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The great British survivor

Lord Tebbit outside the Grand Hotel in Brighton (PA)

In 1984 the IRA tried to end Norman Tebbit’s career by blowing him up at the Tory conference in Brighton. They succeeded in injuring him and condemning his wife, Margaret, to 30 years of suffering in a wheelchair, an ordeal that continues to this day. Yet, of all the ministers who were targeted that day, Lord Tebbit is the only one who still commands influence in public life.

Ironically, the Brighton bomb prolonged the career of The Last Thatcherite. His participation in the House of Lords is so vigorous, and his articles in the media so trenchant, partly because he needs something to take his mind off the burden of looking after his wife, who requires round-the-clock care. He is a living reproach – a two-fingered salute – to the terrorists who failed to murder him, whose colleagues now sit smugly in the government of Northern Ireland. They must wish he would go away.

Photographs of Lord Tebbit, just about to turn 84, are misleading: they make him look much more frail than he is in person. He’s proof that doctors are on to something when they say that being whippet-thin adds years to your life expectancy. When we meet, he arrives on foot, carrying his own bag, looking forward to a day of parliamentary meetings at which he will argue his case for a whippet-thin public sector, unshackled from Brussels, with the confidence that comes from knowing that his once controversial views have been vindicated by events.

But we’re not meeting to talk about politics – not primarily. It’s Lent, a season for forgiveness both in the Catholic Church and the Church of England. The former chairman of the Conservative Party describes himself as a non-communicant Anglican “fellow-traveller”. He regularly attends evensong at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds.

He is far more committed to his church-going than many Christians who sign up to the whole Creed, but spend Sunday in front of the telly. I wanted to ask him: how does he cope with the churches’ often glib references to forgiveness and turning the other cheek when the crimes committed against him and his wife were so atrocious?

Patrick McGee, the IRA terrorist who planted the Brighton bomb, released from prison in 1999, has expressed “remorse” at the loss of innocent life; he’s also anxious that his victims should “understand a bit better what motivated me and people like me”. Weasel words, you might think. Lord Tebbit certainly does.

“I was recently interviewed by RTÉ, and it was put to me that McGee, the creature that actually planted the bomb, had said he was sorry for the harm he had done, so shouldn’t I forgive him? Well, he can say he’s ‘sorry’, as if he’s bumped into someone on the escalator – but he hasn’t repented because he would know it meant going to the authorities and telling them all he knew of the identities of those who commissioned the act. He was the monkey. Let him tell us about the organ-grinders.

“But he’s declined to do that. He is like someone who throws a brick through your window. He can say ‘sorry, mate’, but unless he pays for it to be replaced you don’t tend to think he’s terribly sorry.”

Lord Tebbit doesn’t raise his voice; there’s not even a flicker of anger in his eyes, these days magnified by gold-rimmed glasses.

That isn’t to say he isn’t angry, but he doesn’t show it because – I suspect – he’s not prepared to give unrepentant terrorists that satisfaction. “Margaret has coped with it in much the same way,” he says. “She prefers to get on with life rather than get into the metaphysics and moralities of the issue. It happened.”

Norman and Margaret Tebbit belong to a generation that dislikes the public display of private distress. “We’ve become too inclined to hang out our emotions like washing on the line. People go around emoting all over the place, to the point where it’s difficult to know whether there’s sincere feeling about the exhibition,” he says.

One of his responses to his experience was to write a children’s book, Ben’s Story, about a boy in a wheelchair who talks to his dog. It was published last year, and although there hasn’t been much about it
in the media, the response from readers on Amazon has been rapturous.

Actions speak louder than words for Lord Tebbit – and the example he gives might surprise those who think of him as the hammer of the public sector, and remember his reputation as a demanding boss as secretary of state for employment (1981-3) and trade and industry (1983-5).

More than anything else, he recalls the kindness of civil servants after his life was nearly destroyed. “The sheer pleasure of working with those wonderful people has never left me,” he says. “When I lifted my head from my hospital bed at Stoke Mandeville, there was my private office. One of them said to me with a smile: ‘I didn’t realise when I took this job that it would involve tying your shoelaces.’ They would sit reading poetry to my wife.”

The generosity of his comments doesn’t surprise me. For five years I had the privilege of commissioning articles from him when I ran Telegraph Blogs. Alone among our 30-odd bloggers, he took the trouble to read the comments “below the line”, some of them extremely rude. He was quick to seize on good points, thanking people for taking the trouble to contribute; he would poke gentle fun at pub bores and – just occasionally – deliver a kick in the shins to Left-wing trolls.

His personal style is far more relaxed than that of another great survivor from the Thatcher years, the comically haughty Michael Heseltine. I remember a dinner a few years ago with Norman Tebbit and some of our younger writers, who naturally addressed him as “Lord Tebbit”. “Oh, I think we bloggers should be on first-name terms, don’t you?” he said.

For a man whose taunts at the Labour benches still smart after 30 years, he has an unexpected regard for the “decent” socialism of the 1945 government, whose principles he feels were betrayed by hard-Left ideologues, careerists and trade union bullies.

“Some parts of the socialist creed – though certainly not Marxism – do reflect our Anglo-Saxon heritage,” he says. “I’m thinking of the concept of taking responsibility for helping people out of their misfortunes, which is the Christian ethic, too. The problem is that our socialism has neglected the creation of wealth and concentrated too much on its redistribution. That is ineffective, because it breeds dependency in the recipients of that
redistributed wealth.”

That’s a point completely lost on our bishops, whether Catholic or Anglican, I suggest. “I try to avoid telling people how to do a job which I don’t think I could do myself, so I’m careful what I say about the Church,” he replies. “But, yes, there is a rather wet tendency to preach what the congregation wants to hear.”

Yet on one subject there is common ground between Lord Tebbit and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the former oil executive Justin Welby. “Certain directors of banks took huge bonuses on the basis of huge profits that I don’t believe were ever there. But instead of bringing them to account through the justice system we allowed them to hold on to their ill-gotten gains while piling on more regulations. You do wonder: when were the words last uttered in a bank boardroom: ‘But that’s not right!’”

There’s more than a hint here of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the Temple – an event that precipitated the Passion narrative with which Lent culminates. I ask Lord Tebbit whether that story leads him to reflect on his own suffering.

“Goodness me, no,” he says. “That would imply that I’m comparing what happened to me to what happened to Him. I may have folie de grandeur, but not to that extent.”

And, besides, Norman Tebbit remains in many ways an agnostic. “Recently I visited a dear friend of mine, a devout Jew, who was very ill in hospital. We laughed and reminisced, and before I left I said I’m not sure we shall meet again. There may not be another life. And he said, that’s true – but if there is, shall we meet at your place or mine?”

Damian Thompson is associate editor at the Spectator and a Catholic Herald director. Ben’s Story by Norman Tebbit is published by Bretwalda Books, £7.99

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/3/15).

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