Opportunity Knocks! Remembering Lord Parkinson…

Sheila Lawlor

Friday 29th January: This week news broke of Cecil Parkinson’s death. What was the able minister, icon of Thatcherite Britain and Chairman of the Conservative Party like? Here Politeia’s Director, Sheila Lawlor, recalls a friend and one of Politeia’s founding fathers.

Cecil Parkinson was one of Politeia’s founders and its first treasurer. He was introduced to me by another Thatcherite as someone who would help get things done. He was certainly up for a fight. The smaller state was for Cecil, the twin of entrepreneurship. Both were in his DNA. Britain should be the land of opportunity for a country of entrepreneurs, and one of Cecil Parkinson’s ambitions was to get the state out of their way.

He flourished under Mrs Thatcher’s leadership and became Minister of State for Trade in 1979, in her first government. It was then that British Telecom was privatised, and he used to recall journeys in the car on Fridays, and becoming perplexed by the number of telephone vans parked in the lay-bys across Britain. Pulling up in the lay-by he would ask the drivers if there was a problem, only to be told that ‘everything was alright’ – they were ‘just sitting out the afternoon’ until the time they could clock off for the weekend. That was not the prescription he envisaged for getting Britain back on her feet so ‘we went ahead and privatised BT’. Of course it was not the only reason, but his description struck a chord with everybody who had waited and waited for a line to be repaired or installed.

In following his entrepreneurial star, Parkinson was practical: he believed something could be done and worked out how to make it happen. As Party Chairman, the job to which he went from DTI in 1981, his reputation was as someone who turned the Party’s plodding central office into a brilliantly run machine, introducing mailing campaigns and bringing in the business people who saw him as ‘one of us’. He was always ‘at home’ to the entrepreneurs and those who were building Britain; they would drop in when ‘down in London’ from the north for a chat with ‘Cecil’, who was always keen to learn how business was going. Rarely did they leave without wanting to support the Party. That down-to-earthness came with a charm, the charm of someone on a wave of enthusiasm for the cause, for the task and for the people to whom he was speaking.

He has been described as one of Mrs Thatcher’s favourites. It’s easy to see why. He must have been a breath of fresh air in her governments of ‘wets’ and ‘dries’, the old style and the new. For him, the entrepreneurial way was the only way: it was as natural, as inevitable as day following night. He thought clearly and quickly about the practical steps needed for restoring it as the means to Britain’s strong economic health. He complemented Keith Joseph, the philosopher and mentor. Each was in a different way clever, thoughtful and singleminded. Each was loyal, affectionate and admiring of Thatcher, but able to argue the case – and did.

Above all, Cecil had a new, natural style to all those whom he knew, as he must have had with the prime minister. He exuded the boldness of a politics of the past: the barracking of political meetings, the quick repartee, the clear aim, the ability to take on the adversary and love it. He used to recall the great days of his early years in politics when he and ‘Norman’ (Tebbit), another in the band of brothers, did the round of village halls and meeting rooms, taking on the socialists, the left, the soggy centrist thinkers, relishing the verbal fight and the heckling, and ducking the eggs. He suited adversarial politics and was quick with the quip. We shared a cab one day to Westminster after a meeting and, though I had money out, he paid the fare and headed off, calling from the street as he made his way ‘Count it as my donation to Politeia’, then adding as he disappeared ‘and keep the change for the petty cash!’.

He stopped being our treasurer in 1997 on becoming Party Chairman for the second time, when he relinquished many of his voluntary activities. But always the optimist in life as in politics, he thought that his departure was an opportunity for consolidating Politeia’s finances, confessing ruefully with a smile that he had done the task badly himself, for he was ‘hopeless at asking people for money’.

Cecil Parkinson like that band of early brothers, each different in his or her own way, may not have been good at asking for money. But Mrs Thatcher and her government had come to office in 1979, so that Britain would never again have to beg to the IMF. They had the singleminded aim: to make Britain stand, economically, on her own two feet. The fact that they succeeded is due in no little part to him.

*Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia.