FORTUNATELY for me, I was never Nicholas Ridley's fag at Eton, writes Tam Dalyell. I say fortunately because, as the late Tom Brocklebank's first house- captain, he was rough with tongue and cane on those whom he considered less than perfect. I suspect he rather enjoyed the intense dislike of the small boys in the house, as he certainly enjoyed the intense fury - and dislike - of most of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and a good number of his own colleagues on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons.
Ridley was the most arrogant boy, intellectually, that I ever knew at Eton, and the most arrogant MP I ever knew in the House of Commons. He was also the best schoolboy artist whose work I ever saw, at Eton or any other school. I used to watch him, when he was 17, and I was 12, and run errands for water, paints and brushes. Our art teacher, the late Wilfrid Blunt, observed, 'More talented than his grandfather]' (Edwin Lutyens). Ridley's entries to the annual display of MPs' artistic efforts in the Upper Waiting Hall of the Commons were, by cross- party consent, superb.
Had Ridley been a painter, or an engineer - a subject in which he had a First Class honours degree at Balliol - he would have been more acceptable than as a politician and cabinet minister. But then mollifying others was not in Ridley's nature. Only Ted Heath can know precisely why he gave Ridley the boot as a minister - a reversal which made Ridley incandescent with anger, and revenge. What is certain is that the Scots on the Clyde, with shipbuilding connections, were never so glad to see the back of any minister. It was the way he presented his views, as much as the actual views themselves.
Ridley had the dangerous trait, sometimes found in the clever younger brothers of the aristocracy, of spoiling a respectable case by wallowing with a tinge of enjoyment in being gratuitously confrontational. He enjoyed being rude - though, not I think, to Margaret Thatcher.
On the other hand, Ridley was often right. If he had got his way as the responsible Foreign Office minister after visiting the Falklands, the chances are that the islanders would have compromised, and, ironically, there would have been no Falklands war. His case for recognising the reality of the need for negotiations with Argentina, Britain's then friend, was powerful. It came unstuck because Ridley was like a red rag to the bull of the Falkland islanders, and then upset the House of Commons during a ministerial statement, as only he could, by off-handed and offensive disdain - even for those of us who agreed with him.
Ridley was surely the most undiplomatic man ever to be a Foreign Office minister. Nor was he suited to be Secretary of State for the Environment, albeit that the poll tax was not his idea in the first place.
Ridley's autobiography is a deeply interesting and well-written work which will be one of the principal sources for historians who wish to understand Britain in the 1980s. The history of the government, and Margaret Thatcher herself, might have been different had she appointed Nick Ridley to the one post for which he was, by temperament and ability, suited, and which he craved - Chancellor of the Exchequer.