‘In Conversation with Michael Heseltine’, St George’s Hall, 17 June 2014
The idea of inviting a leading Conservative politician to Liverpool for a friendly public chat about his life and career might well seem mad and possibly even dangerous. But as we all know Michael Heseltine’s relationship with the city is rather different. Even those who dislike his party and most of his political opinions are likely to have respect for the genuine interest he’s shown in Liverpool over the last 30 years, and for his prominent role in rescuing parts of the city from dereliction and decay. True, there were a handful of demonstrators outside St George’s Hall, but their barracking was noticeably low-key and they happily engaged in lighthearted banter with those arriving for the event.
Interviewer Mike Neary had researched his subject well and his questions led Heseltine through his Swansea childhood, his schooldays, Oxford, his business career and his time in government. He also spoke at length about his close involvement with Liverpool. He remembered arriving in the city for the first time in the middle of a wartime air raid, when as a child he took a boat to Northern Ireland to join his father who was stationed there.
Heseltine, who’s now eighty one, knows how to work an audience and in his prime was a star turn at Conservative party conferences. The old magic was clearly still there and his dry wit and fund of memorable anecdotes drew a warm response from the large crowd. Of course it helps that he’s a reminder of a time when politicians were still recognisably human. He recalled how John Smith (the late Labour leader) would wink at him across the House of Commons chamber when Heseltine was lambasting his policies, and how there was ‘not a word of bitterness’ between himself, John Major and Douglas Hurd when they contested the Conservative party leadership.
The conversation generally steered away from political controversy, but when Heseltine commented that a record number of people now had jobs in Britain Mike Neary not unreasonably suggested some would argue too many jobs today are part-time or temporary, offering little financial security. Heseltine dismissed this view as ‘absolute crap’, asserting that many people wanted part-time jobs. A lot of the audience were no doubt itching for the argument to be taken further, but it wasn’t that kind of occasion and the prevailing atmosphere of good-humoured reminiscence was soon restored.
There was a Desert Island Discs element to the evening, with live performances of several pieces of music selected by Heseltine. Four members of the Royal Liverpool Youth Orchestra played Some Enchanted Evening (chosen because it reminded Heseltine of meeting his wife at a Notting Hill party over 50 years ago), and the Loose Moose String Band sang Teddy Bear’s Picnic (his father’s favourite song).
If Heseltine came across as affable, civilised and impressively astute, it was also very apparent just how different his life has been from that experienced by the great majority of British people. Born into a comfortably off family, it was as if he immediately stepped onto a familiar conveyor belt. Education at one of the country’s top independent schools (Shrewsbury) was followed by Oxford. He then quickly went into business with friends who like him had a fair bit of spare cash available to get them started. Soon he was a millionaire, and an MP to boot. Cabinet posts followed, and having come within a whisker of replacing Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister he was elevated to the House of Lords. He deserves credit for his determination to address Liverpool’s problems in the 1980s, and for projects such as the Garden Festival and the renovation of the Albert Dock. But it’s not surprising that when he looked for solutions to Liverpool’s malaise he turned to the movers and shakers he felt most at ease with: wealthy business leaders whose desire to do social good was often outweighed by the quest for profit. The regeneration of Liverpool (which Heseltine did much to initiate) has been remarkable to behold, but thirty years on it’s continuing to pass many people and many parts of the city by.