AT SOME time during the autumn of 1972 the prime minister, Edward Heath, decided to reverse the economic policies on which he had been elected in 1970. This reversal required the dismissal - or replacement - of various ministers who had been appointed for their devotion to the principle of free-market economics in the heyday of electoral victory two years earlier. A particular difficulty arose with a junior minister at the Department of Trade and Industry: Nicholas Ridley.
Heath wanted to keep Ridley in government. This prickly man, he seems to have thought, would be more reliable in office than without. Knowing his interests, Heath offered Ridley the post of Arts minister. Ridley declined. He went to the back benches. A few days later I lunched with him in his elegant Pimlico flat. The walls were adorned with his delicate water-colours. 'You see,' said Ridley, 'Ted thought that because I drew and painted things, I would like to be Minister for the Arts.
'I had to explain to him that the ministry should not exist, because it involved public expenditure. And I was against all but the most minimal use of the taxpayer's purse.'
There you have Nicholas Ridley, a man of improbable independence of mind in the - on the whole - dull politics of our day. He was born in 1929, the second son of the third Viscount Ridley, a Northumberland grandee. His mother was a daughter of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and a niece of the painter Neville Lytton. (The Ridley seat at Blagdon, near Newcastle, is adorned with details by Lutyens, who also designed a formal canal and terracing for the gardens.) A chairman of Northumberland County Council, his father was regional controller in the north of England for the Ministry of Production from 1942 to 1949; his father in turn, the second Viscount, had, until inheriting the title, been Conservative MP for Stalybridge. The first Viscount, Nicholas Ridley's great-grandfather, appointed as a Minister by Disraeli, was Home Secretary in Lord Salisbury's last government.
Nicholas Ridley evinced an early fascination with politics. After Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, he fought Blyth for the Conservatives in 1955, and won Cirencester and Tewkesbury in the General Election of 1959.
A junior minister at the Department of the Environment once said that Ridley 'wore a permanent sneer'. I always found it a treat - though many did not - to see, across a room, his pale blue eyes, inevitably clouded by cigarette smoke, because I knew that his presence would be a prelude to a series of highly irreverent remarks, not just about his parliamentary opponents, but about his party colleagues. His independence of mind was a product of the man's character, less of his family background. His father had made a fortune in shipbuilding. Nicholas began his business career in what had been the family firm in Newcastle. There, he wrote in his autobiography, he learnt to hate socialism in any form, and trade unions in particular.
But there was more to this than ideology. Asked, once, a question on BBC television news, he replied, 'That is the most stupid question I've ever been asked.' His interviewer tried again. 'That,' said Ridley, 'is the second most stupid question I've ever been asked.' Ridley was incomparable in his disdain for fashion, or opinion. He at first declined to accept the post of Secretary of State for the Environment from Margaret Thatcher unless Sir George Young was moved: for Young was particularly opposed to smoking and Ridley's first act on waking was to light a cigarette.
He first served in government as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Education. Thereafter he spoke - from the Opposition benches - on trade and technology. When Heath won the general election of 1970 Ridley served briefly in the short-lived Ministry of Technology - a suitable appointment in that he was a qualified engineer. When his ministry was abolished he went to the Department of Trade and Industry; and when he resigned his post there it seemed that his chances of high office had departed.
In 1975, however, Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party. Fortune smiled again on Ridley. He was, between 1975 and 1979, a powerful influence on the formulation of Tory economic policy. When Thatcher came to power in 1979 she, against expectations, sent him, as Minister of State, to the Foreign Office. Unlikely though the appointment seemed, it reflected Ridley's long involvement with the Council of Europe and the Western European Union.
It cannot be said that Ridley acquitted himself well in foreign affairs. In particular, he seriously misread the intentions of the Argentinian government towards the Falkland Islands. But, before the Falklands crisis fell upon the Government in 1982, Thatcher had moved him to the Treasury, as Financial Secretary. After her election victory in 1983 he became Secretary of State for Transport and, in 1986, Secretary of State for the Environment. This was to be his final appointment to high office. At the time it raised many eyebrows, for it was thought that Ridley's advocacy of free-market economics did not sit well with modern concerns for nature conservation. However, the prime minister had noted that he was a keen fisherman, and an obsessional gardener, his garden at Cheltenham being a joy to behold. He had, also, from 1962 been closely involved in the affairs of the National Trust.
Sometime - it is impossible to be precise - after 1979 Ridley's views on foreign policy underwent a sea-change. I had a long talk with him in 1975 when he spoke of the desirability of a federal Europe. By 1990, though, he had completely changed his views. In that year he gave an exceptionally indiscreet interview to the Spectator in which he denounced federalist ideas, and was particularly rude about German ambitions. 'This is all a German racket,' he told Dominic Lawson, 'designed to take over the whole of Europe. It has to be thwarted.
'This rushed takeover by the Germans on the worst possible basis, with the French behaving like poodles to the Germans, is absolutely intolerable . . . The deutschmark,' he said, 'is always going to be the strongest currency, because of their habits.' He deplored the resigning of sovereignty to the European Commission - '17 unelected reject politicians - and concluded with the words which inspired a devastating cover-cartoon by Nicholas Garland, 'You might as well give it (sovereignty) to Adolf Hitler, frankly.'
The embarrassment to the Government was considerable, and Ridley resigned his office.
The answer, I think, to Ridley's change of stance on federalism is to be found in his growing realisation of the consequences of British entry into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Since this involved a probable acceptance of German monetary superiority he hated it, not least because he disliked Germans. 'She,' he wrote of Margaret Thatcher, 'always felt, with some justification, that the Foreign Office wanted to sell Britain out over European union.' His view was also hers; and it gives the reason why she tried so hard to persuade him not to resign when he had been, typically, indiscreet to the Spectator.
There was an ideological affinity between Ridley and Thatcher, but it was his style which appealed to her. She, for all her boldness in the creation of new policy was, in many respects, uncertain about style, much though she loved the daring. She loved Ridley's retailing of the story, when he was about to privatise the road transport industry, that his maternal uncle Euan Wallace had first nationalised the industry. 'I,' said Ridley, 'am making up for his mistake.'
The great thing about Nicholas Ridley was that he was ever his own man. The word sardonic might well have been coined for him. For all his undoubted charm, he was never less than dismissive of criticism. He possessed an independence of mind and of personality almost unknown among modern politicians. That independence, that refusal to bow to fashion or expediency, made him invaluable, a man both to admire and to cherish.