As a scouser who grew up in the 70s and 80s, I have always had a soft spot for Michael Heseltine, the Tory environment minister who stood up for my home town when it was, in the Liverpool vernacular, on the bones of its arse.
As Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet – in particular home secretary Geoffrey Howe – plotted to run the city down and abandon it to the dogs, Tarzan had other ideas.
This self-made publishing millionaire with Errol Flynn hair and Savile Row suits became an unlikely but regular sight in the city, stalking burned out streets alone and unprotected in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots.
He never spouted phrases like levelling-up, or anything like it. Instead, he did things. He was old-fashioned like that.
One of the things he did, which seemed utterly bonkers to my 15-year-old self, was clear ten million square feet of derelict dockland, some of it covered in rubble left over by the Luftwaffe, and turn it into an international garden festival.
Nearly three and a half million tourists visited that 1984 garden festival, and the seeds of Liverpool’s renaissance began to germinate across a wasteland.
Last night Heseltine, sharp as ever in every regard, not least the cut of his suit, spoke at the launch of Andrew Adonis’ superbly readable study in political leadership It’s The Leader Stupid: Changemakers in Modern Politics.
I asked him whether it was his personal passion for gardening that inspired the garden festival. Over the past 40 years he has invested much time developing the arboretum at his estate in Thenford, near Banbury, boasting more than 4,000 species of tree.
“No, not at all. It was actually inspired by what the Germans did with their bomb sites. I saw it in Bonn and other cities. They put on city garden festivals – a very good way of regenerating places that had been laid waste.”
Adonis’ book quotes Heseltine’s Tory conference speech in 1981, delivered soon after those devastating riots in the black ghettos of Brixton and Toxteth:
“We talk of equality of opportunity. What do those words actually mean in the inner cities today? What do they mean to the black communities? We now have large immigrant communities in British cities. Let this party’s position be absolutely clear. They are British. They live here. They vote here.”
As Adonis comments, with this searing speech he “helped slam the door on the Enoch Powellite extremes of public racism still rampant in 1980s Britain.”
Hezza was always unafraid to tell it straight, even if (especially if?) it was a message his own voters didn’t want to hear.
Maybe it’s the kind of political confidence that comes with spectacular success (and ensuing wealth) from other areas of life. Or maybe it’s the other way around; the kind of personal integrity that made Heseltine such a remarkable politician is what made his money too.
Heseltine had a fine appreciation of the point of power. It was to do stuff, not just say stuff. To our great misfortune there’s not a soul around the current Tory cabinet table with that indomitable quality.
As Adonis suggests in It’s The Leader, Stupid one of these days there will be a couple of statues of Heseltine in cities around this country.
I hope Liverpool is one of them. Somewhere looking out across a nice bit of garden.
The paperback of It’s The Leader Stupid: Changemakers in Modern Politics, by Andrew Adonis, is out now.