Norman Tebbit: 'Margaret and I both made the same mistake. We neglected to clone ourselves'
Saturday 03 October 2009
I meet Norman Tebbit, that old icon of the Right, loyal keeper of the Thatcher faith and now Baron Tebbit of Chingford, in the central lobby at the Houses of Parliament.
I arrive early and am musing on the magnificence of the building – the gilt, the chandeliers, the mosaics, the murals – when he appears from behind the statue of Gladstone, looking gaunt and slightly menacing, but then he has always looked gaunt and slightly menacing. Possibly, even, he was born gaunt and slightly menacing. "Congratulations, Mrs Tebbit," the midwife may have said to his mother, "you have a lovely, healthy baby boy, if gaunt and slightly menacing." Anyway, I introduce myself and we shake hands. His palm feels papery and dry ("... and such cute little hands, Mrs Tebbit, if papery and dry"). I tell him it must be a fabulous place to work, much better than Burger King. Do you ever get bored of the building? No, he says, and he particularly likes it late at night, when the corridors are deserted, "and you really do expect to see a white rabbit".
We head towards the coffee shop, making small talk all the while. He doesn't come into the House as much as he used to, he says; not since he and his wife, Margaret, moved, as they did recently, from West Sussex to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, which is further away from London. Both were injured in the 1984 Brighton bomb – 25 years ago next week – but while he largely recovered (he still has a slight limp) his wife was permanently disabled, and the problem with Sussex was that they were too far out of the nearest town for her to go into it very often. She has full-time carers but, still, it was always one hell of a palaver. Now, they are more in the centre of things and she can get out and about without it being such a to-do. "And she does like going out," he says.
He is 78, quite frail, and wearing a blue, pin-striped suit that hangs from his bony frame. His hair consists of just a few fronds at the back, Mr Burns-style. Still, he is wonderfully gentlemanly, opening doors and standing back to allow me to go through first, guiding me with a hand to the back, insisting he pays for our coffees and later reminding me to drink mine. "Don't lose your coffee," he says. His fellow Tory Steve Norris once described him as a "racist and homophobe" – but if he is then he is the most charming racist and homophobe I have ever met. Seriously, I've racked my brains and can't recall ever encountering a more charming one, or one that even stood me a coffee.
We sit at one of the Formica tables, where I thank him for my drink, and remind him to claim for it on expenses. He laughs his thin, reedy laugh – "and what a thin, reedy laugh, Mrs Tebbit!" – then says that no one in his day would have claimed for moat-cleaning or big TVs or flipped their houses or what have you. "We always went by the rule that if you wouldn't be happy to read something about yourself on the front page of the Daily Mail tomorrow, then don't do it. But this bunch of boobies had even forgotten the Daily Mail test. I think it's because so few of them have any experience outside the Westminster village. There is a big pot of money sloshing around, everyone helps themselves, no problem. The peer pressure in my day was very different."
I inform him that I have bought him a present. He is excited about this. "I love presents!" he exclaims, practically clapping his hands, which seems a bit weird. I'd earlier popped into the parliamentary bookshop where I'd bought him one of those little gift books they sell at the till, titled The Little Conservative Book, "with over 150 quotes to inspire the Tory faithful". It's nothing to get that excited about, actually, and only £3.99, but he seems happy to have it, and is happier still when I point out he is all of Page 83 with his quote about Neil Kinnock, which he reads out: "I wonder if Neil Kinnock exists at all, or he's some plastic puppet squeezed into shape by his PR experts and trade union leaders, or whoever bullied him last." He follows this with a "Ha!" and then a dry: "It could now be said about one or two others ..." I also refer him, as anyone would, to page 153, which quotes the cricketing metaphor from Geoffrey Howe's 1990 resignation speech, the speech that did for Thatcher, more or less, and encapsulated his difficulties in working with her, particularly when it came to British negotiations in Europe. I read it out to Lord Tebbit, which is cruel, but strangely fun, too. The quote is: "It's rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain." Tebbit arches his eyebrows and then says: "Unfortunately, of course, the truth of the matter is that he [Howe] broke it himself because he wanted to play boules rather than cricket."
I laugh. He can be deliciously snide. When I later ask if he was gobsmacked when he heard John Major had been carrying on with Edwina Currie, he says: "I just thought it was a wonderful illustration of mutual bad taste." Still, he only has nice things to say about Blair and Brown. Only kidding. He says: "I often defend Gordon Brown as being an essentially good man but wrong in every detail but with Blair I go quite biblical. I go to Ecclesiastes. He's the poisoned vine which gives forth only poisoned fruit. We're advised it has to be rooted out and burned. I look around now and I see nothing but poisoned fruit." I say that some people look at Thatcherism and see only poisoned fruit too. Certainly, if my privatised train doesn't turn up, all I see is poisoned fruit. (And I wanted my kiddie to have milk at school!) He, though, won't have the Thatcher legacy tarnished. "I think it's more about what we didn't do than did," he says. "We didn't sort out welfare. We didn't deal with the incipient failure of our schools. We didn't deal with the health service. Those were our principle shortcomings." Bloody hell, I say, what were you all doing all those years then ? Suduko? He says that when Thatcher came in "Britain was a basket case and so we had to focus on the economy, and get that stable."
I tell him he seems good with words, which he is pleased about. He even says, a little pompously, "I have always regarded myself as a wordsmith." He then defines "wordsmith": "We take the raw material, it's all there in the Oxford English Dictionary, and shake it into something." Ah, now I know. (Hey, two can play at this deliciously snide game!) Were you, I ask, a reader as a boy? "My mother," he says, "once said I would read the label on the bottle of sauce on the table rather than sit without reading."
He was born in Edmonton, north London, in 1931. His father, Leonard, who famously got on his bike to look for a job during the depression, worked variously in a pawnbrokers, a jewellery shop and ran a pub, while his mother, Edith, was a butcher's daughter. Did either of them read? "No," he says. So what was it with you? "I just emerged ... well ..." Different? I suggest. By way of reply, he tells me about being evacuated to Cardiff, along with his older brother, when he was eight. "I wasn't away for very long," he says, "but I saw another hunk of the world that I'd never seen before. The couple on whom we were billeted were a comfortably off middle-class family with a nice detached house and a daily maid, which was a life I hadn't known. I think my brother and I were a little too much for them. And we then moved on to a more ordinary family." So is this where you first saw you could "better" yourself? Is this where your Conservatism began? He says: "I was always very individualistic and never, in any way, a collectivist." He then adds: "I'm not a joiner." And he does seem like something of a loner.
He left school at 16 and had worked at the Financial Times, served in the RAF and flown planes as a commercial pilot for BOAC before finally being elected as MP for Epping in 1970. I say it's a bit different from, say, David Cameron's pre-politics CV which probably reads: "Eton ... um, that's it." He says: "I think Cameron is very much like Barack Obama. He is very bright, very well-educated and is extremely gifted at PR, but without very much experience outside you don't know, any more than the Americans knew when they elected Obama, quite what sort of leader he will be." What is your feeling? Do you think he has a principled core, at least? "In many ways, yes, but then one's feelings are undermined by his aspiration to be seen as the heir to Blair – or, more recently, his remark that there is not a cigarette paper between the Conservative and Liberal parties. What on earth was he smoking in that cigarette paper?" He's always asked what he thinks of Cameron so, turning the tables rather, I ask what he thinks Cameron makes of him. He says: "I've had one private conversation with him, at my request, since he became leader and I haven't had a reply from him to the last three letters I've written to him. No, I did get one reply from a young man in his office which, if I'd have been a sixth-form politics student, I would have thought a very interesting letter."
This hurts, as it would hurt, if you'd once been in the thick of it, as he was between 1979 and 1987 when he was Employment Secretary, then Trade and Industry Secretary and finally Tory party chairman. What is your most abiding memory of being part of Thatcher's government? "I remember that if I heard on the news in the morning of some event or another, I didn't have to ask myself what her reaction to that would be because she had a structure of belief which made it very easy to know." He thinks Heseltine brought her down, possibly more than Howe. "Michael couldn't stand the idea of working for a woman. Just couldn't get his mind round it. He – a great big handsome alpha male – junior to this woman!"
Yes, he still sees Thatcher, he says, and had lunch with her and Cecil Parkinson just last week. In my mind's eye, I can see the three of them, hogging the one comfy sofa in Starbucks, as certain people always do. (How come I never get that comfy sofa? What do you have to do to become the sort of person who always gets the sofa?) And how did it go? I ask. "Well," he says. "She and I both made the same terrible mistake." Ohmigod, I say. You both wore the same outfit! He laughs, reedily, then says no, that wasn't it. "It's that we neglected to clone ourselves fifty years ago." Because that would mean you could meet today as young people again? "Yes," he says. "And I think if we were younger we'd both be able to do it all again." How is she now? "Some days she is on very good form and some days she is not so good," is all he will say. Parkinson's resignation still rankles, by the way. "We lost him because of his affair with his secretary whereas, these days, somebody like Prescott survives while having an affair in his office with his tax-payer-provided secretary." He is full of rage, I think.
Once Thatcher was deposed, he would have stood for the leadership if he hadn't promised his wife to retire from frontline politics to spend more time with her. Does he regret not standing? He says it's one of those questions that's impossible to answer. "Someone once asked me that if I'd known what politics was going to cost myself and my wife, would I have still gone into it? To which my answer was: please tell me the alternative. Was I going to be killed in an aircraft accident? Or was I going to meet my long-lost aunt in Australia who was going to tell me she was going to leave me a million pounds? You can't do it. It's what happened."
The bomb was planted by the IRA in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the 1984 Tory party conference. What, I ask Lord Tebbit, is your first memory of it? "Being woken by a bloody great bang and seeing the chandelier on the ceiling swinging wildly and feeling the bed being tipped over which, if you're sober, is a pretty worrying experience." His and Margaret's bed fell down through four floors but while he was protected by a mattress falling on top of him, she was not. When, I ask, did the severity of her injuries become apparent? "It wasn't until a day or so later that I knew how seriously injured she was. The implications soak though rather gradually when you are still in a fairly muzzy state of shock."
He still wakes in the night to turn her in bed so she doesn't get bed sores, pushes her wheelchair, reads to her and helps her cut up her food when they go out to dinner. I ask if he would ever entertain meeting Patrick Magee, the IRA man who planted the bomb and was jailed in 1985 but released in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. I'd read, I tell him, that in the interests of reconciliation, the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry, who was killed that night, had met him. He says: "Oh yes, she is always going on about that." I take it you wouldn't then? "Not until he has repented and sought to atone for his crimes by, for example, giving evidence against those who instructed and paid him to commit murder. When in church we confess and are given forgiveness, and it is on this basis that we repent. It is not given on the basis that we defend and justify our sins." Are you a religious man? "Let's just say I'm a fellow traveller on the Christian bus."
And, yes, it is very much a heterosexual bus. He once remarked that no gay should be allowed to be Home Secretary because "I think it would be dangerous. It would mean that somebody who has a clear minority interest at heart is legislating also for the 97, 98 per cent who are not of that persuasion." Oh come, I say. That's crazy-man talk. Michael Howard was Jewish and Home Secretary and he didn't legislate so that no one could buy retail until they'd first checked out if Uncle Bernie knew someone who could get it cheap. He says: "I take the view that in, for example, cases of adoption that a child is best brought up in a traditional family, and oppose the concept of adoption by homosexual couples of children." What about civil partnerships? "I didn't see the necessity for it. All those things could be arranged between the parties. People have often said to me that, if they were homosexuals, their rights were inferior to mine but that's not so. A homosexual has the right to marry a woman but he just doesn't choose to."
He is a dinosaur, I suppose, and I suspect it might be about deference: deference to his sexuality. And his race. I ask if he regrets his infamous "cricket test" – whether British citizens from ethnic minorities support, in a cricket match, England or their country of origin. Not in the least, he says. "It proves itself more and more valid. The question asked was are you part of the country you have come to and are you looking forward with that country, or are you looking over your shoulder to where you came from?" So if, for some reason, you and your family had to flee to Saudi Arabia, you'd put your daughter in a burka? You'd let them chop her hand off if she were caught stealing? "If I took a Saudi Arabian passport and swore loyalty to the king and saw the destiny of my family as being in Saudi Arabia then, yes, I would adopt Saudi ways." He is a man of integrity in his way – true to his beliefs, loyal to his Margarets – but I don't think we could ever seriously holiday together. Even a spa mini-break might be a struggle.
I do try to get at his hinterland, and discover this much: he doesn't watch TV, or films, and doesn't even read books much any more. However, he does like shooting, has written a game cookery book, and is currently writing a children's book. "It's about a paraplegic boy and his help dog." He also likes to fume about Blair: "I don't know what his true beliefs are but he obviously is in love with celebrity and, indeed, with money. I don't believe anybody who is not avaricious could become so extraordinarily rich in the way that he has. It's not as though he invented the internet or something like that."
He then looks at his watch and says he must leave. I walk him back to the lobby, and off he goes: a thin man, fat with rage. But then he's always been a thin man, fat with rage. He may even have been born that way.
"... such rage, Mrs Tebbit, such rage!"
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