This is the shortest political memoir I have ever been sent for review. It is a marvel of concision: 27 years in the Commons set down in only 168 pages. Can any Spectator reader point to a briefer example of the genre?
Yet I confess that I opened Confessions of a Eurosceptic with a degree of trepidation. David Heathcoat-Amory’s style owes nothing to that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He writes with patrician flatness. It would not occur to him to ingratiate himself with his readers by purporting to tell us everything about his inner life. Not that he dodges deep emotion: the four pages in which he recounts the suicide of his son, Matthew, are harrowing.
In his account of the various political transactions in which he has been concerned, especially the defence of our democracy against the European Union, the facts are allowed to speak for themselves. This makes for a much more readable book than might have been expected. One reason for its brevity is that its author has no time for the bogus pieties which make so many politicians sound so dull and untrustworthy.
I finished it at a sitting, while my wife was out at some socialistic caucus. It begins with two paragraphs of family history:
I come from a family of West Country textile manufacturers, descended from John Heathcoat, the son of a farmer who in 1808 invented a machine for making lace … my uncle Derry was MP for Tiverton and was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Harold Macmillan.
Any other writer would have told us more about his uncle. Heathcoat-Amory just remarks, with a gleam of humour, that after he entered the House in 1983 as Member for Wells, Margaret Thatcher had ‘a slightly disconcerting habit of calling me “Derry”… I eventually corrected her, and she then stopped calling me anything at all’.
Mrs Thatcher learned his name when she offered him junior ministerial office at the Department of the Environment, which in turn gave Heathcoat-Amory his first experience of European government. He went to Brussels to negotiate various environmental directives: ‘It was all very private and technical, and I could see that being above nations also meant being above democracy.’ How lucid he is about Europe. In a few words he tells us almost all we need to know. He says of the German politicians he first got to know as a Foreign Office minister in the 1990s: ‘They had a weakness for rules, however unrealistic or unenforceable.’ That remains the German position in 2012: to attempt to enforce unenforceable rules.
Heathcoat-Amory does not observe with the benefit of hindsight that the euro would be a disaster. He realised this before it was launched, and in the summer of 1996 resigned from the Treasury, where he was Paymaster General, in protest at John Major’s ‘equivocation’ on the vital question of whether or not Britain was going to join. I was in Germany at the time, watching in horror as Helmut Kohl drove through the abolition of the German mark, in clear defiance of the German people’s wishes. So far as I recall, there was not a single politician in Germany who resigned in protest at this act of folly.
One of the paradoxes of Heathcoat-Amory’s career is that while he strove with noble tenacity to preserve our democratic forms of government, he did not always have a very happy touch in dealing with the people. At an early stage in his ministerial career, he was ‘shocked to be loudly booed’ by members of the RSPCA when he resisted a scheme for the compulsory registration of dogs. Later he was booed by some Tories in Wells for supporting Michael Portillo. Worst of all, despite having the lowest expenses claims of any MP in Somerset, in 2009 he was held up to public ridicule and contempt for having over the years claimed a total of £388 for getting a man in the village who helped with the garden to bring in ‘manure from his stable and spread it on the flower beds’.
In 2010 he narrowly lost Wells to Tessa Munt, a Liberal Democrat who ‘put out some vicious literature about my expenses claims’. Munt afterwards got into difficulties about her council tax: she had claimed the single-person discount but according to the electoral register there were four men in her house. She denied wrongdoing but repaid the disputed sum.
David Heathcoat-Amory is lost to the Commons, but his book explains with wonderful clarity why so many Tories now want David Cameron to throw off managerial caution and go for an à la carte Europe.