31 March 2022

Why Norman Tebbit still has unfinished business


Hammer of the unions, scourge of the wets, fist of Thatcherite orthodoxy – Baron Tebbit of Chingford is one of the greatest prime ministers we never had. An MP from 1970 until 1992, including a lengthy stint in Thatcher’s cabinet, he has spent the last 30 years in the House of Lords, from where, sadly, he is retiring at the end of March.  

In the early 1980s, he was Secretary of State for Employment and then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, where he played a crucial role in facing down union militancy and the vested interests which had brought down the democratically elected Heath and Callaghan governments. 

In this and in reforming labour relations, he helped to jolt Britain out of the ‘low-effort equilibrium’ of the post-war decades. Indeed, he has said his proudest achievement in government was the Employment Act 1982. Among other things, this landmark piece of legislation cracked down on the closed shop, the injustices and inefficiencies of which he had experienced first-hand. 

Subsequently, as Chairman of the Conservative Party, he helped to consolidated the Party’s grip on power in the 1987 election. However, his cabinet career was curtailed thereafter by the imperative of looking after his wife, who had been paralysed by IRA terrorists in the 1984 Brighton bombing. 

I am too young to have witnessed any of this, but Tebbit did nonetheless play a role in my political coming of age. Back in the pre-Twitter heyday of the blogosphere, during the Brown era and the early years of the Coalition, he was a weekly contributor to Telegraph blogs. Through careful argumentation, he would dissect the political and philosophical failings of those governments. But he would also take the time to engage with the comments section, politely and at length, addressing commentators individually by their – usually nonsensical – pseudonyms. 

There was something quite charming about this, in an old-world sort of way. I think part of what intrigued me was the contrast between the evident kindness, thoughtfulness and civility of Tebbit in his capacity as a blogger, and the reputation – the image, the myth – that had grown up around him. 

In fairness, this reputation is understandable. For a start, just look at photos of Tebbit in his senescence. He looks like some sort of revenant, a vampire count risen from his unholy grave to privatise the NHS or cast down the dreaming spires of woke privilege. Indeed, some years ago, I had an A2-sized poster of undead Tebbit on my bedroom wall – until one ex-girlfriend understandably objected. 

But Tebbit’s place in the popular imagination was largely fixed in the 1980s by Spitting Image. His leather-clad bovver boy puppet acted as Thatcher’s enforcer, pummelling cabinet ministers with a truncheon, booting them in the face and feeding Nigel Lawson’s hand into a blender. The moniker he was given by Michael Foot in a 1978 parliamentary debate – ‘semi-house-trained polecat’ – has shadowed him down the years as well. 

However, the phrases most commonly associated with Tebbit are probably ‘on yer bike!’ and the ‘cricket test’. The first of these, supposedly showing his callous disregard for the unemployed, was in fact a wilful misinterpretation of Tebbit’s 1981 denunciation of lawless violence (unlike his puppet, ironically). Responding to the suggestion that rioting was the natural reaction to unemployment, he said: ‘I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it’. 

The ‘cricket test’ arose from a remark made by Tebbit in 1990: ‘A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?’ 

As David Goodhart has noted, this was an attempt to articulate concerns over complex questions of integration, allegiance and values. In Goodhart’s words: ‘some degree of common allegiance is a necessary part of the glue that holds society together…  we need some solidarity and mutual sympathy to make a welfare state possible and sustain civility in politics and everyday life’. But of course, Tebbit was traduced as a racist by the usual crowd for daring to raise such concerns.   

Yet Tebbit’s willingness to stand up to bien pensant opinion and question conventional wisdoms is just one of the reasons why he could have been a great prime minster. He did consider standing for Conservative leader in 1990, once Thatcher withdrew from the contest, but given his love for his wife, who needed round-the-clock care, he decided against it. Had she not been so badly injured, we could be living in quite a different world now – no Maastricht and therefore no EU, for a start. 

In any case, in our own tragic timeline, stepping back from frontline politics at least gave Tebbit time to write. In addition to an autobiography (‘Upwardly Mobile’), a retrospective of the Thatcher years, (‘Unfinished Business’) and his Telegraph columns, he has written a game cookbook (the Guardian review of which includes one of my favourite depictions of Tebbit ever) and a touching children’s book about a disabled boy and his magic talking Labrador, Ben. 

When you consider together his culinary skills, his literary output, his political achievements and of course his time as an RAF fighter jet pilot, you come away with a picture of Tebbit as Essex’s answer to the renaissance man. Maybe we’ll even see a biopic one day (directed by Guy Ritchie, ideally). 

In all seriousness though, we could do with more politicians of Tebbit’s calibre right now. As revealed in the footnotes to the Spring Statement, average real incomes are not expected to recover to 2021-22 levels for at least five years. We are facing a massive cost of living crisis. The only way out is firm economic growth, but to achieve this and break out of our post-2008 low productivity rut, the sclerotic British economy requires a programme of radical, market-oriented supply side reforms and tax cuts.  

Yet on housing, energy, education, childcare, trade – seemingly everywhere it turns – government is confronted by entrenched vested interests. Proper planning reform, killed stone dead by the Chesham and Amersham by-election, epitomises the problem.   

We need more politicians able and willing to push through controversial reforms. But instead, we have dilettantes more inclined to pander to the niche concerns of their Islington and Notting Hill dinner party companions – the ‘urban progressives’ of Morton’s triangle – than think strategically about the problems facing Britain. Just as we could do with another Thatcher, we could do with a new Norman Tebbit to finish that unfinished business.   

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Karl Williams is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.