6th October 2011 Articles
Council house sales. Docklands. The Thames Gateway. High Speed 1. The Jubilee Line and the Docklands Light Railway. The O2 Arena – and before you say “Dome”, if Hezza had been organising the millennium celebrations, they would doubtless be remembered as another Festival of Britain.
In the brilliance of his institutional creativity, Heseltine is matched only by Aneurin Bevan and Ernest Bevin among postwar ministers. More shaming for us on the left, he is the best social democratic institution builder of recent decades. No other minister has done more to modernise the nation’s infrastructure, to envision a better future for England’s cities, or to enfranchise hard-working families.
As I set about systematically creating academies to replace failing comprehensive schools, and planning High Speed 2 – the high-speed line from London to the Midlands, the north of England and Scotland – Michael Heseltine was an inspiration. He is standing proof that, in this deeply conservative country – and no part of it is more conservative than the Labour Party – it is possible to be bold and transformational in progressive causes.
If an entirely new city can be created on the Thames, if three million tenants can be turned sustainably into homeowners, and if a new high-speed line from London to Paris can be driven through Kent, what can’t we do to build a better future?
My dad was one of the first Camden tenants to buy his council flat. No act of the state has done more to transform his and his family’s life. It was a practical and psychological liberation, a capital asset that made so much else possible.
To my surprise and pleasure, I now find myself campaigning alongside Heseltine in favour of elected mayors for England’s provincial cities. Hezza first tried to introduce this reform under John Major. He failed, although Major now recognises that Hezza was right. Tony Blair dearly wishes that he, too, had established mayors nationwide, instead of stopping at London. Without strong, visible, democratic leadership, our cities will never flourish. It is time to sweep away the now-dysfunctional 19th-century municipalities and to create anew.
Even where Hezza failed, he was usually right. He was right to oppose the poll tax, right to highlight the social crisis after the Toxteth riots, right in the Westland crisis – which precipitated his resignation from Thatcher’s cabinet – to campaign for strong domestic engineering companies, rather than shipping helicopter and hi-tech production abroad.
Then there is Hezza as Tarzan. Only Tony Blair and, perhaps, Boris Johnson rank alongside him as modern political showmen, fundamentally creative in the exercise of democratic arts. As G K Chesterton wrote: “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” But it’s a fair bet that, a century hence, there will be a few statues of Michael Heseltine.