Jacob and Esau

Giles Merritt

  • Upwardly Mobile by Norman Tebbit
    Weidenfeld, 280 pp, £14.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 297 79427 2
  • Reflect on things past: The Memoirs of Lord Carrington
    Collins, 406 pp, £17.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 00 217667 X

Lord Carrington and Norman Tebbit must be the Jacob and Esau of the Tory Party. Peter Carrington is beyond question a smooth man, and Tebbit is, if not hairy, certainly very prickly.

They are also chalk and cheese politically, even though both have in their time been chairman of the Conservative Party. Lord Carrington is the scion of generations of Whigs, a man bred to the ideal of public service and in many ways an unrepentant ‘wet’. Norman Tebbit is the embodiment of Thatcherism, a man who has risen from the ranks of the poor and whose belief in self-help and the virtues of the free market is unshakable. The simultaneous publication of their memoirs therefore affords an interesting X-ray picture of Mrs Thatcher’s governments and of a Tory Party which has altered radically under Thatcher and which, perhaps by default, now enjoys a political hegemony.

I rather like Norman Tebbit. Most journalists I know who have come into contact with the two men have found Carrington likeable (of course), but not Tebbit. I suspect that may be because at home in England his Whitehall minders kept personal contacts to a minimum, and thus allowed his unattractive public image to flourish. In my dealings with him, however, I never found him the ‘semi-housetrained polecat’ that Michael Foot once called him. Back in 1980-81, when he was a junior minister at the Department of Industry and I was covering the mysteries of the Common Market for the Financial Times, I found him an agreeable character with a wry and self-deprecating sense of humour. The Council of Ministers building in Brussels is a charmless place, and the ministers’ deliberations there are far from the smooth negotiating sessions most people fondly imagine. There are long periods of waiting, for politicians and journalists alike, and Tebbit could be a charming and entertaining companion, relaxed and happy. Lord Carrington’s charm has a more distant and impersonal quality to it. He is, for all his modesty, a Tory grandee. Journalists did not swap jokes with Lord Carrington, even though they often appreciated the sense of humour he displayed as Foreign Secretary. At press conferences he always appeared as helpful as circumstances would permit, and in private interviews he was courteous and uncommonly affable. Perhaps it is a testament to his political skills that I have sometimes looked at my notebook afterwards and found little hard material in it.

Tebbit is nevertheless one of the awkward squad. If Carrington represents 18th-century Whiggishness, Tebbit’s brand of Toryism is a reminder that the word ‘Tory’ was originally taken from Scottish Lowlands slang for ‘cattle-rustler’. He is tough and self-sufficient, and expects others to be the same. Where Tebbit remains an unyielding advocate of ‘on y’er bike’ policies to combat unemployment, Lord Carrington writes: ‘The state should not cushion from life the feckless and the idle, but it should recognise how powerless many individuals are in the modern world in the face of enormous – and international – economic forces.’

Upwardly Mobile makes it clear that ambition and natural cussedness were the twin driving forces behind Tebbit’s success. He reportedly wrote his autobiography for financial reasons, yet the book is at times so self-revealing it is hard to believe that money was really his strongest motivation. His early career was a little chequered. Indeed, one might almost say that few contemporary Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry have been so well-prepared for the job. Although he left school at 16, his experience with his first employers, the Financial Times, soon made up for any shortcomings. He joined the FT prices room and before long was to be found rigging the FT Ordinary Share Index. He and the colleagues responsible for the paper’s share prices and indices had discovered to their horror a miscalculation in the index:

The index should have been two points lower. We decided to say nothing and to case the index down a fraction at a time as conditions permitted. With life’s usual perversity we encountered more than a week of quiet trading with the market mostly firm, during which the FT Ordinary Share Index inched its way slowly down. Somehow we managed to fob off enquirers with technical gobbledegook until, to our great relief, the index was right again.

Shortly after this, Tebbit left the FT to do his National Service in the RAF, where he won a commission as a pilot officer. When that had finished, instead of returning to the Financial Times and pursuing his early ambition of becoming a journalist, Tebbit gravitated to BOAC and eventually became an airline pilot. His time at the FT left a mark, though, as it was there that he had his first brush with the trade unions. The clerical union NATSOPA operated a closed shop, and as Tebbit rather chillingly records: ‘NATSOPA paid dearly for bullying a 16-year-old boy into its ranks. I swore then that I would break the power of the closed shop, an ambition I finally achieved years later.’ Early membership of the Enfield Young Conservatives opened the way to a seat at Westminster, and in 1970, at the age of 39, he became the Member for Epping.

Peter Carrington’s life, as his memoirs show, is remarkable for the apparent ease with which plum jobs fell into his lap. Where Tebbit found the climb up the ladder of junior ministerial posts a slow and arduous haul, Carrington appears almost to skip up its rungs. ‘I had been at Ministry of Defence for two years,’ he writes of his time as a Parliamentary Secretary, ‘when Alec Home saw me one day in the House of Lords and asked me to come to his office “to have a word”.’ What Home wanted to know was ‘whether I would be prepared to go as British High Commissioner to Australia’. On leaving that job in 1959, Lord Carrington receives at sea a ciphered signal from Harold Macmillan. ‘Will you become First Lord of the Admiralty Query Come straight home.’

For Tebbit, things did not go so smoothly (which may be one reason why resentment against privilege and mollycoddling is a recurring theme). Money worries were a constant preoccupation, and above all there were his misgivings over the policies of Edward Heath. ‘My hope that with the arrival of Ted Heath in Downing Street the TUC would be firmly put in its place faded when its general secretary seemed to be treated as though he were the ambassador of a powerful foreign state.’ It wasn’t that long, however, before Tebbit’s qualities were recognised with his appointment as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State for Employment, Robin Chichester-Clark, although he was to resign the job in 1973 in order to break with a government he was finding harder and harder to support. By 1974 the Tories were out, and so was Heath, having been toppled by Margaret Thatcher in a leadership coup in which Tebbit played a small but enthusiastic part.

We learn quite a bit about him from his account of the spoiling tactics he developed to harry the Callaghan Government. ‘For a while, until it became boring, I revelled in my role as a leading member of the Opposition wrecking squad. We were the privateers of Parliamentary warfare, licensed by our Whips’ Office but told firmly not to expect support from our more respectable and senior colleagues. Whenever we created mayhem by ambushing the Government on votes or running procedural rings around them to hold up business our Whips complained we were out of control – and perhaps we were.’

Tebbit speaks warmly of his friends in political life – Cecil Parkinson is shown as a lifelong comrade-in-arms and Keith Joseph ‘is one of the most honourable, decent, indeed lovable men in the world’ – but is implacable, and sometimes brutal, in his dislikes. Michael Foot’s ‘complete unsuitability’ as prime minister was cruelly illuminated by the Falklands crisis; Kinnock is ‘a windbag whose incoherent speech springs from an incoherent mind’.

Neither of these men would expect any quarter from Tebbit, but there is no clear reason why he should say of Giles Radice, when Radice was acting as Labour’s Front Bench spokesman on employment, that he ‘managed to miss or muddle every important point’. Of Leon Brittan: ‘the Westland affair might not have been his undoing’ if he had adopted Tebbit’s own practice of minuting his meetings as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry with an agreed aide-mémoire. Of Lord Cockfield, when he was Trade Secretary and put forward fresh proposals concerning British Leyland: ‘It irritated me that someone who knew little enough about BL and absolutely nothing about winning elections should put up such a stupid idea. If it had leaked it would have cost at least a dozen seats.’ Of his constituency agent at Epping, Bill Ottaway, he writes: ‘I soon discovered that Bill, one of the nicest of men and formerly one of the best agents in the business, was fighting a losing battle against alcohol.’

Lord Carrington rarely says anything remotely critical of his political contemporaries, and there is a blandness about his account of more than forty years in politics. Usually it is his sense of humour that leads him into making such revelations as there are. Harold Macmillan is evoked on a tour of Australia: ‘When he got out of an aeroplane he would potter over to the waiting crowds behind the barrier and say in a rather nervous voice: “Hello, Hello. I bring you greetings from the old country.” ’

The summit of Lord Carrington’s career was undoubtedly the Lancaster House agreement that produced a settlement of the Rhodesian conflict and the establishment of Zimbabwe. After that, even his secretary-generalship of Nato seems to have been an anti-climax. His time at the Foreign Office ended abruptly, with his resignation following the unexpected Argentine invasion of the Falklands. But as a peer he could never have gone higher in British politics, whereas Norman Tebbit’s career may have been brought to a premature end by the Brighton bombing four years ago. Tebbit will go down as the man who broke the power of the trade unions, and whose crusading zeal pushed through the Thatcherites’ cherished privatisation programme. When the IRA’s bomb exploded on the night of 12 September 1984, his standing in the Party appeared unassailable. But he and his wife were both badly injured in the attack, and he never seemed quite the same after leaving hospital. Once last year’s Election was won, he bowed out of the Cabinet.

He comes across in Upwardly Mobile as an able, intelligent and forceful political reformer and administrator, but also as a man without a wider vision. It is the combat that he enjoys – not political theorising. Small wonder that the publication of his autobiography failed to be the sedate event one associates with political memoirs. His references to Miss Sarah Keays, Cecil Parkinson’s former mistress, saw to that, as he must have known they would.