Politics UK: Culloden

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July 1990 - Nicholas Ridley resigns amidst anti-German comments to The Spectator

Trade and Industry Minister Nicholas Ridley, one of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s closest Cabinet collaborators, resigned Saturday after his public condemnation of the Germans and French touched off a torrent of protest throughout Europe and Britain.

Thatcher accepted Ridley’s resignation, made in a letter to the prime minister two days after he likened the European Community to Adolf Hitler and labeled French officials “poodles” who are submitting to German domination of an emerging united Europe.

Within hours, Thatcher named Peter Lilley, 46, her financial secretary, to the trade and industry portfolio.

Unlike the controversial Ridley, 61, who has been nicknamed “the original Thatcherite” and who had served as a senior minister in Thatcher’s Cabinet since 1983, Lilley is known to favor European economic unity. His appointment was called “a meteoric rise to power” by official government observers.

In accepting Ridley’s resignation, Thatcher, who is spending the weekend at the official prime ministerial retreat of Chequers, described him as “first class in every way.” She said his resignation will leave “a great gap” in her government, and she clearly accepted the aristocratic minister’s resignation only under tremendous pressure from other members of her Conservative Party.

Even after his published comments, the PM staunchly defended Ridley in Parliament on Thursday, the day that the Spectator, a British weekly, published its exclusive interview with him.

On the floor of the House of Commons, Thatcher said Ridley’s views are not those of her government. She asked the Labour Party to accept Ridley’s apology and his formal withdrawal of the fiercely anti-German comments he had made. But she stopped short of requesting his resignation.

The storm of protest surrounding him, however, continued unabated.

Several commentators said publicly that Ridley’s strong suspicion and fears of a united Germany echoed sentiments held by many Britons who lived through the Nazi bombing raids of World War II. But most agreed that the arrogance reflected in such public statements by a Cabinet Minister--the son of a Viscount--made it impossible for Thatcher to retain him.

In The Spectator interview, Ridley was quoted as saying that Germany’s monetary union was “a German racket” meant to monopolise the European Community, that French trade officials were behaving like “poodles” in kowtowing to the Germans and that the 17 members of the European Commission are “unelected reject politicians.” The commission is the executive body of the European Community.

In his letter of resignation, Ridley never claimed to have been misquoted, but he said: “In particular, I deeply resent the journal’s (Spectator’s) assertion that I associate present-day Germany with the aggression in the past. I do not hold that view.”

During the interview, the Spectator’s editor, Dominic Lawson, specifically asked Ridley whether he believes German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is as bad as Adolf Hitler, which it appeared that Ridley had been suggesting.

Ridley replied: “I’m not sure I wouldn’t rather have the (bomb) shelters than simply being taken over by economics. He’ll soon be coming over here and trying to say that this is what we should do on the banking front and this is what our taxes should be. I mean, he’ll soon be trying to take over everything.”

As for the European Community as a whole, Ridley had said: “I’m not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You might as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly.”

And, even in his resignation letter Saturday, Ridley, whose outspokenness has landed him in an unending series of controversies since he became a junior minister after Thatcher’s first election to office in 1979, maintained his skepticism of the European monetary union that his successor, Lilley, is known to favor.

“Nothing but harm will come from trying to force (Europe) into the straitjacket of a single currency,” Ridley said. “It would result in economic domination by the country with the strongest currency in the community.”

Predictably, Thatcher’s political opposition used both Ridley’s resignation and the prime minister’s loyal defence of him as political weapons against her 11-year rule.

“Mr. Ridley has bowed to the inevitable,” the Labour Party’s trade spokesman, Gordon Brown, said. “The damage that has been done by the delays, disarray and failure of leadership on the part of Mrs. Thatcher will seriously impair the effective representation of Britain’s interests abroad.”
Change the party, change our future

An editorial by Michael Heseltine

There is no doubt that our cause had precious little to celebrate over the past few years. Historic by-election losses. The calamity that is the poll tax. A 25-point Labour lead in the polls that would see them enforce strict socialism over our people. That is not what a Conservative government should strive for – that is what we must actively prevent.

And there can be no doubt as to the cause of this waiting catastrophe. The divisive leadership of Margaret Thatcher, while essential for getting Britain back on track, has proven itself not to be fit for a prosperous nation. The societal ills that we must tackle now, from support for our communities to unemployment, demand principled, moderate leadership – a third way, if one will, between the harsh free market discipline of Thatcherism and the rigid socialist dogma of Labour.

Errol George-Grosjean offers that third way. He is not everything I seek in a leader – his social conservatism is certainly concerning. However, his principles to guide us towards a more compassionate conservatism, one that embraces our place in Europe and stands for the protection of our families and the social cohesion of our nation. It is a belief that, while there are some difficulties at the edges, will lead to us being a one-nation party again that can be embraced by the whole of the country.

I had hoped, just weeks ago, to be writing this editorial as a contender for the leadership myself. However, that dream has passed on. While my preferred candidate is no longer in the running, we must content ourselves with the leader that will guide Britain forward and lead our party in the direction of the country: one in which a fourth general election victory is not a distant dream, but a distinct possibility. The only man for that task is Errol George-Grosjean.