British educational politics, and particularly those of the National Union of Teachers. In May 1986 he decided to retire. He gave up his office, and announced that he would not stand for Parliament at the next general election.
There was a reason beyond public affairs which prompted this decision. Joseph had married, in 1951, an American, Hellen Guggenheimer, whose doubting character was not unlike his own. They had three sons and a daughter. Home life was never stable and in 1984 they parted. He remarried six years later.
Keith Joseph will be remembered for two things. The first, which will be examined by the students of the future, is the amazing influence he had on British politics, for all his diffidence. The second is the gentle and kindly nature of his character. To Joseph every human being was a part of his family; and he treated them thus. At the end, though, one has to say - and he would like it said - that the British political system is great because it enables such men to rise to the top. Keith Joseph was not perhaps great in what he did. But he was great in himself.
Only a handful of British politicians try to alter the ideology of a party, project a vision or shift the political agenda, writes Professor Dennis Kavanagh. A feature of British politics has been that ideologies or politicians with a mission have been regarded with suspicion or, at best, indifference. Clearly Tony Crosland (in his revisionist The Future of Socialism, 1956) is one politician who shaped people's thinking. Enoch Powell tried on immigration and Europe and destroyed his career. The only other comparable figure in the post-war period is Keith Joseph, with his campaign against the consensus in the mid-1970s. Like Gladstone on Irish home rule or Joseph Chamberlain on tariff reform, Joseph found his main battle was with his colleagues.
When she became party leader in February 1975 Margaret Thatcher felt that the Conservatives had lost the battle for political hearts and minds. Her supporters complained that the party had lost the initiative among opinion-formers in schools, universities and the churches, to advocates of egalitarian, collectivist and anti-capitalist values. The vocabulary of debate had been captured by the Left and there was no authoritative Conservative response.
It was Joseph, beginning almost single-handed, who fought against the whole drift of post-war policy, particularly economic and social. He did not spare his own mistakes. In speeches, pamphlets and newspaper articles he campaigned against collectivism, prices and incomes controls, state ownership and intervention in the economy, excessive taxation and public spending, trade-union power and cosy corporatism. For his own part in these errors he now publicly repented. Colleagues were embarrassed and oppone nts scoffed as he wore his hair-shirt. Politicians were not supposed to behave like this. In April 1974, aged 56, he said that he had only just become a Conservative.
During the period out of office after February 1974 old friends like Professor Alan Walters, Alfred Sherman and the Institute of Economic Affairs opened his eyes to the errors of the Heath government. He had sat largely silent as the Cabinet reversed itseconomic policies and imposed statutory controls on incomes and prices, intervened in industry and weakened the market economy. Friends complained that he had been captured by his department (the Department of Health and Social Security) and some felt that he had betrayed them. ``I failed to lift up my eyes,'' he said.
He founded the Centre for Policy Studies to explore the lessons from the successful market economies of West Germany and Japan. This provided a home for other disillusioned Conservatives. It also provided a platform for Joseph's speeches and pamphlets. The undoubted influence on Joseph of the abrasive Sherman, a former Marxist, limited his credibility among colleagues.
Joseph campaigned to influence the climate of opinion, which would in turn influence politicians. In two and a half years between 1974 and 1977 he spoke at over 150 university and polytechnic campuses. Some, including the LSE, violently denied him a platform. In his speeches he eloquently expounded the merits of the social market economy, the case for entrepreneurial capitalism and the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom. Many of these speeches were published, including: ``Monetarism is Not Enough'', ``Conditions for Full Employment'', ``Why Britain Needs a Social Market Economy'' and Reversing the Trend (1975, a collection of seven speeches which critically reappraised Conservative economic and social policies). In addition, he and Jonathan Sumption wrote a book, Equality (1979), which argued, essentially, that governments had become obsessed with it. Some of Joseph's phrases stuck - ``wealth creation'' and ``we need more millionaires and more bankrupts''.
Joseph's message was harsh and not calculated to please the voters. Government would do better by doing less. He emphasised the importance of controlling the money supply to curb inflation - even if it cost jobs, governments should abandon something theycould not deliver. Controversially, he argued that the unemployment figures did not reflect those genuinely seeking work and that governments were foolish to base their economic policies on ``unadjusted'' unemployment figures. He dismissed prices and incomes policies as a distortion of the market and complained that an over-taxed and over-regulated regime was weakening the wealth-creating private sector. Above all, he took on so-called Keynesianism and reclaimed the great economist as a spokesman for sound finance. ``What was said and done in [Keynes's] name has been quite different.'' Yet all this lent itself to easy caricature by political opponents: ``Sir Keith calls for more unemployment.''
Many of these New Right ideas (later called ``Thatcherism'') had been around for some time, propounded by Hayek, Milton Friedman and the IEA. But by the mid-1970s consensus politics were clearly not working and decision-makers were losing confidence in the existing stock of ideas. Joseph's achievement was to articulate an alternative vision and then become John the Baptist to the Madonna of Finchley. His influence in the party increased after Margaret Thatcher became party leader and she made him Chairman of the Conservative Research Department (not least to keep an eye on the young Chris Patten). On Labour's left wing Tony Benn also criticised the consensus - calling for more socialism - but, crucially, he did not have the ear of his leader. Joseph also distinguished between the common ground, an area on which there was general agreement between the parties and which voters accepted, and the middle ground, a point midway between the policies of the Labour and Conservative parties. He complained that Labour gave a turn of the ratchet to socialism each time it was in office and that this was then accepted by the next Conservative government. But each Labour move to the left forced the Conservatives to adjust to a more left-wing middle ground. This analysis of the ``socialist ratchet'' greatly impressed Thatcher and reinforced her own detestation of so-called consensus politics.
It was strange that Joseph, who lacked intellectual self-confidence, presumed to know what was best for others. He lacked presence as a public speaker and was hardly an original writer or thinker. But, aided by events, he had a significant impact on political thinking. Like many intellectuals he was not a good politician. As a minister he was too often impressed by cautious civil service advice and this resulted in indecision. In retirement he was not entirely happy with his achievement. The exce sses of a "loadsamoney" society offended such an unostentatious man. The market was to provide greater freedom and a better quality of life.
Joseph Schumpeter's great book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) argued that capitalism would eventually destroy itself by creating an anti-capitalist culture. It claimed that the intelligentsia, the offspring of an affluent society and expandedhigher education, would be critical of entrepreneurship, profits, the market and materialism. More than anybody, Keith Joseph helped to reverse that trend or at least stave off the day of reckoning.
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