One time defense secretary and environment secretary, Michael Heseltine (born 1933) was a key figure in British politics from the 1980s into the mid-1990s, first as a member of the Thatcher governments, then as an alternative Conservative voice to that of then Prime Minister Thatcher, and later as a member of the John Major government.
Michael (Ray Dibdin) Heseltine, having served as a junior and middle rank minister through the government of Edward Heath (1970-1974), became secretary of state for the environment when the Conservative Party returned to power in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher. Later he was secretary of state for defense, but he left the government dramatically, walking out of a Cabinet meeting in January 1986 in protest at her style of running the government. He then became on the backbenches a focus of an alternative Conservatism, preaching what he characterized as a "caring capitalism, " taking a more enthusiastically pro-European Community line than Thatcher, and opposing some of the government's more controversial policies, such as the (community charge) poll tax. He succeeded in defying the laws of gravity which normally ensure that ministers who resign office steadily disappear from public view. Instead, Heseltine toured the country speaking at countless Tory meetings, remaining through this period a likely successor to Thatcher as party leader.
Born in Swansea, South Wales, on March 21, 1933, the grandson of a coal merchant and son of a structural engineer who was a colonel in the Territorial Army, Michael Heseltine went to a private boarding school, Shrewsbury School. This was followed by three years at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he took a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics and where his debating skills and already perceived business sense led to his becoming president of the Union in 1954. He also founded there a non-establishment Tory society called the Blue Ribbon Club.
After university he studied accountancy from 1955 to 1957 and set out early on a career that made him a millionaire property developer when he used a legacy to buy a house in an unfashionable part of London and rented rooms. He then worked as a magazine publisher with Haymarket Publishing. He had joined the Conservative Party in Swansea at age 17, and after only nine months of his two years of National Service Michael Heseltine took terminal leave in October 1959, as the rules allowed, to contest the parliamentary seat of Gower, a forlorn hope for the Tories. He tried again in marginal Coventry North in October 1964 but by the next general election had been picked for the safe Tory seat of Tavistock, which he won in 1966. Tavistock, which he represented until 1974, then disappeared as a result of boundary changes, and he was selected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Henley, which he represented into the 1990s.
A close ally of the left-wing Heathite Conservative Peter Walker, Heseltine first made his name in Parliament attacking the Labour government's transport legislation. During the Heath government he was a junior minister first in the Transport Department and then on Local Government before becoming minister for aerospace from 1972 to 1974. In opposition from 1974 to 1979, he was successively spokesman for industry and for the environment, and when the Conservatives returned to power under Margaret Thatcher in 1979 he became secretary of state for the environment.
A Career Haunting Episode
In an episode in May 1976 that has haunted his career since, he became infuriated when Labour leftwingers began singing the "Red Flag" in the Commons chamber after a key vote. Heseltine seized the ceremonial mace and swung it around his head, offering the symbol of parliamentary authority in mockery to the Labour benches. Fellow Tories were shocked and he had to apologize the next day. But from then on the nickname "Tarzan, " occasioned also by his abundant blonde mane, stuck with him.
About this time, too, Heseltine became a favorite of the Conservative Party conference, delighting party activists with an annual series of tub-thumping theatrical speeches attacking the Labour Party and extending well beyond his front-bench brief. As secretary of state for the environment he was responsible for reducing the departmental workforce and introducing the MINIS (Management Information for Ministers) system, which set specific tasks and responsibilities for civil servants.
Always a socially conscious politician, he was given specific charge of the Merseyside area after Liverpool riots in 1980. He and the city made a considerable impression on each other as he sought to counter the deprivation, which had appalled him, with inner-city development plans and new initiatives for dockland areas involving private industry.
He was forced to back away from a plan he produced as environment minister for local referenda to be held before councils could impose extra rate (local tax) increases on residents. He set his face against the "poll tax" idea which, when introduced after he had left the Cabinet, caused major political problems for the Thatcher government.
In January 1983 Michael Heseltine was made defense secretary in the hope that he would succeed in reducing manpower and budgets at that department, too. He became an enthusiastic crusader against the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a strong supporter of the stationing in Britain of cruise missiles, part of the effort later held to have pushed the Soviet Union toward arms reduction talks.
Conflict with Thatcher
A keen supporter of the developing European Community, (European Union) Heseltine argued through the autumn of 1985 that the crisis in a small British helicopter-making company, Westland, should be solved by European co-operation. Thatcher, with the support of other ministers, chose a rescue deal with the U.S. Sikorsky firm. Heseltine quit the government in consequence, storming out in the middle of a Cabinet meeting in Downing Street in protest against the prime minister's style. Another minister, Leon Brittan, later to become one of Britain's EC commissioners, was forced to resign over the leaking of a critical letter about Heseltine from the solicitor general. The affair produced a major crisis for Thatcher's government, and relations between her and Heseltine were bitter from then on.
Instead of accepting obscurity on the backbenches, Heseltine became the highest-profile politician in his party, traveling ceaselessly around the country as a popular speaker at an endless round of Conservative functions in MPs' constituencies. Offering general loyalty to the government's line but differing on certain specific issues, as in his enthusiasm for British participation in the European monetary system and for closer relations between business and government, Heseltine was able to take his Thatcherism "a la carte." He remained an ever-present threat to Thatcher as the government ran into deep political difficulties in 1989 and 1990. As alternative leader in waiting, Heseltine finally challenged Thatcher for leadership of the party (and thus prime minister). In an election limited to Conservative MPs on November 20, 1990, Heseltine received 152 votes. Thatcher received 204, but that was still four votes short of preventing a second round of balloting. Thatcher then resigned, forcing a wide-open election between Heseltine, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, and Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major. Major won and promptly named Heseltine as secretary of state for environment and local government.
Major later bestowed other titles on Heseltine: Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State, titles not held by one person since 1962. He and Major discussed his role in the government before the election, and it appears that he was rewarded for encouraging his followers to vote for Major instead of abstaining. In exchange for his loyalty, Heseltine was rewarded a new suite of offices over twice the size of Major's. Heseltine also snagged a new press nickname to go with the job—"Lion King" instead of "Tarzan.
While in office, Heseltine met with Chinese Premier Li Peng in Beijing and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. While on the trip to China, wife Anne donated medical equipment and medicine to the Beijing Children's Hospital on behalf of the British Chamber of Commerce.
In May of 1997, Heseltine announced that he would not seek the post of prime minister because of poor health, although he was widely considered a front-runner to replace John Major. His decision not to run probably spelled the end of his career at the top of politics, political analysts said.
More can be found about Heseltine in Heseltine, the Unauthorised Biography by Julian Critchley (London: 1987). His own works include The Challenge of Europe: Can Britain Win (London: 1989). □
Richard A. Smith