Friday, 15 July 2016

Politicians - some personal thoughts and memories

Politicians - Some personal thoughts and memories

I am still processing, as we all are, the aftermath of the Referendum. The result was the one I expected. During my travels across the country in early June, I saw all the Leave posters and billboards and my instinct told me that those in power would be given a kick. Nevertheless, I am surprised by how much I feel that my world has been turned upside down. And I’m less than happy with the euro exchange rate as our Greek idyll on Patmos approaches!

All this – together with the Tory leadership contest and my own journey through the memories of my father’s decline and death last July - has left me reflective. Here are some of my thoughts and reminiscences.

My father was a life-long Tory. At Oxford, he became the President of the Oxford University Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher succeeded him the following term.  When I was still junior school age I remember being taken to a restaurant in London by my parents – Margaret and Dennis Thatcher were there as part of a large group. When she noticed my father the future prime-minister came over and greeted him. I remember her remarkably blue eyes and felt she was someone who seemed soft – not at all like the Iron Lady she became.

 After he graduated he was offered a safe Conservative seat, which he declined. The reason he always gave was that he did not want to be in a position where he had to vote against his conscience. He had no private income or alternative employment at that time. So he went into industry and had a worthwhile and fulfilling working life. I was especially touched by someone I did not know who drove from some where in the North down to Aldeburgh for my father’s funeral.

At the wake afterwards he introduced himself saying he felt he had to be there as my father had given him his first job and so much advice and encouragement. He saw him as being the reason his working life had succeeded.

So the role of political activist fell to my mother. She became very involved with the local Conservative associations where we lived, progressing from being a foot soldier to the Chairman of the local branch and then a District Counsellor and finally the Chair of Buckinghamshire Conservative Association. During her early involvement, the local MP was Ronald Bell. He was not always a MP who followed party lines. In particular, he was against the Common Market. In the first referendum in 1975, the people voted 67% in favour on a 65% turnout. Ronald Bell had risked his own seat by following his principles. Edward Heath visited the constituency at this time and my memory is of a man with no charm or any of the politician’s supposed ability to connect – even with his own supporters. I doubt if he would survive today’s media demands.

 Ronald Bell was an MP I had respect for. During my first year of teaching I was involved with a course designed for pupils who were unlikely to achieve great academic success. The aim was to teach them about the world they lived in. The experienced teacher I was working with arranged a trip to the Houses of Parliament and she and I led the group of twenty or so kids from the Wexham housing estate in Slough all the way to Westminster. There were two pupils in that group who other staff were amazed we were taking. Good friends since junior school days, they rarely turned up in uniform or conformed. That day they both arrived in what looked like new school blazers that were never seen again. As we went on the tour of the Westminster Houses, they behaved perfectly. Ronald Bell, as arranged, greeted us half way through the tour, recognized me, and then talked with the pupils. I discovered later that day that he had immediately afterwards telephoned my mother to say he had met me with a pupil group that most would not let near Parliament and he had been so impressed with their behavior. So were we – and relieved!

His unexpected death in 1982 led to a by-election. This was Tony Blair’s first election experience as a Labour candidate and not surprisingly he lost. But for a safe Tory seat there was remarkable insecurity in the ranks of the local Conservative association and many senior Tories of cabinet rank were sent by London to canvass and rally the voters. They were all invited to dinner with my mother in the evening and I was talked into helping. I plead a natural curiosity in my defense – it was interesting to see those seen on TV in real life. The politician I remember most vividly was Geoffrey Howe.  During dinner he hardly ate or engaged in conversation. I remember thinking that he was nervous. But he then gave a good speech and relaxed into an interesting and interested man.

My mother had been part of the selection panel. There was a short-list drawn of three candidates – two men and one woman. Before the interviews they were invited to a day of meeting the local branch and being shown around the constituency. The two male candidates’ wives were given their own programmes for the day but the female’s husband was not expected to be there. I asked my mother why. She replied that he had an important job and could not be expected to take the day off. I pointed out that the two wives had important jobs – from memory one was a solicitor and the other an accountant. That she firmly told me was completely different! Does the Tory party still hold more or less the same views? The decision reached was not the best. The candidate appointed and then elected was later involved with Neil Hamilton in the cash for questions scandal!  

And on the subject of women’s rights, I remember – some years ago – a friend who did work in a male dominated area complaining about all the unfairness for women – she was a fighter for women’s rights. Eventually after many conversations she said to me –“You don’t feel this do you?” And I don’t and haven’t. It does not mean that I don’t recognize that there is still a battle – but in my own life I have never felt it. My approach has been more one of non-compliance. Once, when Rob was invited to an interview for a Head of History post in an Oxford private school, it was stated that there was a programme for the wives, organized by the Headmaster’s wife. I stated that I was not part of any such package. Rob declined the offer of the interview as he respected my stance.

It was some years later that I watched Geoffrey Howe, who had a complex relationship with Margaret Thatcher, make his resignation speech. Europe was again the presenting issue. In any negotiations with Europe he stated, “It is rather like sending your opening batsman to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bat has been broken before the game by the team captain. The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.” I wondered how the nervous unconfident man I had met had now found the courage to make the speech which led to Thatcher’s down fall.

Today we are again back to the Europe issue and the Tories have just had another leadership battle. One possible leader, a committed Christian with a rather dodgy CV, had some views about women without children and their suitability to lead the party. Those opinions helped cost her the candidacy.

Besides, Margaret Thatcher had children and look where that got us!

And finally – does the Parliamentary Labour Party live on a different planet to the rest of us?  Do they not see the swell in membership as being due to Jeremy and his anti-austerity policies? Can’t they calculate that great swathes of an alienated electorate actually might want him in power when they hear what he is saying through the media interference? I’m hanging on to Jo Cox’s view that there is more that unites us than divides us .

1 comment:

  1. Did I know about you hobnobbing with Tory cabinet ministers in 1982? Much love, Rob.