HESELTINE, Michael (b.1933).



31 March 1966 - 28 February 1974
28 February 1974 - 7 June 2001


Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine was born in Swansea on 21 March 1933. He was educated at Shewsbury School and Pembroke College, Oxford. At 18 he joined the Conservative party. He married Anne Harding Williams in 1962.

After leaving Oxford, Hesletine became a commissioned officer in the Welsh Guards. He afterwards pursued a career in the media, becoming a television interviewer from 1960 to 1964 and the chairman of the Haymarket Press in 1964. In his path to Parliament he unsuccessfully contested Gower in 1959 and Coventry North in 1964. He was elected at Tavistock in 1966, which he held until 1974 when he was elected for Henley. He retained the seat until he was made a life peer as Baron Heseltine of Thenford in 2001.

After his first year in the House he joined the front bench. He served in the Department of Transport, as Junior Minister at the Department of Environment and as Minister for Aerospace and Shipping. In opposition he was spokesman on Industry (1974-76) and the environment (1976-79). When the Conservatives returned to government he became the Secretary of State for the Environment (1979-83) and for Defence (1983-86), resigning from the latter post as a result of the Westland affair, and subsequently challenging Margaret Thatcher to a contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party which led to her resignation in 1990. Under John Major,  he returned to the cabinet as Secretary of State for the Environment (1990-92), President of the Board of Trade, and between 1995 and 1997 First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister.  

Transcript of clip

[On entering Parliament for the first time] "Talk of the new boy at school. … I’d been a new boy at school time and again, and I remember the loneliness, you’re there, suddenly your parents have gone, the friendly teacher or whoever it  is, who said now you’ll be alright, there you are in a room, alone, What do I do? Usually, someone tells you what to do. There’s a bell for tea, there’s prep, there’s a sports game, whatever it is, something, somebody tells you what to do. But in Parliament – I remember vividly – you arrive and there you are, you’re on your own. So fine, after all, you’ve been elected, you’re a mature person, you’ve got to find your way, but I do remember the sense of, golly, what do I do now? Because it’s up to you. There’s no training path, there’s no induction course, you’re on your own."

Summary of interview

Early life. Born in Swansea 1933 [00.25] V early days in Wales. On outbreak of war father –who was in Territorial Army –moved a lot. Went to boarding school in N. Ireland, then various other schools. From age of 6 on the move although Swansea remained their permanent home [01.55]. [02.05] Commercial middle class background, no inherited wealth but comfortable. Father was a Lt Colonel by end of war. He was a structural engineer (started at age of 15). [03.05] There was no politics at home. Sure his parents voted conservative (father was only man in his mess to vote Conservative in 1945 election). [04.00] Memories of war.  Heard the Chamberlain speech announcing war on the radio and was in Piccadilly in London for first time coinciding with VJ night. [05.11] First involvement in politics in school debating society at Shrewsbury. First proper step was in Swansea in 1951 General Election before going to Oxford. Saw hoarding announcing Tory candidate –crossed the road on impulse and offered to help; can’t remember the details of his thinking at the time. Spent next 10 days recruiting for party. [06.30] First day at Oxford joined Oxford Union, the University Conservative Association and City of Oxford Conservative Association  -the die was cast in October 1951 –done with a longer term view. [08.00] Enjoyed politics but can’t remember formative experiences. [08.25] Enjoyed public speaking  from school and got training in public speaking at Oxford with a friend, Julian Critchley, run by Conservative Association; Stella Gatehouse taught them rudiments of public speaking. They practiced with a tape machine [10.00] and by speaking for a minute without pausing-fun. Advice to people to speak confidently.  [11.30] Blue Ribbon Club –Helped found it because the election process for Oxford University Conservative Association via the Oxford University Carlton Club was too elitist -a “democratic deficit”. Blue Ribbon Club was associated with Commonwealth, Europe and America; the debate over Europe was taking place even then, and he was involved in it. A believer in reform of a party from within. Quotes Disraeli “damn your politics, stick to your party”. –contrast David Owen and his colleagues with Tony Blair. [15.40] All parties are coalitions, varying their approach and policies. His views are where they were in the 1950s and 60s. His beliefs have become even more realistic and engrained in the real world today than in those days –like Geoffrey Howe and Douglas Hurd. [16.52]  Oxford Union –spent a lot of time there as his ‘base”. Made speeches, stood for election, rose up the ladder –Librarian, Treasurer. [17.52] Formative moment because the union was in financial trouble; classic question –do you cut back or go for wider, better services and rely on increased revenue. He led reformist, expansionist approach –it worked, with cheap meals, TV and nightclub. Massive increase in membership [19.00] secured the post of President over competition from Liberal-leaning candidates. He got the support of Labour-leaning people like Jeremy Isaacs and Tony Howard to keep Liberals out [20.35]  Both became lifelong friends.  Presidency was one of most privileged experiences in his life. [21.20] After Oxford had articles with Accountancy firm (Peats)–recruited at double the rate for articled clerks because they were trying to attract graduates. Got £7 per week. Had £1000 and decided to go into business with someone who had a similar amount. Bought a Boarding House sold it for double the price -was in business from then on [23.20].  Business and politics never pulled in opposite directions –wanted financial independence to pursue political career [24.00]; didn’t get involved much in politics after Oxford until this was achieved. [24.25] Secured candidacy for Gower constituency at 1959 General Election –wasn’t going to win but dipped toe in water –loved it, good at it. 1964 Election got a marginal seat (Coventry North)–misjudged the issue. Tories did badly. Didn’t win but v shortly afterwards got selected for safe Tory seat of Tavistock –on a course towards Parliament –that was where his heart lay. [26.20]   Selection process.  Had good credentials –attractive wife, family, self employed, fluent. Did well usually. It changed when his Tavistock seat was redistributed after 1970 and he had to find another. By then he was a national politician –having a seat in West Country was too much of a strain. Sought a seat elsewhere. Describes how selection process got much tougher  [29.00]. Balancing needs of constituency and of holding office [30.00]. Hoped he served his constituency well but was first and foremost a career/national politician. Constituents knew he was working hard for the country –sophisticated Home Counties seat (Henley). [32.00] Used to tow caravan around Tavistock constituency as mobile surgery –terrible mistake. [33.50] Level of pay on getting into Parliament v. low. Many members had independent means or a career income. Wouldn’t contemplate family living on MP’s low income. [34.35] Describes career in property and then publishing with a friend from Oxford. Always intended to create long-term financial base in publishing. [36.30] Business experience was invaluable/fundamental in political career –accountancy, managing a business, dealing with creditors, judgement, costs etc, all invaluable in dealing with Govnt departments. Doesn’t feel Parliament should consist only of businesspeople –needs a broad range. [39.00] First impressions of entering Parliament – cf “new boy at school”. Usually someone tells you what to do –but not in Parliament –it’s up to you with no induction course. Contemporaries included Jill Knight, David Howell, John Nott. Only 11 new Tories in 1966. –General Election defeat was an opportunity for young incomers. Peter Walker was a mentor –approached him to help him; became part of his team despite having been originally suspicious of him. [44.25] Ted Heath was outstanding figure of a Tory party going through social change to broaden its base. Heath had come from humble background. [45.55] Time spent in Chamber, but quickly became a specialist e.g. in Committee rooms and active on campaigns and issues like Castle’s Transport Bill. [48.00] Parliament at the time had demanding hours four days a week (but not in the mornings). Remembers being surrounded by piles of papers. [49.40] Family pay a price. They had rented house in country and nice house in London. Burden of work, building a profitable business, climbing the ladder. [51.30] Not much of a resource available within parliament to support his work –some help from Central Office and a Secretary and Research assistant within his company, Haymarket. [53.10] Trench warfare of parliamentary life –he learned how to do it from Peter Walker. Describes how he fixed a tour of West Country for Walker –then asked by him to work on fighting Barbara Castle’s Transport Bill. [55.29] Parliamentary opposition was about denying the Government time –filibustering –use any device to deny them time eg keep Bills in Committee to clog up machine. Nowadays everything is timetabled and guillotined. [57.05] Being in Office is totally different. You have to deal with the opposition tactics. Great fan of the British Civil Service if well instructed and led –not all Ministers can do this well.[58.35] If you/re not careful the Civil Service will run you –works well for some Ministers; can be a check on errant ministers by slowing things down. Sir Humphrey is true. [1.01.25] On first day in office, do something that people notice –make an impact. Tells story of Permanent Secretary and how you need to avoid being buried by files of paper–gave his Permanent Secretary list of priorities on the back of an envelope in a restaurant. [1.03.20] Apocryphal story of sketching his career out on an envelope at Oxford –uncharacteristic of him.[1.05.10] Choice of positions he’s held –has been lucky. Always wanted to get into Trade and Industry –Transport was a stepping stone.  Talks about turning a position down. Thatcher was suspicious of his views (there were clashes eg over her wanting to let British Leyland go bust) and moved him to Environment –he was disappointed. Not kindred spirits.  1979 Election –he was a forefront of campaign, Offered Energy –didn’t want to do it so took Environment. His hobbies are in the environment sector. [1.10.00] Talks about his record at Environment. Promoted to Defence in 1983 –huge industrial element eg Procurement. Tells story of being offered Home Secretary by John Major –remembered a conversation with Ian Macleod –who warned him it was the graveyard of politics. So turned Major down –slightly regretted it later. Took on Environment again. Talks about difficulties of Home Office. [1.13.30] Thatcher period. She presided over good govnt in 1979 –it was Ted Heath’s govnt given a second chance. A lot of unity and experience.   Compares it with Blair and the Coalition –neither of which had experience of Government to draw upon. [1.15.25] Not true that Thatcher’s was the first Government to be stamped by personality –Churchill, MacMillan etc. Margaret didn’t dominate 1979 Cabinet –they were big people. [1.16.55] Personal relationship with Thatcher –colleagues not friends; from early days he was on list of people to be sacked from Shadow Cabinet –but became unsackable on the day by circumstance; then made a big Party Conference speech.  In 1979 he played key role in Right-to-buy campaign. Margaret let him run his department. Backed him on the big issues eg Urban Development Corporations. Perfectly acceptable relationship as a colleague. Promoted to “hot seat” of Defence in battle against CND. [1.21.20] It all went wrong over Europe. Westland was the catalyst, not the reason. Annual Defence Review made reference to European cooperation which Thatcher picked up –it was a preoccupation for her.  He had promoted Eurofighter and European Space Agency –he had a track record on Europe, whilst her heart was not in it.  [1.24.10] Refers to Westland fall-out; she had a view which was not shared by her colleagues. She cancelled a meeting where he would have put his case –so he resigned. [1.24.50] Resignation. Feels it could have been handled differently and it could have been defused.  All Prime Ministers start off with a mixed Cabinet. Over time you choose the ones most sympathetic to you [1.27.15] PMs get more powerful and harder to withstand-weakening Cabinet Government. [1.28.20] Regrets at not attaining the post of PM. Got close as Deputy PM under Major. Reflects on the hardships of the PM role –has got very much harder with centralization of responsibility and 24/7 News demands. [1.30.05] Denies ever having worked on his image. Took pains with Conference speeches to make an impact. Refers to most impressive speech he made at Party Conference in 1981 about Race Relations. [1.31.05] Describes the Mace Incident in the House of Commons -not prepared. Provoked by behaviour of Labour Backbenchers –picked up the Mace and offered it to them. Two ways of seeing it –dervish-like or heroic. Hasn’t done him any harm!  [1.33.03] Explains how he came to be seen wearing a camouflage jacket –Sod’s Law. Was in charge of facilitating arrival of American weapons at Greenham Common and then at Molesworth. Describes operation to build a perimeter fence overnight-based it on Mulberry Harbour planning. In the morning it was raining and someone put a flak jacket over his shoulders –the only part of the story that got covered by the Press [1.36.52] Talks about his nickname -Tarzan.  Nicknames are important. Talks about Spitting Image caricature –a wild, mad troublemaker in Cabinet-wonderful and endearing. Did him good. [1.38.54] On moving into the House of Lords. Doesn’t work there. Peerage came in recognition of contributions. Not by nature a spectator –he would have tried to become part of the political process there. Finds himself instead working for Dept of BIS –not planned, invited by PM to work on reports. [1.41.00] Reflections on British system –people will suss you out.  You bring yourself to the task. Has spent time talking to Black candidates about how to make progress in Conservative Party –don’t present yourself as a token of ethnicity, be like everybody else. [1.42.42] Interview ends