Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Norman St John Stevas

When you hear on the news that someone who used to be well known has died, a standard response is: Good Lord, I hadn't thought about him/her for years.

Curiously that wasn't the case last night when the death was announced of the generously named Norman St John Stevas, or Lord St John of Fawsley as he later styled himself. He had turned up in conversation only last week when I was talking with Giles Radice about the evolution of the parliamentary select committees - a system that had been launched by Stevas back when he was leader of the House.

That was a pretty impressive legacy for such a slight political figure. Because apart from that, he wasn't really to be taken too seriously. This is an extract from my book Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s:

Thatcher’s determination to get her own way, despite the reservations of so many of her senior colleagues, became ever more apparent as 1981 wore on. She started the year by sacking Norman St John-Stevas as leader of the House, much to the horror of the liberal establishment and at the risk of fuelling his own sense of martyrdom.

‘I argued in the cabinet for a human and compassionate Conservatism,’ he pleaded, though in truth her motivation was rooted not so much in ideology as in a desire to reduce the authority of Francis Pym, the most plausible leader of the wets; Thatcher removed Pym from the ministry of defence and, while keeping him in the cabinet, isolated him as leader of the House, with St John-Stevas simply discarded to make room. As the novelist Michael Dobbs, who worked closely with her, noted: ‘She was ruthless when she had to be – and often when she didn’t have to be as well.’

In a way that was to become characteristic of dismissed wets, St John-Stevas was a couple of months later to be found presenting Dizzy: A Man for All Seasons, a BBC2 programme about Benjamin Disraeli, the man who originated the concept of One Nation Conservatism, in what was presumably intended to be a coded signal about where Thatcher was going wrong. And, as was to become equally characteristic, Thatcher ignored him entirely.

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