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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: Heseltine - still a force of nature, energetic, in a hurry, and wrong

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 agricultural sector".

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.


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