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August 11, 2008

An unrancourous memoir of rancourous times: A Political Suicide: The Conservatives' Voyage into the Wilderness - Norman Fowler

Posted by Harry Phibbs

A Political Suicide: The Conservatives' Voyage into the Wilderness
by Norman Fowler
London: Methuen, 2008
Hardback, 14.99

Norman Fowler is one of the wise old birds of the Conservative Party. Very much at the centre of the Party in both senses of the term. He doesn't have the patrician background that characterised the Tory wets in the Thatcher era. But nor was he inclined to present his case in rousing ideological terms that would have marked him out as part of the revolutionary crusade when he joined Thatcher's first cabinet in 1979 as Transport Minister.

In terms of substance he was the greatest Thatcherite in the cabinet- privatising, deregulating, cutting subsidies, scrapping Quangos, taking on the unions. Not that he always got much gratitude from the then Prime Minister.

This volume is greatly enhance by direct quotes from his contemporary diary entries. Here is his account of one early cabinet meeting:

She also has a go at me. She starts off by calling me "dear", which does not go down well. Having heard a few of her views on the nationalised transport industries I decide that enough is enough and point out that she has got it wrong. If she looks at the four "nationalised" industries in transport she will see that we have denationalised two of them. We have introduced competition into another for the first time in half a century. As for railways, which are her hate, we are denationalising the subsidiary companies and achieving more in manpower reductions than at any stage for a decade.
The 1979 Tory election manifesto was short on specifics where privatisation was concerned. In Transport it specified taking the National Freight Corporation and the British Transport Docks out of state ownership. Most of the big privatisations were not mentioned at all. Fowler says:
My fight had been to get the pledges into the manifesto at all and make them firm commitments for the incoming government. In 1979 the fear was that such radicalism might frighten the voters.
I wonder if Fowler had failed to get the pledges in whether he would have succeeded in getting them carried out - and what that
would have meant for the privatisation programme more generally. These things get taken for granted in retrospect. At the time privatisation seemed awfully daring.

His time at the giant department of Health and Social Security proved less happy but after the 1987 election he was made Employment Secretary. Fowler states:

As luck would have it on my first outing a few days later I was able to report that unemployment had dropped below the three million mark, and in each of the next thirty months I was able to announce further falls.
This aspect of the Thatcher era is often forgotten. Yes, there was a painful rise in unemployment as the economic realities were faced but the situation was eventually turned round.

Ironically, Fowler recounts his efforts to achieve Thatcherite reforms during his time in this brief - banning strikes in essential services, privatizing job centres - were thwarted by Thatcher. As Employment Secretary he did get through abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme. He says:

Today if you go to vibrant ports such as Bristol you can see the effect of taking regulations off.
As well as documenting the arguments over the substance of policy, Fowler's account brings alive the human element to the cabinet battles. Fowler's record has credibility as he was not a Thatcher devotee blinded to her faults but nor does he hold any antipathy for her. He states:
My own view was that, although she often went storming over the top, it could bring out the best in her ministers. Of course, not everyone shares my view but personally I enjoyed her direct confrontational style. The adrenalin rose and you gave of your best. She put you under pressure but it enabled you to argue back.
On the other hand Fowler believes that her rudeness to natural allies such as John Biffen weakened her position.

Attempts made to improve the situation included a dinner for cabinet ministers and their spouses in 1989 for the Government's tenth anniversary.

If ever I am tempted to say something nice about the BBC, Denis soon persuades me against,
declared Thatcher paying tribute to her husband.

Sometimes at cabinet meetings Margaret Thatcher would tell a joke. In February 1989 there was dismay:

not only on salmonella in eggs but also on a new scare concerning soft cheese. It led Nick Ridley to observe mournfully that raw eggs and soft cheese were about the only things he ate. Thatcher responded that as he was not pregnant he would probably survive.
After Thatcher's departure Fowler had a break on the backbenches to "spend more time with his family" before returning under John Major to become Party Chairman. He sought to try to improve relations between Thatcher and Major and to bridge the divisions over Europe - his failure was scarcely his fault.

Given his rather mild views on Europe, for him the key matter is the "political suicide" of the Conservatives in allowing themselves to be divided over it. It was Fowler who was left to face the TV cameras after Britain crashed out of the ERM.

But for some Party unity was not the priority. After a long period in office there were plenty personally disgruntled. Then there were the Eurosceptics, who felt our future as a self governing nation was at threat, and the small number of Europhiles, who had an equally fervent transferred patriotism to a country called Europe. These loyalties transcended those to Party. Fowler also gloomily accounts all the other mishaps of this time such as by-election defeats and sleaze scandals.

Despite, or perhaps because, of his journalistic background Fowler includes in the "lessons" he offers at the end that "slavishly wooing" the media is counterproductive. Maybe so. At any rate this is a thoroughly readable account. Fowler comes across as having been straight with his colleagues and of being straight with the reader. He is unrestrained in his criticism but there is not a tone of rancour. Given the subject matter, that is something of a triumph.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist and a Conservative Councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham. The views expressed above are those of Harry Phibbs, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director. The Social Affairs Unit is not a party political organisation.

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