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  Nicholas Ridley (1929–1993), by David Rose Nicholas Ridley (1929–1993), by David Rose
Ridley, Nicholas, Baron Ridley of Liddesdale (1929–1993), politician, was born on 17 February 1929 at Blagdon Hall, Seaton Burn, Northumberland, the younger son in the family of two sons and one daughter of Matthew White Ridley, third Viscount Ridley and seventh baronet (1902–1964), coal magnate, and his wife, Ursula (d. 1967), second of the four daughters of the architect . He was the ninth member of his family to sit in parliament. His great-grandfather Matthew White Ridley, fifth baronet and first Viscount Ridley, was home secretary from 1895 to 1900, when he was ennobled.

Education and early career

After Eton College, Ridley expressed to his father the desire to study architecture at Oxford. His father insisted that he embrace a more practical course of studies since, as the second son, he would have no great inheritance. So when he went up to Balliol he read mathematics and engineering, gaining a third in mathematical moderations in 1947 and a second-class degree in engineering science in 1951. His artistic bent was to express itself for many years in his painting. Meanwhile he married, on 17 August 1950, the Hon. Clayre Campbell (b. 1927), second of the three daughters of Alistair Campbell, fourth Baron Stratheden and Campbell, army officer and public servant. There were three daughters of the marriage, Jane (b. 1953), Susanna (b. 1955), and Jessica Clayre (b. 1957).

On leaving Oxford, Ridley joined Brims & Co. Ltd in Newcastle upon Tyne as a civil engineering contractor, where he remained for nine years, being made a director after four years. It was during this period that he decided he would follow the family tradition and enter politics. His political instincts were honed in the traditional Conservative manner: he was adopted as the prospective parliamentary candidate for the unwinnable seat of Blyth in November 1952 at the age of twenty-three, and was badly beaten by Alf Robens in the general election of 1955. The scale of his defeat was, in some respects, a personal blow, for his family had developed the town as a port for the export of coal, and he felt that he had let his family down. However, he secured victory in the constituency of Cirencester and Tewkesbury in the general election of October 1959. This constituency he served until his retirement from the House of Commons in April 1992.

Initially Ridley made slow progress, although—oddly for one of his right-wing convictions—he served as parliamentary private secretary to the left-leaning minister of education, Sir Edward Boyle, from July 1962 to October 1964. They had in common only an Etonian background and their liking for argumentative conversation. Boyle was later to leave politics altogether (becoming vice-chancellor of Leeds University) because of his distress at what he saw as the right-wing tendency of the Conservative Party under Edward Heath. Concurrently with this appointment Ridley was a member of the British delegation to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union. In stark contrast to the political ideas he espoused in later life he was a staunch advocate of Britain's application to join the European Economic Community and was bitterly disappointed when President de Gaulle vetoed Britain's entry in January 1963. In April 1965 he was the co-author of a pamphlet for the Conservative Political Centre advocating a united Europe, One Europe. As late as 1971 he was a senior member of the Conservative Group for Europe and, in his capacity as one of the group's main spokesmen, took a leading part in the parliamentary debate on the terms of entry which Heath had negotiated in Brussels.

Ridley and Heath

Despite the fact that he voted for Enoch Powell in the Conservative Party leadership contest of 1965, Ridley's pro-European credentials drew him to the friendly attention of Edward Heath, who won that contest. Heath's favourable opinion of Ridley at this time was enhanced by Ridley's frequent attacks from the back benches on Labour's economic policy, and his encouragement of the right-wing views of his own party. He harried the Labour minister for technology, Tony Benn, over proposals to subsidize Beagle Aircraft in February 1968, and he put forward detailed plans for the denationalization of British industry in January 1969. He remained close to Powell, and their views on British membership of the Common Market changed in tune with one another over the years. Nevertheless he was happy with Heath as leader, not only because of his European policy but because he seemed to Ridley's mind—and according to the party manifesto for the 1970 general election—a monetarist: that is, a politician who believed in an absolute minimum of state funding of government enterprises, including the National Health Service.

Against most expectations Heath won the general election of June 1970, and promptly gave Ridley his first taste of ministerial office as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Technology. Ridley immediately used his ministerial power to implement the policies of monetarism and, in spite of mounting difficulties, notably with the trade unions, insisted on the restriction of government expenditure. In particular he argued that companies which faced bankruptcy through giving in to excessive wage demands would not be bailed out by the state. With the absorption of the Ministry of Technology into the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in October 1970 he became parliamentary under-secretary of state at the DTI.

At that time, as well as sharing Heath's enthusiasm for British membership of the European Economic Community, Ridley took the view—which he believed Heath shared—that it would be necessary for the new government to break the power of the trade unions in order to implement the free market policies implied by the doctrines of monetarism. The election manifesto of 1970 contained a commitment to reform trade-union law so as to inhibit the power of the unions to bring their members out on strike, and to outlaw sympathetic strikes, whereby one union could strike in support of another. However, the worsening economic situation led Heath to conclude that he could not continue with his plans for ‘the quiet revolution’ proclaimed to the Conservative Party conference of 1970.

1972 was a watershed in modern British political history. In the face of mounting economic difficulties Heath changed his mind on domestic economic policies. He and his closest colleagues—most notably James Prior and Peter Walker—had come to doubt their capacity to change the face of national politics. They had decided that no government could defeat the apparently entrenched power of the trade-union movement. Ridley, on the other hand, took the view that there was no point in being in politics if one sought only to retain office rather than to insist on acquiring the power to change things. The last straw for Ridley was the Industry Bill of 1972, which gave the government power to distribute large sums of public money to failing companies. Thus the consequences of the change of tack in 1972 were vastly increased public expenditure and burgeoning inflation.

Heath felt obliged to move Ridley from the Department of Trade and Industry—where his unbending monetarism was no longer acceptable—in his April 1972 reshuffle, and offered him instead the post of arts minister. Ridley's and Heath's accounts of this episode differed. Ridley felt that he could not serve in a government which was abandoning its policies. He therefore departed into the wilderness. This was described by Heath as a refusal to serve, and by Ridley as a resignation. In his autobiography, The Course of my Life (1998), Heath offered the judgement that Ridley was incompetent, but he did not deny that he offered him the job of minister for the arts. Ridley wrote:
I could stand it no more. Ted Heath sent for me in 1972 when he had a reshuffle. I was on an official visit to Lisbon, and had to fly back in the middle of the night. He tried to move me sideways and asked me to become Minister for the Arts. I refused: I said I wanted to have no more to do with his Government. It was my first political resignation. It was a lonely experience. (Ridley, 4)
The significance of Ridley's stand should not be underestimated. Ridley's was the only resignation from the Heath government on grounds of difference on economic policy. Thus Ridley knowingly deprived himself of any future prospect of office under Heath.

From 1972 to 1974 Ridley ceaselessly proclaimed his consistently stern views on economic policy. He was one of a handful of Conservative politicians who held to the principles laid down in the 1970 manifesto. But, like his friend John Biffen, he did not have the oratorical power to seize the public imagination; the only Conservative rebel who did have that power was Enoch Powell. During his time in exile, however, Ridley himself underwent a significant transformation in his own ideas, which was further to alienate him from Heath. From being an enthusiast for an ever closer union with Britain's partners in the European Economic Community, he came to distrust the motives of the western European continental powers, which he regarded as federalist in nature. Ridley, for all his earlier beliefs in European union, remained, at heart, a British nationalist. By the time Heath came to write his autobiography in 1998, he expressed himself with particular and lengthy bitterness about Ridley's change of heart on Europe: there were no fewer than six detailed hostile references to Ridley in it.

Heath never forgave those who changed their minds on British membership of the EEC. Thus it can readily be understood that between 1972 and 1974 Ridley's despair of his own political future was marked: he even contemplated resignation from the House of Commons. However, in this period he continued with great determination to pronounce, in terms adumbrated in the Conservative manifesto of 1970, on economic policy. He utterly opposed the introduction by the Heath government of a statutory incomes policy; he attacked the view that the government's increases in public expenditure would foster growth; and he criticized the weakness of the proposals for trade-union law reform introduced by the employment secretary, James Prior.

Ridley and Thatcher

When, in February and October 1974, Heath went down to two successive general election defeats, Ridley saw the possibility of a change in his fortunes under a new leader, albeit in opposition. As he wrote at the beginning of his sole book, ‘My Style of Government’: the Thatcher Years:
One afternoon towards the end of 1974 I met Sir Keith Joseph in the Members' Lobby of the House of Commons. I asked him whether he was firm in his intention to challenge Edward Heath in the coming contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party. He replied that he had decided not to do so ‘for personal reasons’. I was aghast. At last the opportunity had come to break with the miserable years of the past and secure a change of leader, and it was widely believed that it would be Keith Joseph who would make the challenge.

‘I think Margaret will stand,’ he said.

I was amazed, because the news that Margaret Thatcher might stand hadn't reached my ears before. But I was relieved; at least there was a challenger. (Ridley, 1)
Ridley immediately sought out Margaret Thatcher and offered her his support in the leadership campaign. On 11 February 1975 she was elected leader of the Conservative Party, and Ridley was back in favour. Keith Joseph and the Institute of Economic Affairs were the major influences on Conservative Party policy formulation between 1975 and 1979. Ridley's distinction was less that of an influential force than that of a man who stood by his principles until the end of his House of Commons career. While in opposition he developed his business interests, which included directorships of Ausonia Finance and Marshall Andrew Ltd. He also married, on 16 February 1979 (his first marriage having ended in divorce in 1974), Judith Mary Augustine (Judy) Kendall, daughter of Dr Ernest Kendall of Epsom.

Following her election victory in May 1979, Margaret Thatcher appointed Ridley minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The truly difficult years of the first Thatcher government were between 1979 and 1981. Many of her cabinet colleagues were despairing of her determination to hold to monetarist policies. Ridley stood by the prime minister with resolution. His loyalty was to be richly rewarded. At the FCO he had proposed a resolution of the dispute with Argentina which provided for Argentinian sovereignty over the Falkland Islands in return for a lease-back agreement. Despite the fact that this was anathema to the prime minister, she recognized the steadfastness of his support of her domestic policy by making him financial secretary to the Treasury in September 1981. This job, which gave him a large say in the disposition of public spending, was delightful to Ridley. He was named a privy councillor in January 1983.

Ridley entered the cabinet in October 1983 as minister of transport, where he continued the policies that he had put forward at the Treasury, describing his department as ‘the last bastion of the planned economy’. He announced his intention to privatize British Airways. He campaigned strenuously for cheaper air fares on European routes, and caused great offence by turning up at a meeting of British motor manufacturers in his newly purchased French car. He refused to supply government funds for the building of the channel tunnel, although he allowed work to start without a public inquiry, and he attacked the bus industry, again refusing public subsidy. In everything he did he was a proponent of free enterprise.

Ridley's promotion to be secretary of state at the Department of the Environment, in May 1986, was not simply a reward for his loyalty to the prime minister but an acknowledgement by her of his concern for matters rural. Initially his appointment was welcomed by the many and various campaigners for a cleaner and healthier rural Britain. They did not, however, realize that Ridley's overriding concern in all matters political was in the area of public expenditure. They were disappointed—and even enraged—by his determination to cut down any expenditure which helped rural preservation. Further spending in this area was, then, an immensely popular cause in the press and in the broadcast media. Ridley was immovable in the face of any criticism. He substantially reduced the budget of his new department and insisted on the diminution of public funding for environmental projects. His theory was that the countryside would best be served, not by government, but by private enterprise, and whatever unpopularity this attracted, it made no difference to him. One of the smaller matters which excited the hostility of environmental campaigners and the media alike was his decision to veto an application to build houses near his house in Stow on the Wold. Ridley was so irritated by opposition to his personal views that he simply walked out of a television interview in which he was challenged as selfish for preferring his own interests to those of the countryside at large. The hostility was exacerbated by the perceived double standards held by Ridley, since he had only a month earlier reproached a group of MPs for their ‘not in my backyard’ (NIMBY) attitudes. The acronym NIMBY was to haunt him in the closing years of his ministerial career. As secretary of state for the environment Ridley was also closely associated with the introduction of the community charge (poll tax). There was strong pressure from the Conservative party conference in 1987 for the tax to be introduced immediately rather than (as was proposed) phased in. Ridley had seen many of Thatcher's reforms opposed vigorously at the outset, only to win ultimate all-party acceptance, and assumed that this was another instance, so responded to the pressure. ‘Every time I hear people squeal’, he said on a television programme, ‘I am more than ever certain that we are right’ (Daily Telegraph, 26 March 1990, 17).

In July 1989 Thatcher appointed Ridley secretary of state at the Department of Trade and Industry, where his abrasive style could be more usefully employed against industrialists and trade unionists than against well-meaning environmentalists. This was to be Ridley's last major cabinet post. He told Mrs Thatcher that he wanted to retire from the House of Commons before the next general election, which was expected to be held late in 1990. Then, in July 1990, his capacity for indiscretion, coupled with a carefree attitude to the media, was exemplified in an interview he gave to the editor of The Spectator, Dominic Lawson. In this interview he denounced the members of the European Commission as ‘seventeen unelected reject politicians’, economic and monetary union as ‘a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe’, and the French as Germany's ‘poodles’. ‘I'm not against giving up sovereignty, but not to this lot’, he said. ‘You might as well give it to Adolf Hitler, frankly’ (The Spectator, 14 July 1990). When the interview was published it excited understandable anger among Britain's continental partners. Ridley believed that an interview given in good faith was used in bad faith. Mrs Thatcher offered to defend him against all odds, but Ridley did not want to cause her any further embarrassment and on 14 July resigned. He was the last instinctive Thatcherite in the cabinet, and his departure was damaging to her. Bracketing him with Keith Joseph in her memoirs, she wrote: ‘In my experience there are few politicians for whom doing the right thing is of no importance, there are fewer still for whom it is the only consideration. Nick and Keith were among them’ (Thatcher, 312).

Final years

Ridley remained MP for Cirencester and Tewkesbury until the general election of April 1992. In 1991 he published ‘My Style of Government’: the Thatcher Years, which, unlike the memoirs of many contemporaries, was not a self-justifying apologia but an analysis of Thatcher's policies and attitudes. The title of the book came from a speech she made in 1983. At Mrs Thatcher's behest Ridley was made a life peer in the 1992 dissolution honours. Even in retirement, however, he was prone to give offence. He chose as his title Baron Ridley of Liddesdale, which upset Scottish politicians because the river from which the title came is generally regarded as a Scottish river. Ridley replied to criticism by saying that one side of it was in England. He went on to make rebarbative speeches in the House of Lords on many matters of public concern until his final illness silenced him. Even when his doctors diagnosed the cancer which killed him he refused their advice to stop smoking, showing to the end a determination to resist all opinions other than his own. He died at his home, Kilnholme, Penton, Carlisle, on 4 March 1993, and was buried at Penton on 9 March 1993. He was survived by his second wife and the three daughters of his first marriage. A memorial service was held at St Margaret's Church, Westminster, on 23 June 1993.

Ridley's arrogance of manner and insensitivity on matters of social concern made him an unpredictable colleague in an era of populist politics. The perceived hardness of his nature was, however, belied by his other career. He was a painter of real skill, devoting himself to the composition of the most delicate and elusive of watercolours. Unlike the many politicians who have taken to painting as a pleasurable pastime, Ridley could have made his mark as a professional painter. In summary, one can only say that his unfeeling attitude in his professional life was counterbalanced by the sensitivity of his art and the geniality of his private character. He was the most generous of hosts, and those who knew him well, and whom he liked, found him the most delightful and gregarious of companions.

Patrick Cosgrave

Sources  

N. Ridley, ‘My style of government’: the Thatcher years (1991) · A. Roth and M. Gifford, Parliamentary profiles, 2nd edn, 4 vols. (1988–91) · The Times (6 March 1993) · The Independent (6 March 1993) · Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard (11 March 1993) · Sunday Times (7 March 1993) · The Guardian (6 March 1993) · Daily Telegraph (6 March 1993) · M. Thatcher, The Downing Street years (1993) · E. Heath, The course of my life (1998) · J. Bruce-Gardyne, Whatever happened to the quiet revolution? (1974) · WWW · Burke, Peerage

Archives  

Glos. RO, letters |  Glos. RO, constituency corresp.

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, current affairs recordings · BL NSA, documentary recordings · BL NSA, performance recording


Likenesses  

photographs, 1984–9, Hult. Arch. · D. Rose, photograph, repro. in The Independent [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in Daily Telegraph · photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard · photograph, repro. in Sunday Times

Wealth at death  

£698,428: probate, 2 June 1993, CGPLA Eng. & Wales