The Times – September 29, 2007
– Ginny Dougary
Norman Tebbit discusses Cameron, loss and multiculturalism
Lord Tebbit brought up the white rabbit as we scuttled down corridor after dimly lit corridor in the gentlemen’s club late afternoon hush of the House of Lords. It is the women we pass – of a certain age, two of them in wheelchairs – who greeted him with tremendous warmth. Later, over tea – as formal and English, with the possibility of triangular cucumber sandwiches and oozy cakes, as tea at the Savoy – he tells me that one of the smiling Baronesses had been a real toughie, an ultimate Tebbitian compliment, as the former head of intelligence in one of the trickier countries in the African continent. He is quite the man for a flourish, verbal and otherwise, opening the door for a younger Baroness with a courtly hand gesture; Baroness Amos returns the favour with a rather cool look.
Close up, he has striking, slightly surprising eyes – flecked with blue and grey and brown – parchment skin and a dry, thin-lipped smile. In that museum setting, in his loose pinstriped suit, stooped and limping on one side – a legacy of the horrific Brighton bombing all those years ago, fronds of white hair flapping under his bald pate, he reminds me suddenly and disrespectfully, with his lolloping gait, of Riff Raff, the sinister retainer in The Rocky Horror Show. But let’s blame him for these far-fetched analogies, since Tebbit himself sometimes feels that he is in Alice in Wonderland as he finds himself lost in the labyrinthine warrens of the Lords – even though it is 15 years since he became Baron Tebbit of Chingford.
The man variously dubbed the Chingford Skinhead, “a semi-house-trained polecat” and Count Dracula is disappointingly un-sinister in person: quietly spoken, courteous, exuding an almost Zen-like calm. The views he espoused on the dangers of multiculturalism, which seemed so offensive and had every bien-pensant liberal (including me) branding him a racist, are now part of the mainstream debate, with intellectuals such as David Goodhart, editor of Prospect, and Trevor Phillips, head of the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, entering the fray. Phillips’s change of heart over multiculturalism is of particular significance since he once embraced it so enthusiastically, and accused Goodhart of being a “liberal Powellite”. Now Phillips fears that Britain is “sleepwalking towards segregation” and writes: “How we manage the deep differences emerging in our society is a debate we must have… no amount of lecturing from comfortable middle-class liberals will brush away the anxiety felt in many of our towns and cities… the many millions of every race, faith and culture for whom the frictions of diversity are much more evident than its benefits.”
Indeed, so urgent is this debate that Lord Tebbit and Phillips – hardly the most natural bedfellows (Phillips was once moved to ask him, “Would it upset you if I came to live next door to you?”) – recently met for lunch to discuss these very issues: “And at the end, Trevor said, ‘How is it that we used to be at a diametric difference and now we are very much agreeing?’ and I said, ‘Ah, I think the difference is that you’ve understood that I wasn’t talking about whether you’re black or white [Phillips is black], I was talking about the cultures of this country, and you and I share the same culture. You and I are now beginning to see, and I won’t say who saw it first…’” Tebbit pauses for wry effect, “‘that some of the other cultures are a threat to you as well as to me – that we’re both in the same boat.’ And I’m very happy to be in the same boat as Trevor, but I’m cautious about what I say about that because I don’t want to make his life difficult in managing his constituencies, so to speak.”
Lord Tebbit would like to consider himself as colour-blind as someone who is actually blind, such as David Blunkett, whom he refers to thus: “I like David Blunkett – we’re quite good friends although I think he was a fool in his personal life. But someone like David is vulnerable and I think it’s very sad what happened to him.
“But, anyway, being blind, David does not know when he meets someone whether they’re black, yellow, green or candy-striped. He assesses them on what they say, how they react and things like that. I’d like to think I do the same. Does this mean that I would like to live in Brixton? No, I wouldn’t – because the culture and the way of living in Brixton is not one that appeals to me.”
He goes into one of his favourite analogies comparing humans with dogs: “Humans are pack animals and we prefer – as kids do – to be in a pack with other dogs, so to speak, like us. And I do prefer that. Now does that mean that I discriminate against people? No. I’ve got a lot of very good, close Jewish friends, for instance. In fact, I got into a business venture with some Jewish friends where I was known as the statutory gentile because I was the only one who wasn’t a Jew. So that’s no problem to me.”
One of his neighbours in West Sussex “whom I’m really quite fond of” is an airline pilot – as Lord Tebbit was – and he “also happens to be black. Now I’m not interested in the guy because he’s black, I’m interested in the fact that he’s an airline pilot so we’ve got an enormous amount in common.” He recently shared a table with said neighbour and his wife on the occasion of his wife Margaret Tebbit’s birthday, when the two couples bumped into each other at a local restaurant… “And, yes, he is black,” he says again, “so there’s no element of that [racial prejudice] at all.”
While we are on this subject of colour blindness, he points out that the Tebbits have kept in touch with one of Margaret’s carers from long years ago – his wife was paralysed by the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel during the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 – and she is a Pakistani-born Muslim. “So, you know, when people talk to me about some of these things, well, yes, I didn’t have to go and stay with a Muslim family, I actually had one living in the house.”
Lord Tebbit is very clear that the problem is not multi-ethnic, “which is fine, that’s no problem”, but multicultural – which is quite a different matter. “I’ve been saying for years – and been criticised very severely for it – that multicultural societies don’t work and what makes me cross is that for so long if anyone did discuss this issue, they were accused of being racist,” he says.
“A multi-ethnic society can work as long as it is mono-cultural – where it is accepted that all the ways in which we behave, the law, the whole structure, are based on Christian-Judaeo rules and those are the rules of the game. Of course, you can still build your own place of worship and observe your own practices and things like that, as long as it is recognised that the society in which you are living is based on one set of rules. Because if you have two cultures within one geographical place, then sooner or later it is highly likely that one culture will want to spread and push the other out.
“What makes me cross is that people always assume you’re only talking from one direction and yet I’ve said and written many, many times that if you are a young Muslim and reasonably devout and you live in a number of our cities, particularly in the North, and on a Friday night you see the culture you’re being asked to integrate into – fornicating, urinating, drunken behaviour – well, there’s nothing there to pull you in, is there? That’s the great sadness of it. A good Muslim is going to say, ‘Perhaps we should be out there trying to do something about these savages.’ So one of the things that we have to do is clean up our own act.”
Don’t you think now that your line about the cricket test was rather unhelpful? “No, not at all. Ask Nasser Hussain whether he thought it was unhelpful. He was Indian-born and jeered at and booed by Asians born in this country when he was playing as the captain of England. Now, I think they should have enjoyed the fact that they were living in this country where, on sheer merit, there’s this guy who’s the captain of the England cricket team, and it was shameful the way they treated him.
“What I said was that if you want to know how well integrated people are, it’s the cricket test. Look to see which side they’re cheering for. Are they cheering for the country to which they have come for a better life or are they cheering the country from which they’ve come? Are they looking forward or are they looking back? Are they a branch of Pakistan in England or are they…”
Oh, honestly, Norman, surely you can enjoy all sorts of aspects of life in England and still support your old Pakistani team without being viewed as a traitor? What a dreary and monotone world it would be, for instance, if we all ate the same food, dressed alike and read from the same set text. “I was putting it sharply,” he admits. “But I was saying, ‘How deeply are you into this country?’”
We are sitting, as the evening light falls, in a narrow annexe-like room – just large enough for two chairs and a table. As he struggled to find the light, Tebbit growled: “Come into the dark, my dear.” He does like his little jokes but he’s still very much the hardliner, despite the mildness of his delivery, with his concerns about discipline and his belief in corporal punishment and hanging. When we talk about Patrick Magee, the IRA member who planted the bomb that crushed Margaret Tebbit’s life and shrunk her husband’s, Lord Tebbit says, “Of course, I’d like him to be hanged.” Do you still believe in hanging, generally, I ask. “Oh, yes,” he says, adding with a ghost of a smile, “not generally – hahahahaha – only for bad people.”
The photographs of McGuinness and Paisley, newly chummed up and appearing to delight in a private joke, made him feel “cynical”, and he thinks it likely that there will be a consensual move towards a united Ireland. “You know, we could have had peace in Europe if we had elected Halifax rather than Churchill. We could have made peace with Germany and they could have carried on incinerating Jews and everyone would have been at peace, wouldn’t they?
“What I would regret is the fact that people whose first choice would have been to remain in the United Kingdom had been put in a position where that choice was looking shabby [he mutters here about being governed by convicted terrorists] to the extent that they would prefer to leave, but if that was their view and that was the best thing for them, then so be it. It’s not the outcome I would have hoped for, but we very often don’t get the outcome we hope for.”
Although Lord Tebbit does go to church – “Because the rector’s a nice man and it’s a peaceful place and causes me to think about certain issues” – when I ask him whether he’s a Christian, he says: “I find that a very difficult question but I doubt that I’m a Christian because some of the things that I’m asked to believe are not very believable.” He says that, on the whole, he is of a forgiving nature but there are exceptions and he certainly cannot forgive Magee for what he did. He was not happy with the BBC for allowing the former terrorist to appear on a radio programme even though Magee said he was “deeply sorry” for the bombing. “Deeply sorry for what?” he says in a scathing tone. “He has never offered a hint of acknowledgment that what he did was wrong. It’s all very well to say, ‘Sorry, mate,’ and then push somebody over again.
“If he came forward and said, ‘I realise that what I did was utterly, utterly wrong. I am sincerely sorry for what I did and now I want to make public the machinery of the gang I was in and who was giving the orders, and who was my boss, because I want to see them all brought to justice,’ yeah. Oh, yeah, that would be different because then I would decide that he had truly repented. But there’s no evidence of that whatsoever.” Would it have provoked strong feelings in him if the two men had come face to face? “No more than if I had to shoot a mad dog,” he says. “You know, I wouldn’t want to shoot a dog but if a dog is dangerous then I would shoot him.”
It is clear that Lord Tebbit is uncomfortable discussing his own injuries, which still cause him pain all these years on. He was left with very little skin on his left side from his shoulder to his ankle, “oozing blood as though I had been sandpapered”, and a gaping hole over his hip and lower abdomen: “Several inches of muscle and flesh had been simply torn away and part of the top of my pelvis had been sliced down too, and a main nerve was severed leaving me without sensation in part of my leg.” Part of his hip was removed to prepare for the skin-grafting operations, which did not take well and had to be repeated. All of this I gleaned from his autobiography, Upwardly Mobile, since he is more forthcoming there than in person, his voice sinking to a whisper when I ask him about his aches and pains. He allows that, “I have injuries to my hip which mean I can’t work in the garden and things like that [he and his wife were keen gardeners]. Sometimes you don’t notice it, you live with it. After all, all of us as we get older [he is 76] get more pain of one kind or another.”
I ask him whether his and Margaret’s predicament gets any easier with time, and he answers a stark, “No.” She does have use of her left hand but it’s extremely limited: “She can just about, with a bit of help, brush her teeth. But she can’t eat or cut anything with a knife and writing is a bit of a problem and after all these years… And, by the way, she’s going to give me a terrible bollocking in a minute because I should have been home by now.”
Does it wear on the nerves, I press on. “It doesn’t enhance life, hah.” Is she still an authoritative woman? “She tells me what to do,” he says, with a smile which is hard to read.
Even those who would prefer not to find a kind word to say about Lord Tebbit are struck by his fortitude in dealing with his difficulties at home, and this was years before the Brighton bombing. He wrote movingly in his autobiography about the reality of bringing up three small children, while working, when his wife was absent during spells of post-partum psychosis. “Even now the memory of seeing her personality disintegrating [shortly after the birth of their last baby] is more painful than any other experience I have undergone. It is hard to describe one’s emotions at seeing the person with whom one has been so close becoming a stranger.”
As a single parent, combining the father and mother roles, he wrote: “I began to understand how a mother, stressed beyond belief, could batter a child.” Now he says: “When you think of the extraordinary thing of carrying a child for nine months and then suddenly in 20 minutes – whoosh! But it’s not quite ‘whoosh!’ because then you’re feeding it and looking after it. I mean, one’s metabolism has got to reorganise itself pretty well, hasn’t it? What is remarkable is that people don’t go potty every time they have a baby.”
Lord Tebbit was a surprisingly modern father (apart from his tendency to deliver the odd sharp smack) – surprising to me but not to him – changing nappies and cooking and helping in the household long before it became a necessity. “As a long-haul airline pilot – when I was away for three weeks and then at home for the same time – my wife was multitasking when I was away and it seemed to be perfectly proper and sensible that when I was back I would do my bit in the same way. I could change a nappy with the best of them.”
His children were not over-impressed by his cooking skills then but perhaps they are less dismissive now. The flat Tebbit monotone is suddenly enlivened when he describes preparing a pheasant casserole, assembled the morning of a dinner party, stewed with apples and a good slug of Calvados. His mother, the daughter of a butcher, taught him to skin a rabbit as a boy and one of his great septuagenerian pleasures is “shooting a bird, skinning it, cooking it and eating it”. He is even working on a Norman Tebbit how to cook game recipe book, as well as a history of Britain’s wars – “All 61 of them!” he exclaims – since 1945.
I wonder whether Margaret ever blames her husband for her disability. “She’d better not,” he chuckles grimly. “I think we both just live with it as it is.” He worries about what will happen to her when he’s gone, although she will be well provided for: “She’s not silly and she can look after herself pretty well and I know that the children would fill the gap, but she would have to deal on her own with all the problems of staff and things like that.” And it would be someone else’s vigil – one Lord Tebbit has kept these long decades – to do the twice-nightly turning of her body to prevent bedsores.
“I don’t rail against it any more,” he says, “it just doesn’t get any easier. It’s the difficulties of travel and the… almost the impossibility of doing anything off the cuff, you know. If I thought about it, I suppose I would feel sad but I don’t let myself because otherwise it’s unbearable. I don’t go down that path.”
In their old devil-may-care days, the Tebbits would just turn up at Heathrow, check the availability of flights and board the plane – usually to somewhere in France – pick up a car and “bog off with our Michelin guide and that was that. But you can’t do that in our situation, which means you become very unadventurous.”
Lord Tebbit’s main complaint about David Cameron – and he has a few – is that he has not experienced enough variety of the different ways of the world. But doesn’t he think that coping with a disabled child has given Cameron a different sort of insight? “Oh yes, that’s certainly so. The emotional side of having a child whose maximum potential is limited is a difficult thing to accept and live with, of course. But then you sit down and you say, ‘Well, how can I do the best for this child?’ That’s one thing if you’re a bus driver, it’s another thing if you’re a wealthy man. I am very conscious of the fact that looking after my wife costs £70,000 to £80,000 a year of pre-taxed income. Now how many people, who have got a disabled husband or wife or child, can afford that sort of money? Very few.”
At a “State of Britain” speech he gave in May, he dealt a swift swipe to Cameron’s leadership saying: “My own party has now re-branded itself as the party to implement New Labour policies more effectively. God knows there is a need of a party to do that, but I thought it was the Labour Party.” When I ask him to name the Tories’ biggest political asset (Lord Tebbit is still routinely referred to in headlines as the ‘last big Tory beast’), he laughs and says “Very interesting question.” Because you feel there isn’t anyone? “I think we lack somebody of the standing of Margaret.”
After Lady Thatcher’s recent visit to 10 Downing Street, I asked Lord Tebbit what he made of it. “It seemed to me that it was Gordon Brown at his very best… a wonderful mixture of his courtesy and his political nous,” he said down the phone. “After all, Cameron described himself as the ‘heir to Blair’; it’s only natural that Brown should make himself the ‘heir to Thatcher’. It’s the perfect response, isn’t it?
“I’m quite sure that Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what she was doing. She’s first too well-mannered to rebuff the Prime Minister and second, of course, the present Conservative leadership has been at great pains to distance himself from her – and she is, after all, a woman!”
He has no problem with the Old Etonians in the Shadow Cabinet: “It doesn’t matter to me if the guy’s the right guy, whether he was educated at home by his mother, went to a comprehensive or went to Eton. That is not a problem for me and never has been. But what a lot of people will suggest is that they don’t know how the other half lives. David and his colleagues – the very clever young men they have in Central Office these days – are very intellectually clever but they have no experience of the world whatsoever. He [Cameron] has spent much of his time in the Conservative Party and as a public relations guy. Well, it’s not the experience of most people in the streets. That’s the real attack and that’s damaging to him, I think.” Do you like him? “I don’t really know him.” His main beef about Cameron’s stand on the grammar school issue, as someone who directly benefited from that system, is that, “If the argument is that creaming off kids into the grammar schools is bad, then it must be bad to allow people to cream their kids off into private schools, too. My view is that selective education is so good that it should be available for everybody who can benefit from it, regardless of whether they can afford it.”
Where Lord Tebbit sympathises with Cameron is over his “Hug a hoody” speech: “In which, by the way, he didn’t say, ‘Hug a hoody’ any more than I said, ‘On yer bike!’ or Jim Callaghan said, ‘Crisis, what crisis?’ We’ve all got saddled with those.” As he talks about what the New Tory leader was getting at, the Old Tory standard-bearer sounds like a politician of quite a different order. “I think he’s absolutely right to say, ‘You can’t solve this problem of poor social standards by just going at the kid.’ You’ve got to say, ‘Why is he doing that?’ What are the problems with the way they’ve been brought up and their schools and their families and things like that.” You’re beginning to sound quite liberal. “Not necessarily, because I think you also have to be quite tough about it.” Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime? “Well, that was a proper quote and unfortunately he [Blair] has been neither.”
He is withering about Tony Blair and, at last, one catches glimpses of the rabid Tebbit of yesteryear but, it must be said, even here his views sound more mainstream than they once did – his position on Iraq, for example, is now a fairly standard anti-Blair critique. “I don’t think there’s any politician who has done more damage to this country than Blair,” he continues. “He has defiled every institution of government and there is now no part of government – the police, the courts, the Army, the civil service – which runs as efficiently as it did before he came into office.”
For Gordon Brown, on the other hand, Lord Tebbit has nothing but praise: “I think he is a clever man and I have a very considerable regard for him. Yes, much more than for Tony in many ways.” Why? “First of all, I think that he’s not as tacky as Tony. I can’t see him feathering his own nest in the rather awful way in which the Blairs have done. The proverbial holidays in Tuscany with dubious people, shall we say?” Berlusconi? “Yes. [Did Tebbit object, one wonders, when his leader hung out with the likes of Pinochet?] But, no, not poor Cliff Richard who’s flattered or thinks it’s the thing he ought to do. But it’s not in my view quite ‘kosher’. Now I don’t see Gordon doing that. I think he’s still too much a son of the Manse… a principled man in his personal conduct.”
I wonder, with all this talk of actual prime ministers, whether Lord Tebbit feels shortchanged by fortune. There were other factors (he did seem to fall out of favour with Thatcher) but does he feel that he never fulfilled his potential because he withdrew to spend more time at home? “I think that if I’d stood in 1990 when Margaret was brought down, that I would probably have made it [to Prime Minister]. But I wasn’t a political failure because I decided not to continue. Now that may have been a good or a bad decision but it wasn’t a political failure. I could have gone on but perhaps I would have ballsed it up and… you just don’t know, do you?”
Was he, like some of his other Tory confrères, a little bit in love with Thatcher? “No, heheheheh. Not my type. I thought she was a remarkable politician and enormously courageous and very straightforward to work for because she was so secure in her ideas. If you turned on the telly in the morning and something had happened, in Margaret’s government – unlike Blair’s – you wouldn’t have to wonder what she made of it because there was a framework. But of course we had our rows [over British Leyland, for instance].”
They still see one another. “Some days she’s on good form and some days she’s not. She can lose her place, so to speak. Sometimes she just finds it difficult to remember what’s going on that day… all the things that have happened today.” A Socialist friend of mine recalled a dinner at Chequers years ago when his hostess, Margaret Thatcher, fed Margaret Tebbit and he was struck by how kindly and unselfconsciously she performed that task.
This is a fascinating time to catch Norman Tebbit. While he is so out of step with the desperate modernising attempts of his own party, at least some of his views seem so much less outlandish than they once did. In common with almost every journalist who has met him – of differing political and racial complexions – I, too, found him a great deal more personable than I expected, with no hint, for example, of the homophobic ranter of yesteryear. He could not have been more patient and willing to engage in most issues I put to him, however combative my line of questioning. But witnessing how easily he slipped into conversation with the photographer and his assistant (both male), I sensed that he probably prefers the company of men to women. He says, when I ask him about this (his autobiography is full of roistering incidents, as a young man, involving rather yobbish behaviour under the influence of drink): “There’s a time and a place for everything – mixed company over a dinner table and things like that – but, yes, I do enjoy my time with the lads, always have done.” So do you think you’re still a bit of a lad in a way? “I’m not sure about that,” a final gallows laugh. “Perhaps a retired lad.”