7 February 2024

On reading Norman Fowler’s diaries


There is a familiar lament among proponents of limited government that the victories from the era of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership that were felt to be permanent have proved transitory. She herself declared her belief that Conservatism will ‘continue to be a living growing creed’ long after ‘socialism comes to be seen as one of the many blind alleys of history, of interest to the historian alone.’ 

We are not there yet. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the willingness of developing countries to embrace free markets and free trade have certainly proved transformational for many who were impoverished and enslaved under the previous arrangements they had been enduring. Yet on much of our planet socialism in one guise or another persists. 

In our own country, state spending, taxation and borrowing have risen to levels Thatcher would surely have found shocking. Many of the arguments about the efficacy of market mechanisms that she had ‘won’ (in the sense that Tony Blair had conceded them) are having to be won again. 

Often the capitalists themselves have reverted to being apologetic about capitalism. This was the case in the 1960s and the 1970s when leading industrialists were keen to suck at the teat of the subsidies offered by the corporate state. During the 1980s they became more brash and self-confident. Now they have gone back to being a bit wet. 

Yet the case for despair can be overstated. When Thatcher died in 2013, Ed Miliband, then Leader of the Labour Party, declared: ‘She was right to understand the sense of aspiration felt by people across the country, and she was right to recognise that our economy needed to change.’ 

He quoted comments she made 1982: 

‘How absurd it will seem in a few years’ time that the state ran Pickfords removals and the Gleneagles Hotel.’ 

Miliband then added: ‘She was right.’ 

I was reminded of this reading Norman Fowler’s recently published diaries, The Best of Enemies, which cover his long period of service as a Cabinet Minister under Thatcher and then John Major. 

They are an enthralling account and fill an important historic gap. For Harold Wilson’s premiership you can compare accounts of Cabinet meetings offered in the diaries of Tony Benn, Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle. Those so inclined can look for discrepancies in the account of Wilson’s utterances as Biblical scholars can with the four gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John of those from the Almighty. 

But despite championing the cause of competition in his testimony, Fowler thus far has a monopoly. It would be a stretch to call Fowler a ‘Thatcherite’. He would often record criticisms of her, especially during the later period and her clashes with Major. In the 1975 contest for Conservative leadership he had not supported her. Fowler was a pragmatist, a Party loyalist, often sounding non-committal about some of the arguments he recorded between his colleagues. This was someone who would master the details and seek to win people round who lacked the flair of those “death or glory” types. But that style should not be misinterpreted as a lack of toughness in pursuing an objective he thought was right. 

Yet in 1979 when the new Prime Minister made Fowler the Transport Minister he was a ‘quiet revolutionary’ pioneering her privatisation programme before the word even existed. ‘We had nationalised road haulage under the banner of the National Freight Corporation to move our goods and deliver our parcels,’ he recalls. ‘There was even a nationalised removals company, Pickfords, ready to move our furniture.’ 

‘Bus and coach transport was dominated by the nationalised National Bus Company and surrounded by regulation. Any private sector company brave enough to propose new, cheap coach service from, say, Birmingham to London, had to apply to quasi-judicial traffic commissioners. They would invariably be opposed by the nationalised British Rail on the grounds that as they already run such a service there was no need for another.’ 

Then, of course, we had all those British Rail subsidiaries, ‘which were scarcely profitable and woefully underinvested’. Fowler adds that: ‘Their hotels were an outstanding example. The most famous hotel of all, Gleneagles, was at the time only open for six months a year.’ 

On July 14th 1980, Fowler records making a statement in Parliament about privatising the hotels and Sealink ferries – the opposition being ‘furious’. ‘There is a great deal about “robbing the seed corn”, although neither Sealink nor British Rail hotels could be described as gold mines. The rage comes not only from Labour but also the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists.’

A week later, 21 July 1980, Fowler was back in Parliament again to announce the privatisation of the docks. ‘Great protests from the Labour side. Then at 9.57 Jim Callaghan gets to his feet and tries to intervene. No minister in his right mind gives way at that stage so I don’t. Great uproar. Callaghan tries to get in again. He seems to be asking (although I can scarcely hear in the noise) about the steel position in South Wales. More uproar as I refuse to give way. The Speaker intervenes…Clinton Davis comes up from the Labour side to protest at my ‘cowardice’ in the most pompous way. I fear after listening to him twice I threaten to biff him. He looks surprised and goes away.’ I too am surprised. One doesn’t think of Fowler threatening to biff people. Heady days. 

An important part of the effort was to persuade the management and workforce of a nationalised firm that privatisation could be an opportunity rather than a threat. 

Some good news came on 7 October 1980. ‘Today is the day the Transport Act 1980 comes into operation. In spite of all the reservations that the bus industry had they have jumped into coach competition. Fares have come down and coach services have increased.’

On 10 June 1981, Fowler discussed plans for the National Freight Corporation at a Cabinet committee. ‘A few years ago the NFC was anything but enthusiastic about the prospect of privatisation. The first time I met my friend Frank Law, he had been sent by the board to dissuade me from privatisation plans. Now in 1981 they have put together a deal which amounts to a management buyout of the business, but a management takeover which is financed by their own money. Both Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson obviously think that this is an exciting prospect.’ 

As an account of this important period, Fowler’s chronicling of Cabinet rows is fascinating. In the early stages, Thatcher was in a minority in her own Cabinet. (‘I don’t give a damn about sound money,’ Jim Prior s recorded as telling her on 31 July 1980.) 

Yet while these broader disputes got ever more factious, Fowler got on with his mission. He was close friends with Ken Clarke, who was so hostile to Thatcher he declared after she was elected Tory leader: ‘The counter-revolution starts here.’ 

But Fowler had a different view: ‘The need in 1979 was for fundamental reform. It was not a time for endless compromise. That was the essential battleground and it was this battle in which I thought Margaret Thatcher deserved support. It was not so much ‘wets’ versus ‘dries’ – it was much more a battle between the modernisers, not content to go on as before and those who thought that we should continue to manage the country as best we could, and had done so notably unsuccessfully since the end of the Second World War.’ 

Others might be remembered for bolder ideological rhetoric. But Fowler was a man of action. His legacy should be acknowledged.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.