Michael Heseltine defies the odds, as he has done so often in his long career. He became the MP for the then constituency of Tavistock in 1966, the year that David Cameron was born – yet when the Prime Minister wanted someone to lead an inquiry into how best to tackle the fundamental problems of the economy, he knew who to turn to.
The Heseltine report, No Stone Unturned: In Pursuit of Growth, came out earlier this year, shortly before Lord Heseltine of Thenford, as he should strictly speaking now be known, celebrated his 80th birthday.
If ever there was an example of the ability of older people to carry on not just working but remaining full of determination to contribute, Heseltine is it. I have long thought him a unique politician – a tribal Tory, yes, yet with views and attitudes that would find a home in the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties. He has a genuine sympathy with and understanding of the problems of ordinary people, including the disadvantaged, which led him not only to champion inner-city residents but introduce the sale of council homes. He is on the record as regretting the Government’s inability to reinvest the money that accrued from sales into building more social housing.
I met him in his sixth-floor office at Haymarket Publishing, the company he founded shortly after leaving Oxford University and which is now one of the world’s great publishing empires.
He remains its chairman while still being immersed in the public service that has dominated his life for longer than most members of the Cabinet have been out of short trousers. He didn’t expect it to be like this in his ninth decade. When Tony Blair won his first landslide election victory, Heseltine thought it was all over for him. He had been Secretary of State for the Environment and Defence, fought for the Conservative leadership, been brought back into government by John Major and served as Deputy Prime Minister. In 1997, with the youthful Blair in 10 Downing Street – the address Heseltine would have liked to have been his – that should have been the moment to retire gracefully to his beloved garden.
‘In the normal way of life I’d have left politics when we lost the election,’ he says. ‘I wrote my autobiography and was effectively retired.’
That changed when David Cameron became Tory leader. ‘He brought me back into active political life, where I have been for five or six years. So a new chapter unexpectedly opened. That doesn’t happen very often. I’m lucky to have enjoyed the health to survive at the forefront of politics for a very long time.’
More importantly for him, he believes that being involved for so long has allowed the political pendulum to swing towards accepting his firmly held opinions about the role government should play in creating economic prosperity.
For a long time, his was a voice in the wilderness but his philosophy is that there’s a time and place for everything. And so it proved to be: he was, as he says, ‘lucky to be in the right place at the right time’. It wasn’t simply a case of ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’. This man had been around for almost half a century.
Despite the long wait, Heseltine clearly feels vindicated, though even now all he will say is, ‘The views I have held all my life have become of more interest to politicians than perhaps they were when I first started to argue them. I think the depth of the recession has opened people’s minds.’
His report, quickly dubbed ‘Plan H’ prescribes the mass devolution of funds away from central government. Chancellor George Osborne’s warm acceptance of 81 of its 89 recommendations will be tested this month, however, when he reveals his post-2015 spending plans.
Heseltine identified £79bn of funds he believes should be devolved for ‘local growth plans’, drawn up by local enterprise partnerships. Business Secretary Vince Cable is not so sure. We shall see.
Heseltine’s views are grounded in his childhood in South Wales in the Thirties. He was brought up in a comparatively affluent home, but says: ‘If you come from there you start off with a view that recognises the complexity of modern society. You understand why people climb ladders that are basically associated with the Left. I myself didn’t suffer but I lived close enough to the scars of the Industrial Revolution to see the political consequences.’
That in turn led to the other great formative experience of his life. In 1981, with unemployment above three million and incomes squeezed, riots broke out in cities across Britain, the worst in Liverpool. The immediate reaction was to crack down hard on the rioters, but Heseltine believed that more needed to be done.
‘I put in a request to Margaret Thatcher, to let me walk the streets of Toxteth. This was a reflection of my view that this was not just a question of yobs on the streets but a more fundamental issue. And this it turned out to be.’
He did that unpolitician-like thing – he listened to the people. The report he subsequently produced and the leadership he gave in reviving the area reversed decades of decline and spread in the following years to other cities. It is his proudest achievement in government: ‘The work that I did in Liverpool is now regarded as a model of what best practice amounts to in dealing with the problems of cities’.
One life is not enough for someone of Heseltine’s boundless energy and ambition. Running in parallel with politics has been a career as an entrepreneur and businessman which, according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List, has given him a £264 million fortune and made him the 311th wealthiest person in Britain. It was not always plain sailing, though, and at one time the fledgling mogul almost went bust. But he survived and prospered, with a bit of help from the luck that has intervened at key moments of his life.
The lessons he learnt in business served him well as a politician, though immersion in politics taught him even more. ‘As a small businessman I started with simple ideas – get government off our backs, get rid of a few civil servants, deregulate, tear up a few forms. But in a very short exposure to public life one realised how much more complex solutions were. You recognised how no capitalist economy on earth can behave in a way that conforms with simple analysis.’
That realisation formed the basis of the ideas that have only now become accepted through his report. It also led to his greatest disappointment when, in his words, he failed to persuade the Thatcher Cabinet that its economic policy should be based on investing more and consuming less. How different things might subsequently have been if they had listened.
The passion and energy that have characterised Heseltine’s business and political lives are still there today, only marginally toned down by his role as an elder statesman. In the past, they led him into a number of scrapes.
In 1976, he notoriously seized the hallowed Parliamentary Mace in the Commons Chamber and brandished it at left-wingers who were singing The Red Flag. That incident earned him the nickname Tarzan, which still sticks, even at 80. Ten years later, he dramatically – and quite literally – walked out of Mrs Thatcher’s government over the controversial Westland helicopter affair.
Heseltine is not one of those older people who complains that younger people aren’t what his generation used to be. He is complimentary about today’s youthful politicians: ‘There are a lot of experienced and talented people in the House of Commons still, particularly among the new MPs.’ But he does mourn a significant loss in the passing of what he calls the war-experienced politicians.
‘They really did live in an environment where interdependence was absolutely fundamental. We really were all in it together then. And I think that covered a huge range of attitudes about the way society had to be organised.
‘If I may take the most obvious point, Ted Heath was hugely reluctant to call a divisive election in 1974 on “Who governs Britain” as a consequence of the first miners’ confrontation. In the war he’d served with the people who were politically on the other side, and he was receiving advice from people like Peter Carrington and Willie Whitelaw, who had served in the Guards’ armoured brigade. That generation felt a much closer relationship. My generation was the first to break from that tradition.’
So was David Cameron’s plan to create a Big Society a hark back to those days of closer community? ‘I don’t think so. To me, I would call that the traditional Tory approach. It’s a strong theme of the privileged element of the Conservative Party – you’ve got to put something back. You owe something in return for the privilege you enjoy, so it’s not just war experience, it’s much older than that. I believe there’s a very strong instinct in people of every generation to serve, to recognise the interdependence. I don’t think it is unique to any particular age.’
Does Heseltine’s sympathetic attitude towards younger generations extend to support for the view of David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, which he expounded in his book The Pinch, that baby-boomers have had the best of everything and taken the future of their children and grandchildren? Not at all.
‘As a group, today’s young people will be better off than young people of 30 years ago,’ he says. That will be a continuation of the remarkable increase in living standards since the post-war years. ‘We have had broadly 2% growth over a consistent period and, though that may not flow equally to every sector of society, by and large most of the country has gained from it. You only have to look at pictures of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties to see just how much living standards have changed.’
Which brings us to the hot issue of the day. When the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, suggested that wealthier pensioners might give back benefits such as free travel passes and the winter fuel allowance, he was met with a barrage of defiance and outrage. What does Heseltine feel?
‘Of course I would make these benefits means-tested,’ he says. ‘I can see absolutely no argument that people who are above a certain income level should be subsidised by people who are not.’ He laughs derisively. ‘It’s ridiculous that people paying a limited amount of tax – everybody pays tax, even if it’s only VAT – who have very low incomes, should see part of the proceeds of that tax going to pay winter fuel allowance or bus passes for people who are millionaires.’
He doesn’t seem hopeful about it happening, though. ‘If anyone says they will means-test benefits, it would be translated into slogans – by opponents and parts of the national press – that would give a false impression to people who were nowhere near the target range. So it would be politically dangerous to get into a position where you could be misrepresented.’
Our time is nearly up. The hectic Heseltine schedule is calling. His report for the Government has led to a furious round of meetings and he is also involved in developing industrial policies for Birmingham and Humberside.
He relaxes by turning to gardening and the arboretum he and his wife have created at their Oxfordshire home. He tries to spend two or three days a week there: ‘It takes all the time I can give it.’
Doesn’t he have any thoughts of slowing down? ‘If you have the energy, not using it would be hugely frustrating. One day the good Lord will send me a message.’ He chuckles.
Meanwhile, he says that he feels exactly the same as he has done throughout his long years in business and politics, and maintains the same attitude: ‘You press as hard as you can and you live within the world as it is. And the world is not much given to being pressed.’
Younger politicians, please note.
David Seymour is former political editor of Mirror Group newspapers.
Read Michael Heseltine's Wikipedia here
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