Terence Blacker: Hidden messages from Michael Heseltine's garden

The estate was a celebration not of plants but of power and money, the might of human vanity
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The Independent Online

Few people, I imagine, will be startled by the news, released this week under the 30-year rule, that in 1975 the chairman of the BBC, Lord Swann, was worried that the organisation was in the grip of "hippie influences". Too many young producers, he told Harold Wilson, would approach the subject of their programmes with an attitude which could be summed up as: "You are a shit".

This story of ancient paranoia is mildly interesting in a bleary-eyed, post-Christmas sort of way, but raises a more urgent question. Are the same hippie influences at work at the BBC now?

One item in the festive schedule suggests they may well be. It was a lengthy BBC2 documentary, purporting to be about a garden, broadcast at peak time on Boxing Day evening. Programmes about the sun, greenery and nature are welcome at this time of the year - one can almost watch a Bill Oddie bird programme so long as the sound is turned down - but here was a gardening programme with a difference.

It was billed as a tour of Michael Heseltine's 50-acre estate, and more innocent viewers might complain it was not the best deployment of BBC resources. But, in a manner so subtle that many people might not have been aware of what was going on, the programme presented the garden as metaphor. Watching Heseltine as he drove around his property on a golf buggy, boasting about the various things his staff had planted for him, one began to see that here was a dire warning for anyone who has found themselves considering whether they might, after all, vote Conservative.

It was gardening as satire, an hour-long exposure of the vanity of horticultural capitalism, and quite clearly a result of the BBC working to its traditional hippyish, you-are-a-shit agenda.

The only complicating fact was that, as it happens, Michael Heseltine is a shit, and made little attempt to conceal the fact. Most people offered the chance to talk about themselves and their garden would at least try to be charming. He emanated a weary distaste for any question which displeased him, occasionally staring into the distance in disdainful silence. Even when surrounded by his rather sweet family, he came across as the very personification of Toryism at its smuggest.

Brilliantly, the programme makers had realised that a man with ambition, ego, money and an extremely high opinion of his own worth will reveal more of himself when let loose on the landscape than he would in any book of memoirs.

What was perhaps most surprising about the Heseltine approach to garden management was how opposed to conservation, particularly of anything British, conservatism can be. Having bought a large and lovely house with a huge kitchen garden, he quickly set about removing anything natural and local, replacing it with things that were more interestingly foreign.

"There's no place for common trees round here," he said semi-humorously as one of the few remaining wild corners, a small wood of mature ash trees, was razed to make way for yet another brutally ordered plantation of imported species. Clearly Heseltine's overweening ambition is to accumulate ever more horticultural capital, to develop a dramatically varied portfolio of unusual plants, flowers and trees which, grown in his ruthlessly formal garden, will stand for posterity as a living, growing witness to his enthusiasm, investment and worldly success.

A member of the government that praised Victorian values, he has followed the 19th-century model of botanical imperialism, sponsoring expeditions around the world on which botanists search for new species for their master's collection back home.

Just as he and his political colleagues once tried to impose values of vulgar self-interest on the nation, so Heseltine trims, orders, prettifies, or simply removes any part of his garden which might be natural, wild and better left alone.

The result was spectacular, showy and utterly lifeless. By the look of the place, it was not just moles and rabbits on which the staff waged a highly mechanised war; there was precious little sign of, or interest in, those litterbugs of nature, the birds.

In fact, this brilliant satire led one to conclude that Heseltine's estate was less about wildlife than about the subjugation of landscape and species to one man's will and extremely dodgy taste. The estate was a celebration not of plants but of power and money, the might of human vanity. A vast, faintly absurd water feature which stretched between an avenue of trees, a sort of Versailles meets suburbia, led to a hilariously naff pond in the shape of a scallop, bearing, inevitably, the initials "MH".

Conspicuous consumption, acquisitiveness for its own sake, a cringing respect for anything foreign, the frantic need to create a boastful instant monument to oneself: here was a perfect living metaphor for the unacceptable face of British conservatism which David Cameron and his newly recruited eco-warrior Zac Goldsmith would do well to study.

Nature will have the last word, of course - indeed, it may be having it already. There was something strangely dissatisfied about the great gardener as he surveyed his work, a restless awareness that, however much he keeps planting, transporting and shifting stuff around with mechanical diggers, his approach to life and the landscape, one of busy, selfish individualism, will always be doomed to failure.