-James Ellingworth sits down with erstwhile Thatcherite enforcer Norman Tebbit for a healthy dose of controversy, Cameron and cricket
Champing at Teb-bit - Student, 22.01.08
Champing at Teb-bit - Student, 22.01.08
Facing him across the restaurant table where I am conducting my interview, I am struck by Norman Tebbit’s lack of the frailty that might be expected of a man who will be 77 years of age in March. Instead, he exudes the toughness and tenacity that earned him a reputation as Margaret Thatcher’s enforcer, and as a proponent of unfashionable and, to many, unpalatable views ever since.
Baron Tebbit of Chingford, as he is officially known, is a surprisingly warm interviewee, his strongly held views fleshed out with a raft of diversions and anecdotes. But there is steel there too, which explains his steadfast commitment to a set of strongly-held principles and political ideals. This has made the former fighter pilot a force to be reckoned with for many politicians, and not only those of the opposition parties. He also has a proven record of rousing the Conservative Right against their leaders, his emphatic style having troubled John Major, and more recently David Cameron.
It is then perhaps surprising that at the start of our interview he seems keen to portray himself as a political visionary, rather than the right-wing reactionary of popular belief. “I’ve never been in the mainstream for much of my life. The only time I was in the mainstream really was while I was in Margaret Thatcher’s government. The rest of the time I’ve been expressing views which were unfashionable, and I think I’ve had a habit of being perhaps a few years ahead of opinion.”
One of the issues he picks out here is his desire in the 1970s to reform trade union law and privatise industry, which “in those days...was not orthodox thinking, even in Conservative circles”. He eventually achieved this goal in his time as Employment Secretary under Thatcher, passing a law which helped to break the power of the unions and which he describes as his greatest achievement.
Despite this, it is his famous (or infamous, depending on your view) ‘cricket test’ that has become his lasting hallmark in the public consciousness. His claim that immigrants’ support for the England cricket team over their original homeland indicated how integrated they were into British society divided public opinion almost uniquely. When asked if he believes the test, which led to accusations of racism, has now been vindicated, Tebbit replies: “It has been indeed.”
“I think that, for example, Nasser Hussain would feel that too. He was, of course, jeered and booed by young Indians (he pauses and corrects this to “young British people of Asian descent”) when he was playing as captain of England, and I think they should have been cheering the fact that they were living in a country where someone from their homeland could rise to be captain of England, which is a pretty considerable feat.”
He adds: “The cricket test was always intended to say: ‘How well integrated are you into the country you’ve come to? Do you want to be part of this country or do you still look back over your shoulder to the country from which you’ve come?”
In many ways, Lord Tebbit’s language echoes an earlier, more direct, political era before the rise of modern political correctness. The implicit claim in his remarks that those descended from immigrants should show gratitude to the country in which they live is certainly not the type of message you hear from mainstream politicians. But, speaking to him, the impression is that he no longer cares about popularity. His concern is to state his beliefs openly and honestly, however controversial. The fact that a large proportion object to them, if it was ever much of a concern in the first place, troubles him no longer.
The one area where he has had most recent success is his vocal opposition to the European Union (he is patron of the campaign group “Better Off Out”). Quoting right-wing Conservative Enoch Powell, he remarks “’There cannot be a European democracy, because there is not a European demos [Greek for people].’He continues: “I just don’t think that the Brits fit...I think we would be better off to allow those Europeans who want to be in a federal state with a single exchequer and a single currency and a single defence force to do so, to form their United, not Kingdom, but a United Republic of West Europe, and for us to have a treaty relation with them. It doesn’t mean we’d cut ourselves off from Europe, I’d be very much against that, but we’d have a different relationship and we’d be fundamentally self-governing again.”
The theme of Lord Tebbit’s unease with the way Britain has changed, and is changing, is a constant one. In his speech to the Politics Society, he described political correctness having created a state resembling “1984 as if written by Enid Blyton” and regularly reiterates that Britain in the EU is no longer “self-governing”. It is a matter of debate whether this is due to genuine change for the worse, or his feeling out of place in a world where many of his beliefs are no longer common currency.
Lord Tebbit has also often been far from enthusiastic with David Cameron’s brand of “compassionate conservatism”. In our interview, he warns against Cameron portraying himself as the heir to Blair, claiming that Gordon Brown could use this to take the mantle of “heir to Thatcher”. “After all, Blair was a commodity that was past its sell-by-date. I think he’s generally recognised now to have been an extremely tacky and damaging Prime Minister to this country.”
On the subject of “compassionate conservatism”, he remarks that “It’s a question of whether the love is tough love or whether it’s stupidly soft love.”
When asked whether the Eton background of so many of David Cameron’s circle is a positive or negative influence, he responds: “I think both. I think that it’s a positive role in that they’ve had a very good education. I think a negative role in that they haven’t been quite as exposed to the world out there as some of the rest of us and that people find it more difficult to identify with them.”
I ask him whether they are likely to be the best men for the job, or if he thinks Cameron has been choosing friends rather than the most skilled candidates. He laughs, and comments that “We are pack animals and we tend to socialise with our own members of the pack... I think it is a danger for him, but it is also, I think, a measure of the fact that the Tory party has narrowed a bit in recent years.”
On the subject of university, he is against current levels of student debt, and, somewhat unusually for a man who is against state involvement in private matters, proposes “a system whereby the primary costs of tuition at university were paid out of the taxpayer’s funds but the universities themselves would be primarily funded by their own resources or resources that have been granted to them by government on a long-term basis, not on an annual basis.”
“In the same way I think that all schools should be independent entirely. They should be charitable companies, in essence, and that all kids should have, pinned to their lapel, a voucher to pay their fees at those schools.” He continues by illustrating how these government “vouchers” would give schools more money for accepting poorer and ethnic minority pupils, with the aim of creating a more equal education system.
On this issue and many others, Lord Tebbit is, and always has been, determined to state his views, however controversial. His is a refreshing honesty in modern politics, however divisive his beliefs. He is a conservative in the truest sense of the word, sceptical of change, and a true character of the sort rarely found in the blurred political landscape of tie-less figures with immaculately manicured images. On the basis of interest value alone, Lord Tebbit is likely to remain in the public eye for some time to come.
The published title of the piece, Champing at Teb-bit, is bloody awful (and not mine). However, since joining the staff and starting copy-editing, I have discovered how tempting a bad pun can be.