Historical Oracle Meets...Lord Norman Tebbit, Former Secretary of State
Updated: Feb 26
My interview with Lord Tebbit didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts.
Working in the Palace of Westminster for some of the week, I was able to meet Norman in London. I just had to walk from my desk, up into Central Lobby and then across into the Lords Lobby. We had a room booked and I just had to wait to be picked up. Simple.
I got there characteristically early and waited. As the clocked ticked closer, Lord Tebbit came marching out one of the hallways into the Lords. However, he didn’t notice me and, to my horror, walked straight out of the lobby through Central Lobby into the Commons.
What ensued was me chasing him across the mother of parliaments shouting “Lord Tebbit!” gradually louder and louder. It felt like a scene that may one day feature as a background shot to the inevitable Brexit film.
Anyway, I eventually managed to catch up with him and we found our way through the maze of the Palace of Westminster to the interview room and I finally got to start discussing the life of a former fighter and airline pilot, Conservative MP, Secretary of State and author.
Lord Tebbit and his wife Margaret bought a holiday home near Holne in 1982. A case of ‘love at first sight’, he explained.
“[Dartmoor] is one of the nicest parts of England. Coming over the Moor everyday – it is different. The sky is different. We adored it.
‘The intention was it would be in the family for all of us and continue in the family after me and my wife were gone. And the dogs loved it too!”
There are many things that Lord Tebbit is known for but there are two in particular that people always remember: the first was him and his wife being one of the ones caught up in the 1984 Brighton Bombing – where the hotel of the Conservative Party Conference was attacked. The second is utter and total devotion to the care of his wife who was paralysed that day.
“After we were injured, we did continue to try to use [the house] and I got a little JCB and made paths through the woods for my wife to go in her wheelchair. She was able to drive her wheelchair along the paths.
‘Sometimes I would be left at home doing some office work or perhaps in the garden and the dogs would go with her.
‘Sometimes I would find my big yellow Labrador Ben up my side telling me ‘Master – she’s done it again. She’s gone off the path and got stuck!’ And Ben would take me to wherever she was!”
The house didn’t work for Norman and Margaret after her injury and had to eventually sell up their home on the River Lemon, something he continues to regret having to do.
Norman was born in 1931 near Enfield in North London. Norman’s dad had served in the First World War at the Battle of the Somme.
“Although I didn’t realise it until later years, it actually did terrible damage to [him]…Fortunately my mother was a tough woman who kept us organised.”
Having been born in the early 30s, Norman’s formative years coincided with the Second World War. I asked how that was and got an answer that continues to be characteristic of his generation:
“Of course we got bombed. Everybody did. The houses on the opposite side of the road were destroyed and that. But the fact that you were in an air raid shelter all night was not an excuse to be late with your homework!”
Norman was sent with his older brother to Cardiff when the bombings started to intensify.
“After a while, we were being bombed down there so we just thought that ‘a family that gets bombed together, stays together!’ so we just came back home to be bombed together!”
At the end of the war, at the tender age of just 16, Norman joined the Financial Times.
“I was put where all young journalists were put in those days: The Prices Room. We did the back page with the stock exchange prices and calculated the stock market indices. There was extraordinary trust that was put in young people in those days.
“The Markets Editor…came into the office one day and I was the only person there, so he picked on me: ‘Oh Tebbit’, he said, ‘you would have noticed that the gold share index is really a bit of a nonsense.’ ‘Oh yes sir’, I said.
‘Many companies that were in the index before the war’, he said, ‘are now out of business. Their reserves are ended and they have gone out of business. So it’s not representative. Would you recast it?’
‘And there I was about 17 by then recasting one of the Financial Times’ share indices!”
Norman didn’t have time to get his feet under the table before he was called up to do his National Service in 1949. He trained as a pilot, becoming a commissioned officer in the Royal Auxiliary Airforce.
In the early 1950s, Norman found himself in quite a serious crash while flying a Meteor-8 plane, but that didn’t stop him explaining it with his characteristic humour.
“Mrs May may have run around in a corn field – I finished up in a burning airplane setting light to a corn field!
‘[During takeoff] there was a hump at the end of the runway and, as you come over the hump, there was very little runway left.
‘I went across the grass, across the road, with a bellytank full of fuel. It caught fire with 600 rounds of ammunition behind me – which was an uncomfortable feeling.
‘I had to literally break the base of the canopy to get out and in the process of that, I did myself a bit more harm.”
Norman recalled how he would run into one of his commanding officers the next day in a bar and some of Norman’s colleagues mentioned how these accidents were happening far too frequently.
The officer replied: “What you’ve got to understand is that these aircraft are expendable.”
Norman would reply: “Can I quote you at my board of inquiry, sir?”
“No – but would you like a drink?”
Norman returned to normal working life at a publishers but he, in his words, “got bored with it” and so decided to join BOAC as an airline pilot.
At this point the interview we moved on to discussing the profession that gained Lord Tebbit his notoriety – his life in politics. I started by asking when he first fell in love with this profession.
“I stood as the candidate in my grammar school election in 1945 – and it was the only election I have ever lost!”
In the 1960s, Norman was dismayed at the direction in which the Conservative Party was heading and wrote to Iain Macleod – one of the Party’s most revered politicians – saying:
“This is what’s going wrong and this is what needs to be done to put it right. Why don’t we just get on with it?”
‘I got a letter back saying: ‘If you know the answers to these questions, why don’t you come and help us?’ I turned to my wife and said: ‘I bloody well will then!’ About 5 or 6 years later, I was in the House of Commons!”
Norman described first getting elected as a ‘bit of an accident’. He was originally selected as the candidate for Islington during the run up to the 1970 election and was expected to put on a good show there before being given a safe Tory seat to contest.
However, the prospective Conservative candidate for Epping (the wartime seat of Winston Churchill) had got himself into a bit of trouble and decided not to stand. Having come from that area of the country, Norman was chosen to replace him.
“[After winning the seat] I woke up in bed next to my wife in an hotel in Epping and said ‘Oh Christ! What have I done now?’
‘What I had done is lose a good well-paid job and got an unsafe job at half the salary!”
Lord Tebbit described how he took some time to get settled in and – like me almost 50 years later – found himself getting lost in the Palace of Westminster all the time.
He was introduced around and went on to meet Airey Neave.
“This guy walked out of Colditz. He walked out of one of the most secure prisons in Germany. Enormous courage.
‘He asked me one day who I thought should replace Heath? I said I wasn’t impressed with any of the contenders. He then asked how well I knew a lady called Margaret Thatcher? I said I didn’t. He just finished ‘Well, you ought to.’
‘I then joined Airey’s little group and we were dubbed ‘The Gang of Four’ after Madam Mao’s Gang of Four!”
Thatcher went on to defeat Edward Heath and become the first female leader of the Conservative Party before becoming the first female Prime Minister.
In 1981, Norman became an under-secretary in the Ministry of Trade. He described to me how he went about introducing policy ideas to the Civil Service:
“It is very difficult to be laughing and angry at the same time. If you get people to laugh, you can introduce an idea that they would reject normally. I managed to persuade my civil servants that I wasn’t barmy, I was just thinking in a different way!”
In the September 1981 Cabinet reshuffle, Thatcher appointed Tebbit as Employment Secretary. This was seen as a shift to a 'tougher' approach to the trade unions than had been the case under Tebbit's predecessor, James Prior.
Tebbit introduced the Employment Act 1982 which raised the level of compensation for those unfairly dismissed from a closed shop and prohibited closed shops unless 80% of relevant workers approved the arrangement in periodic ballots.
"[It was my] greatest achievement in Government."
In the aftermath of the 1981 riots in Handsworth and Brixton, Tebbit responded to a suggestion by the Young Conservative National Chairman, Iain Picton that rioting was the natural reaction to unemployment:
At the time he said: “I grew up in the 30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.”
As a result, Tebbit is often misquoted as having directly told the unemployed to "get on your bike", and he was popularly referred to as 'Onyerbike' for some considerable time afterwards.
Not long after this, Norman was involved in the event that has since completely changed and defined his life: the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Bright during the Conservative Party Conference.
Knowing that his wife was paralysed, I approached this question delicately but when I asked what he remembered of the day, I was greeted by the classic Tebbit humour:
“I had quite a good day actually!
‘I remember sitting on a sofa in one of the landings of the hotel talking to a BBC correspondent and thinking ‘Christ, I better get to bed.’
‘I remember being awoken by a crash and a bang and watching the ceiling come down. It wasn’t the first ceiling I have seen come down!
‘Then there was total darkness. We were caught up under the rubble but my wife was near enough that I could reach out and grab her hand. We were both quite badly injured and I just said ‘There’s no point in shouting. No one will hear us. When they get near, then we’ll shout.
‘Of course, the hero on that night was Fred Bishop who was in charge of the lead fire engine. They bombed up the coast road and ran into what they thought was sea mist but was actually dust from the hotel.
‘Fred stopped the boys and said ‘You know the rules boys – we can’t go in there if that was a bomb. But I think it was a gas explosion, don’t you?’”
Lord Tebbit described how a doctor used a nearby crane to be hitched on to and then lowered down to help the survivors. “They were magnificent.”
Norman’s wife Margaret was paralysed in the bombing and he would dedicate the rest of his life to her care. He made a promise to his wife and left front-line politics and returned to the backbenches after helping Thatcher win the 1987 Election in his role as Chairman of the Conservative Party.
Thatcher offered him a prominent role in the cabinet but he declined: “When you’re caught between two women, it’s best to side with the one you live with rather than the one you work for!”
When Thatcher resigned in 1990, Norman was tipped to challenge Heseltine but decided against it: “It could have been very different. I am a member of that club of ex-future Prime Ministers.”
His former seat of Chingford was aggregated in 1997 with Woodford Green in boundary changes and was held for the Conservative Party by his successor and protégé Iain Duncan Smith. Tebbit famously said: "If you think I'm right-wing, you should meet this guy".
Since being in the House of Lords, his life hasn’t been dominated by politics, however. He would go on to write a cookery book called ‘The Game Cook’ which ended-up being a mini-sensation.
“It sold very well. The genesis of the book was a conversation I had with my then butcher when I said to him one day: ‘why on earth do people pay more for a rubber-boned chicken than a good honest pheasant?’
‘And he said ‘well, they are worried they don’t know how to cook a pheasant and they’ll flunk it’. So I said ‘Well, I better write a book then!’”
Norman hired West Country artist Debby Mason to do the illustrations – a friendship which had started when he was still living on Dartmoor.
“She used to do a couple days in the Ashburton base of the Devon Guild of Artists.”
Despite the current state of flux in politics, Norman, like Big Ben or the Palace of Westminster, continues to be what feels like an omnipresent anchor in British politics.
Described as “semi-housetrained pole cat”, “Maggie’s enforcer” and the “skinhead of Chingford”, I shall just know him as a bloody interesting man!