Upwardly Mobile by Norman Tebbit - review by Paul Foot

Paul Foot

Let Him Eat Cake

Upwardly Mobile


Weidenfeld & Nicholson 208pp £14.95 order from our bookshop

In the mid-1970s a mighty crisis shook the Conservative Party and all the people with property which it represents. The problem was not just that a Labour Government won two elections in 1974. The victories were narrow, and the Labour politicians were as soft as ever. The cause of the crisis was the strength and confidence of organized labour which for a brief moment threatened the very foundations of capitalist society. All sorts of private armies, weirdly-funded institutes, provocateurs and spies banded together to stave off the insurrection. Those who argued that the Tory Party itself could put matters right were on the defensive. Nothing could be achieved there, it was argued, without a full-scale political counter-revolution in which all the habits and pacts of the post-war political era had to be ignored or smashed.

The election of Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader in 1975 was the start of that counterrevolution. Thatcher recognized that she still had to play ball with the Tory old guard, and for a long time she was in a minority in her Shadow Cabinet. From the wings however, she called up a small group of politicians who had no connection with the ‘consensus years’ and who detested the former leadership of Edward Heath. She wanted ruthless, unceremonious back-bench MPs to harass the Labour government in a way no politician had harassed anyone since the 1920s. From very early on the most conspicuous figure in this Praetorian Guard – the man who not only helped his leader back to office but stayed with her until her counterrevolution was almost complete – was Norman Tebbit.

Tebbit’s childhood hero, he tells us, was his grandfather, a butcher called Sam Stagg:

‘Before the First World War he led the local tradesmen of Ponds End in running out of town a group of atheists who had caused outrage by their preachings- not least on Sundays. I had the impression it was love of a good fight, as much as piety or love of God, that led my grandfather to organise the barrage of bad eggs thrown by local shop boys which preceded the swift attack and the ducking in a nearby horse trough. He was a jaunty and fearless man. Like most butchers in those days he slaughtered his own animals …’

I cannot say whether Norman Tebbit slaughters his own animals but in every other respect he has followed the principles which guided his grandfather to the letter. In the name of dissent, he fights against dissent. Pretending that he hates bullies, he acts the bully. With the language and principles of the yob, he sets out to defeat the ‘yobbish tendency’ in the Labour Party. No statistic is ever too preposterous, no insult too nasty, no egg too bad so long as they are hurled at Tebbit’s political enemies.

History does not tell us whether Sam Stagg was a proud man, but his grandson is very proud indeed.

Like every other politician’s apologia of this kind, the reader is constantly astonished at how often the hero came out on top, made a brilliant speech, was praised by very important people. Not many journalists really ever believed that the bullying butcher’s grandson would one day make it to No 10, but everyone who ever suggested such a thing in print is generously quoted in this book.

The real story of the Parliamentary loudmouth and bully is not one which fits well into self-biography. The book is padded out with the inevitable long passages from speeches to Conservative Associations, but also with even more tedious stories of rugger club antics in Gloucestershire and Hertfordshire flying squadrons. The young Norman was never happier than when he was tying up peoples’ shoelaces under the table during a mess dinner or rushing about the room afterwards jumping on the furniture.

Usually the patient reader of these contemporary memoirs hopes to find a few nuggets of new information: Norman Tebbit certainly has a lot to tell us. What exactly was the Tory ‘92 Group, for instance, and how did it function in the 1970s? How did the Gang of Four (Thatcher, Airey Neave, George Gardiner and Tebbit) function? Apart from telling us that it was a ‘tactical group’ and that the Shadow Cabinet was completely excluded from its plans and deliberations, Norman Tebbit is silent. He knows a lot about Westland, a lot about the Falklands, a lot, for that matter, about the influence on the government of P&O, the heroes of Zeebrugge. But he tells us nothing new of any of these things. Only once does he allow his natural mischief to spill over into a little information. He is obviously not as enamoured as the Prime Minister is of her favourite public relations men, the former Saatchi and Saatchi whizz-kid Tim Bell.

Poor Bell gets only one mention in this book – when he was working for Saatchis. But at the end of the book, as Tebbit tells the story of the 1987 election, there is a hint of peevishness …

‘Whoever had been making trouble between Margaret and me was still active. Part of the problem was the activities of Saatchis’ commercial rivals, some of whom had traded on political acquaintances to sell their wares … the various salesmen had made their pitches to me too, but I was disinclined to buy what I thought were inferior, more expensive ideas … ‘

Turn the page, and the peevishness comes back again:

‘It has been claimed in one account that a former Saatchi employee – a very able copywriter who had established his own business – had designed the advertisements used in the Press. They were not his …’

Long may the ferocious hostility between these two men continue! Whatever else he is, however, Norman Tebbit is not a sneak. He doesn’t talk behind peoples’ backs. He writes quite openly and records some genuine feelings, often without regard for the political consequences. There is a surprising passage complaining about a prison sentence for a young woman in his constituency who ‘snatched’ a baby. Tebbit records that he campaigned against this ‘harsh’ sentence. He hasn’t a word to say, though, about the outcry for harsh sentencing set up by his own Right Wing of the Tory Party which created the atmosphere in which such a young woman was sent to jail.

Again, quite movingly, he records his fury when his wife, desperately ill with depression in 1979, was turned away from hospitals by pickets. After the Brighton bombing, he has nothing but the warmest praise for the staff and the doctors in Stoke Mandeville and Stanmore hospitals where he and his paralysed wife were treated. One doctor at Stoke Mandeville, writes Tebbit, was ‘representative of the very best in the NHS’. Yet there is not a single word in the book about the Conservative government’s frontal assault on the National Health Service, which has resulted, for instance, in huge cuts at Stoke Mandeville and the closure of facilities enjoyed by Mrs Tebbit when she was at Stanmore. When approached by the campaigners against the cuts at Stanmore,

Tebbit rebuked them for trying to make political capital out of his wife’s illness. He is too bland even to notice that that is precisely what he does in his book when he writes about the ‘winter of discontent’. A similar contradiction runs right through the book. One of its most consistent themes is the grinding poverty of its author, which he whines about again and again. The most exact (and boring) details, for instance, are published about the Tebbits’ numerous house purchases.

If you’re interested (I’m not very), he bought a house in Berkhamsted in 1959 for £3,500 and sold it in 1968 for a sum which isn’t disclosed. He then bought a house in Potten End (again, purchase price not disclosed). He sold the one in Potten End in 1968 for £10,540 and bought another one in Islington for £12,200. When he became an MP in 1970, he sold that for £17,000 and bought a house in his (Epping) constituency for £11,750.

That doesn’t seem too bad to me, but hardly had he sat a year in Parliament than poor Norman was once more ‘desperately hard up’. Inflation, he explains, had been taking its toll, so there was nothing for it. ‘I was glad to find some outside interests to supplement my MP’s salary’, he writes. He was, he explains, consultant to Digital Equipment, a big American computer company, and to the National Federation of Building Employers. The experience, he says, was ‘invaluable’, unlike the money, the exact amount of which he does not disclose.

The terror of penury seems to have persecuted Norman Tebbit all his life. After the Brighton bombing, this terror turned into an obsession. It was, he admits, mainly money which drove him to refuse high office after the 1987 election. Instead he joined the board of four huge companies (including British Telecom, which, as Secretary for State for Trade and Industry, he privatised in the first place). He is also a consultant to British Aerospace, and now adds to his Parliamentary pittance Consultancy and directors’ fees of more than £200,000. Add to that the reportedly astronomical sums for the serialisation of this frankly-written, but intrinsically uninformative book in Today and in the Mail on Sunday and it is at once easy to appreciate Tebbit’s last words:

‘I find now that I may have discovered how both to have my cake and eat it.’

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