A Political Suicide: The Conservatives’ Voyage into the Wilderness, by Norman Fowler
To write a political memoir is difficult. Too bland, too afraid to be rude about former colleagues, you risk boring the general reader while disappointing your publisher. Too critical, you lose the few friends among your former colleagues you have left, while appearing spiteful and embittered to the general reader. We can all think of examples of ex-ministers in both categories. Nigel Lawson is one of the few among late-20th-century politicians who have avoided both Pooh-traps and produced a memoir which is near to being required reading for the interested amateur.
Norman Fowler is no Nigel Lawson. This reviewer never knew him as more than a passing acquaintance, even when he was a colleague in the dog days of the last Tory government and briefly in the early days in opposition after 1997. He has had a long and distinguished career as a minister and as a servant of the Conservative party. He served in the Thatcher cabinet both at Transport and as Health and Social Services Secretary, and as party chairman after the 1992 election. He is the man who coined the phrase that he was resigning ‘to spend more time with my family’. He is one of the few who, in uttering it, were telling the truth. He was generally well-liked, competent, loyal, middle-of-the-road, quiet, unflashy. It is difficult to imagine that he ever harboured ambitions beyond the cabinet. Indeed, at one point in this book, he confesses that once he had hoped to be home secretary. It probably did him no harm that he had been at Cambridge with so many of those who came to grace both the Thatcher and Major cabinets. No wonder prime ministers and party leaders repeatedly sought his services. He was that rare but essential commodity, a safe pair of hands. As he says, Margaret Thatcher saw him as a good defender.
The book is consistent with the man. As you would expect from a former Times journalist, the prose is workmanlike and his account of the events he describes, clear. He eschews gossip. There is a whiff of truth in his self-description as a ‘media Jeeves for the politically-oppressed’.
At one level, it sounds worthy and ever so slightly dull. However, for those interested in politics, the book is more than that. He uses his closeness to events for over 30 years to draw conclusions about the dynamics of governments, both Conservative and Labour. He understands what happens when an administration ‘runs out of steam’ as he puts it. Moreover, time and again his judgment of people and events rings true. For instance, he is justifiably kind to John Major, whose decency and doggedness and unrecognised achievements he underlines. As a result, his criticisms seem fair and could not give offence even to the most thin-skinned of former prime ministers.
He is also good on Margaret Thatcher. He is surely right when he says that she stayed too long and that she came to rely too much on a gang of personal advisers. The latter point is one Christopher Foster makes in his book, British Government in Crisis. Blair’s utter destruction of proper government process would have been more difficult had our greatest postwar prime minister not started the job for him. (Incidentally, now that members of the shadow cabinet are treated like undergraduates and are issued with Summer Reading Lists, it is surprising that, as they prepare for government, they have not been asked to read Foster’s book.)
The most amusing page for this reviewer in Fowler’s book is a magisterial wigging he delivers to a former colleague, one Cranborne. This is the sort of judgment that is best delivered by one who is only partially in possession of the facts.
More importantly, the book implicitly raises the question that concerns every politician, however prominent. As Fowler points out, electorates don’t vote for divided parties. Some questions, to some politicians, are more important than party unity. Does cleaving to your principles become self-defeating, depriving your party of the chance of office and letting in something worse, or are some questions so important that party comes second? To many, Europe is one of those questions. For the most honourable of reasons, Norman Fowler is a party man. For others, it is not always so straightforward.