How green was my Ridley

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The Independent Online
EVERYONE by now probably recognises this photograph of Nicholas Ridley by David Rose. It isn't exactly a charming picture, but it is excellent because it shows some vestige of good looks lurking in the man whom all right-thinking people knew they should disapprove of. I was in the room at the House of Commons when David took the picture, and was surprised and amused that its subject insisted that neither the whisky nor the cigarette which were within easy reach should be revealed. Perhaps someone had finally got to him with the message that even a maverick needs to be obey the rules of elementary political correctness.

He was within days of ceasing to be the Secretary of State for the Environment. He said it would be a relief to get away from the vast departmental workload. Honesty - and, I think, tiredness - made him say it. He added that for goodness' sake I was not to publish the fact: the devil knew not to ask for sympathy.

I had written a piece praising his work in the department. The press office minder opened up the exchange with: 'May I introduce Richard North? He has just written something rather nice about you.'

'Pah]' Ridley retorted. 'He was only trying to butter me up because he knew he was coming to interview me.'

During our talk he was serious and courteous. His attractiveness lurked, like his good looks in the picture. He was wonderfully bad at public relations, and was therefore a treasure in a period that was producing more oiliness than the North Sea field. The Thatcher team was then at the very height of its Government-By-Brochure and Government-by- Glamour phases (this was before Government-by-Charter, a natural and not unworthy successor).

Anyway, presentation was all. All over Whitehall, press conferences were being held in newly-carpeted and wallpapered suites. Ridley could not be polished-up to the required standard. He would not gush. The press corps quivered deliciously at the outrageous blandness with which he would claim in a glittering press conference that British leadership had dragged foreign governments to agree to some environmental control or other, when the real case was often that he had led a very sound British position of scepticism about them, only to find the position had to be abandoned in the face of Continental fundamentalism. There was a curious punctiliousness in his character: it showed when he was beside Margaret Thatcher at the conference in London on reducing ozone- diminishing emissions. She, in full flow, gave out some figures. They were wrong and he simply butted in to correct her. It was as though someone had hauled in Boudicca for speeding in her chariot.

He was unselfconscious. He declared to a packed press conference that the department's 'green' minister, William Waldegrave, would prove a safe pair of hands. It was just after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, and he said Waldegrave would never sail 'with his bow doors open'. Like a fool, I sympathised with the remark's unguardedness and decided to ignore it, on the grounds that all the best people put their foot in it. Of course, it proved to be much bigger news than whatever wheeze was being trumpeted at the press conference. It was on the radio in no time. It reinforced the common view that Ridley was a shit.

On this sort of form, I suppose that if I had been the Spectator's editor I would have agonised over Ridley's later remarks about the Germans. Views so wildly controversial, even by Ridley's remarkable standards, must have been intended, and intended to be kept private. Surely their publication was an act of betrayal of some sort? Anyway, he resigned, and that is probably a good thing: a dying man is better engaged in writing his autobiograpy, presumably, than most other things. He would have been swept aside by Majorism anyway.

It would be a pity if Ridley came to be remembered only as an ur-Thatcherite, an anti-federalist, and a master of gaffes. An honest green history would show him as one of the few modern Cabinet ministers to have thought seriously about the issues.

So let us list Ridley's green achievements. He arranged the ending of the worst of the government subsidies to blanket conifer forestry. As planning minister, he reversed Michael Heseltine's earlier land-use policy and encouraged growth in the North by keeping planning controls pretty tight in the South- east. He saw that privatising water would bring huge fresh investment in the industry. He created the National Rivers Authority, the most open and credible regulatory body of recent years. He allowed William Waldegrave to create Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution, which could grow into the most intellectually coherent regulatory body in the world, and gave it the right Act of Parliament to police. He discussed without embarrassment the need for carbon taxes as a way to regulate global warming. He tried to get some real brainpower applied to the way economic and accountancy thinking could be brought to bear in making environmental controls work without distorting the way we create wealth.

Less obviously, I think Baroness Thatcher is probably right to say that it was important that he stood up for the views of most of the scientists around the Department of the Environment, that many regulations which seemed attractive to Continental politicians were unsound. He liked defending the scientific position, but he was quite quick as well to accept political advice that it was diplomatically and politically sensible to sign up to some silly regulations.

He must have been bright because his Cambridge 'first' says so. I decided that he was the best sort of Tory for his belief that government should do only what it must, but also that the art of framing the right interventions was the heart of its work. I don't think he was a Lord Melbourne: he was not crippled with contradictoriness about the value of all human action. But I suspect that he was exquisitely sensitive to the ironies of having to combine the profession of regulator with the instincts of an anti-dirigiste.

He also knew that the greens would only praise him if he became irrationally keen on regulations. He was not about to do that. Instead, he played the game of courting their disapproval. Indeed, one began to think that he would wake up in the morning, light a cigarette and plot what remarks to make that day which would most infuriate polite opinion. He thus made sure, by mistake, that few knew the real record of the government in environmental protection. On the other hand, he provided vast amusement to a few of us, which is more than most effective ministers manage.

(Photograph omitted)