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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Michael Heseltine : Britain's Prime Tory Assesses Party's Chances--They're Good (of Course)

August 28, 1994|William Tuohy and Thomas Plate | William Tuohy is London bureau chief and Thomas Plate is the editorial page editor for The Times

LONDON — To Conservative Party supporters and the British tabloids, he is known as "Tarzan." Indeed, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine looks the part and is one of the most popular political figures with the Tory rank-and-file--at the grass-roots level. Tall, rangy, with Kirk Douglas looks and flowing blond locks that are beginning to whiten, Heseltine always stirs up the faithful with rousing speeches at Conservative Party conferences. In person, he seems almost too big for his top-floor office as secretary of state for trade and industry in Prime Minister John Major's Cabinet. The job also carries the title president of the board of trade, and, perhaps significantly, he prefers the title "president" to "secretary of state."

Now 61, he was a successful publisher before winning a seat in the House of Commons and served in the government of Prime Minister Edward Heath in the early 1970s. Heseltine supported Heath in his losing battle for the Tory Party leadership against Margaret Thatcher in 1975. But Thatcher appointed him to her first Cabinet as environment secretary in 1979. He shifted to defense in 1983 but, after in an internal argument over policy, he resigned in a huff in 1986.

In 1990, from the backbenches, Heseltine led the move to depose Thatcher. He was successful--but partly because of his spoiling role, lost the vote for the prime minister's post to Major. Nonetheless, Heseltine is often mentioned as a leading successor to Major if the prime minister should step down or be deposed. Heseltine maintains that he is a loyal supporter of Major.

Heseltine lives at his 800-acre country estate with his wife, Anne. They have three children. He suffered a serious heart attack last year, which may have reduced his chances of ever becoming prime minister. But he was looking tanned and fit during a recent conversation in his Spartan office in the department's high-rise overlooking London's Westminister district.

Question: As Britain gets closer to Europe, it gets farther from the United States. Should America be worried?

Answer: No. American governments since that of President Eisenhower have been consistent in urging Britain to become more closely involved in the European postwar movement. And so, they shouldn't be surprised if we do. But it serves both British self-interest and American interest. It serves British self-interest for all the obvious reasons that the configuration of power is increasingly focused on the shrinking world market and three regional markets of the Pacific, America and Europe. And for Britain to be a leading voice in that process means that we tend to influence the climate, the environment in which decisions are taken that affect us profoundly.

From America's point of view, the attitudes of the Anglo-Saxon, capitalist culture, the attitudes toward the defense of the free world, the common language, gives America the opportunity to know that there is a very sympathetic and historically close ally at the decision-making process which--as our interests tend to coincide in many ways--is to American interests as well.

Q: Isn't there a lot of tension in Britain right now, as regards the role of Britain in the world?

A: Well, there's always tension in democratic politics, that's the great strength of democracy, that it resolves tensions in an amicable, peaceful way.

But it would be unthinkable for a shift of British policy of such historic proportions to be conducted without tension across the political spectrum, both within and between parties. But the broad thrust of the process is acknowledged by all parties today.

Q: Another American fear is the fear of a Labor Party government--we've been dealing with a Conservative Party government for 15 years, and it's worked rather well, on the whole. Are the American fears of a Labor government legitimate?

A: Well, they're not going to be in power. Socialism is bankrupt. If you look at the late 19th Century--where the excesses of capitalism were thought to be susceptible to cure by statist solutions, whether they were socialist or communist--it was quite widely believed that there had to be a more orderly, a more planned, a more centralist, a more egalitarian way of managing complex societies. The movement in that direction lasted until the 1980s.

The fact is that there is no serious contribution today being made by socialism across the world. To the extent there is a huge debate about the future of societies, it's all based upon the philosophies of the free-enterprise capitalist culture. Cuba may be the exception--but there's hardly any exceptions to this rule. So any party which has its roots and its emotions, its instincts and its power base in yesterday's structures cannot win. They are simply out of date.

Q: In the event, however likely or unlikely, of a Labor government, what would be the implications of British foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States?

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