Michael Heseltine has always been a less of a politician, more of a
force of nature. As his eightieth birthday approaches, there is no sign
that this is changing. Once, he was a young man in a hurry. Now, he is
an…I was about to write "old", but that does not seem the appropriate
word for Hezza. Let us compromise: an older man in a hurry. The pace is a
constant. So are other factors. They include stubbornness, giganticism
and preference for instinct over intellect.
On the two major questions
which have dominated his political life, Lord Heseltine has never
changed his mind. He has always believed in economic intervention, and
in Europe. I remember a conversation with him in the early 1990s.
Referring to his cabinet colleagues, he said: "None of them know
anything about industry. So when some academic guru comes along and
tells them that on no account should government intervene in industry,
they are delighted. They don't have to do anything about a subject that
they don't understand. They do know about land. A lot of them own land.
As a result, we intervene like crazy and have a really efficient
He is still pressing for a similar approach to
industry, drawing on another of his core beliefs: localism. Here we come
to the preference for instinct and his reluctance to use a formidable
intellect to think problems through. When it comes to local government,
the UK has a cultural weakness. The dominance of London has drained the
regions of much of the vitality which would be needed to create strong,
self-confident local authorities, buoyed up by local involvement and
indeed local passion.
This year, even Birmingham – Joe Chamberlain's
city, for goodness sake – turned down the chance to have an elected
mayor. In the police commissioner elections, it seems likely that the
turn-out will lose its deposit. The idea that British regions are able
and willing to assume important economic responsibilities stretches
credulity. If large sums of money were devolved, as Lord Heseltine
recommends, much of it would end up supporting failure. In the 1960s
and 1970s, regional policy was often a means of keeping dying
industries from the knacker's yard: their overmanned employees, from the
dole queue. That is not an encouraging precedent.
Hezza would, of
course, scornfully reject its relevance. But that is because he refuses
to acknowledge the contradiction. If he were in charge, the dangers of
localism would be averted, because he would tell everyone what to do. So
he is in favour of dictatorship? Another scornful dismissal. He would
not boss everyone about. He would merely offer leadership. But before he
is swept away by his sublime self-confidence, Michael should draw on
his own experiences.
When Tony Blair came to power, there was still a
chance that the Millenium Dome could have been cancelled. But Hezza
begged the Blairites to persevere. Did Tony agree partly because he
thought he might need Michael's help to destroy the Pound? Anyway,
instead of taking the opportunity to glorify our age with a magnificent
edifice which would resonate down the centuries, we spent a billion
pounds – on a structure which looks like a dead insect and which is a
useful venue for pop concerts. That is what happens when
megalo-Heseltinism riots unchecked.
This is not the whole story.
Michael has been a very succeesful businessman, building up the
Haymarket press and a large fortune. That owed nothing to state
intervention or regional policy. It owed everything to his own
entrepreneurial powers. That is what we need now: measures which will
encourage the exercise of similar powers by younger businessmen. This
could mean infrastrucure projects. It also means pressing ahead with
welfare and educational reform.
I heard a horrifying story the other
day. A friend of mine was creating 30 jobs. He decided to reserve
fifteen of them for Brits. "Guess how many of them were still working
for me after a week"? This was clearly not going to be a
happy-ever-after story, so I halved the figure that I had first thought
of. "Three?" "Two". Although that may seem a long way from a Heseltine
in every town hall, it helps to explain why the country has so many
social problems. It also leads to another conclusion: some welfare
benefits are still too high.
Which may also apply to existing levels
of industrial support. Lord Heseltine seems to think that these amount
to £58 billion. That is real money. Is it all necessary? Perhaps the
Chancellor should ask that question, after establishing just how much
cash is being spent, and why. It would not please Hezza, for it is not
the contribution that he wished to make. But he might have found a way
to help the Chancellor to balance the books.
That apart, it is
improbable that his report will have much influence. Government does
have a vital role in industrial policy. It should establish favourable
macro-economic conditions while removing supply-side constraints
(including poor infrastructure, bad education and over-generous
welfare). Beyond that, it should take the advice of the academic guru
whom Michael derided thirty years ago: keep out of the way and let
businessmen floursh, just as the younger Hezza did.