Interview with Lord Waldegrave – Eton College Provost

Lord Waldegrave was interviewed on Friday 22nd April by Alex B – Editor for The Speaker

Alex had the privilege of interviewing the school’s provost earlier this term. Discussed in that meeting were subjects ranging from the layout of Westminster all the way to meeting chairman Mao, and the tensions between Western powers and Russia. It is a fascinating insight into the world of politics that we would thoroughly recommend reading. We would like to thank the provost for giving up his time and we hope you enjoy the interview found below. 

Interviewer: The House of Commons is often looked at as quite a hostile place. A recent report discussed the layout of the benches being directly opposite each other, creating an almost combative atmosphere. Do you think that the geography of the House discourages constructive debate and, ultimately, is that to the detriment of the country? 

The Provost: I think it’s a very interesting question. The architecture of the House, the structure of the House, in effect, I think, reflects our constitution’s determination always to have a government and an alternative government in play. It’s polarising in that sense. We tend towards that with the first past the post system as well, which also reinforces this tendency to have a system where, in somebody’s phrase, the object is always to have an opposition who can “turn the rascals out”. You always have an alternative government and you’re quite right, I think, to say that the structure of the House does, rather like the structure of a court, have the sense of a defendant and an accuser: the government being the defendant, the opposition being the accuser. I think it does polarise. There are good things about this and bad things about this. It means we have a structure which doesn’t usually like coalition politics and does try and force the parties into being either a unified government or a unified opposition. So, our Parliament is not like the European Parliament or the Senate in the US where people sit in the round. 

Interviewer: Naturally flowing on from that would be to discuss government accountability. Facing a political opponent allows one to be criticised in a direct fashion. Currently the Prime Minister has been scrutinized for the behavior outside Parliament. Do you think that the current system holds these officials accountable to a high enough degree, especially in light of recent events? 

The Provost: I think it has gotten better in some ways and worsened in others. It’s gotten better in the sense that select committees contribute to keeping the ‘executives’ in check. They are now more powerful than they used to be, are better staffed, and have more resources allowing for more serious and thorough enquiries. It’s got worse recently in that our system rests given on people respecting often unwritten conventions and rules of behaviour. If they just ignore them, then the whole system of accountability begins to crumble. So, there have been some bad trends in that direction. However, Parliament itself has strengthened its capacity, not in the chamber so much, but in select committees and other committees to do good investigatory and accountability work. However, the chamber itself has probably lost some of its power. There are still big occasions when big debates really matter to a government, but perhaps not so many. I think back to Mrs Thatcher’s time at the famous Westland crisis, halfway through her period when she could have fallen if the temper of the House had been different. She was let off the hook really by Neil Kinnock not pursuing her as effectively as he could have done. But nowadays I think less happens in the chamber itself, more in the committees. But what is really worrying people like Lord Hennessy, the great constitutional historian, is that our system, and perhaps all systems, work to some extent on people’s assent to some unwritten rules. If people just ignore them, then we’re in trouble. 

Interviewer: During your time in office, did you feel that every action that you took was almost always under the microscope especially given the increase in media scrutiny of politicians? 

The Provost: The media has become stronger and more variegated. Social media has really come after my time. There’s a huge new social media world that wasn’t there in my time, which has pluses and minuses. It can produce a lot of nonsense, but it can also give voices to people who are otherwise not heard. I myself, was subject to a major enquiry – the Scott enquiry – about alleged sales of arms to Iraq, which was not a judicial enquiry. It was set up by and reported to Parliament. I certainly felt, therefore, that I was cross-examined in that case very thoroughly. In some ways, I feel that there are too many occasions when we do the examination outside Parliament. It seems to show that people are not confident that Parliament is doing enough of the cross-examination. I would hope that power goes to increasingly powerful select committees to do some of that work of parliamentarians, because they can’t subcontract the examination of ministers to unelected officials. Now, of course, there are going to be some cases where it is right that it should be done outside, since it would take years of going through evidence. But I still think it’s a pity Parliament itself loses the capacity for detailed cross-examination of ministers. 

Interviewer: During your time in Cabinet, you are bound by collective responsibility. What’s your view on this in relation to a topic that splits opinion heavily, or when you have two people who disagree vehemently? Are cabinet members forced to agree? 

The Provost: Well, this is a classic issue of government, but also of any organization really, where you have to have a policy, whatever it may be. You argue about it and then you agree that by some process where the majority votes in the cabinet or the boardroom or wherever you choose a route, and everybody agrees to abide by it. You will have some situations, obviously, where you find your disagreement to be so important that you’ve got to resign. An example of that was Robin Cook resigning as Foreign Secretary over Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq. He behaved in a very honourable and right way. Now, you can’t conduct any organization if every time you have a disagreement about anything everybody resigns. So sometimes you’ve got to judge the big ones and ones which are really matters of principle and conscience to resign over. My friend Sir George Young, an old Etonian, resigned from Boris Johnson’s government over the prorogation of Parliament issue, as he felt that that was against the conventions of the House and that it was wrong. And I say that was absolutely right and honourable. I think that was a crucial issue. You can’t, however, resign every time you disagree with something. But if it’s big enough and important enough, it’s, I think, more honourable to resign than to sabotage it from inside. 

Interviewer: Are there any issues in which a minister should have no other choice but to resign? 

The Provost: Yes. There are two kinds of issues. There’s one where you have been called out when you should resign. If you lied to Parliament on an important thing and don’t correct it, then you should resign. I was caught in a storm about that once because I said that there must be some situations, extreme situations where you can’t tell the truth to Parliament. I gave the following example: 

“If the Chancellor Exchequer is considering devaluing the pound (in the time of fixed exchange rates), he can’t say, “I’m considering devaluing the pound” because by saying that, he will have caused a devaluation.” 

Then there is the second category: resignation over a disagreement. There were plenty of things during Mrs Thatcher’s government that I didn’t like, but I liked the overall direction of government. She was a powerful leader, doing big things that were right (though quite a lot of the other things I didn’t care for). But over big things, you might have to resign. Take Europe, for example. If you believed in our membership of the European Union, you couldn’t, I think, work in a government that was trying to take us out of the European Union because it’s so fundamental. So, you have to decide. 

Interviewer: In your memoir, you said in relation to the Thatcher government that in reality “there is no such thing as Thatcherism, at least not as a coherent doctrine”. What did you mean by that? 

The Provost: What I meant by that was, that she was somebody who even though she had read lots of books and spoken to lots of intellectuals, did things based on what she’d experienced. For example, she’d experienced terrible trade union behaviour with mass picketing and so on, and she just saw that was wrong and she’d seen the Heath Government brought down by that and she thought that had to be fought. She believed in free enterprise in the sense that she’d been brought up in, a small family business in Grantham, and she believed in hard work and people making their own way forward and having the opportunity to do so. She also, however, was quite nationalistic about British industry and thought that it should be protected and not all bought by foreigners and so on, which didn’t really fit a belief in a pure free trading world. So, I don’t think she was a theory person, so much as a person who saw things she thought were wrong, often morally wrong, and fought them. Other people invented Thatcherism a bit, I think, rather than she herself: she was always more cautious. She was, as I say in my memoir, much more cautious about reforming the health service than I was. I was thought of as more on the left, but she was a bit more nervous about introducing concepts of competition into the health service than I was, because she knew instinctively that the British people were very fond of the health service and were very nervous about any reform of it. There is a remark by a Greek philosopher who defined two types of people: hedgehogs and foxes. My old teacher Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote a book about it: “The Fox knows many tricks, but the hedgehog knows one trick and it’s a good one.” And you put people into people into two groups, one who has a theory that tries to unite everything – one trick people, hedgehogs. And then foxes who grab experience but have no underlying unifying theory to explain it all. Mrs Thatcher was a fox if that distinction is accepted. 

Interviewer: Did you grow up wanting to be a politician? 

The Provost: I did. I’m one of the old-fashioned ones if you like. I came from a family with a bit of a political background. My father was a junior minister in the House of Lords in the Macmillan Government. But there were lots of politicians on my mother’s side and Sir Robert Walpole is an ancestor of mine. So, politics is in my blood. And I tried to say why in that memoir. I was brought up in that culture of politics being the biggest prize. As I have grown older, I have concluded that it is not a particularly good culture. Politics shouldn’t be a super game with a great prize at the top. Disraeli was really the hero of that kind of politics. He took pretty well every political position imaginable at some point in his life and got to the top of what he himself described as the greasy pole. But when he got there, he didn’t really know what to do. Luckily, he had a couple of good people in his Cabinet who ran a good government for him, but it was the process of getting there that motivated him. I think that’s not a good culture, really. I think politics as public service rooted in clearer ideas about what you want to do for people is better. So, as I get older, I am getting a little bit more cynical about the “glittering prizes” culture than I used to be. 

Interviewer: Looking three years later, I believe you had the experience of meeting Chairman Mao? 

The Provost: I did, yes. 

Interviewer: What was that interaction like? 

The Provost: By then I’d left the civil service and become political secretary to Mr Heath as Prime Minister. There were only two in the political office in No 10 then, we didn’t have 200 SPADS [special advisers] or whatever drinking prosecco. Heath had me, and Douglas Hurd, and then he got his parliamentary seat so it was just me. And all the politics was done in the central office in Smith’s Square. And that’s a much better way of doing things, I think. So, when Heath lost power in the first election in 1974, the Chinese government who had invited him to come as Prime Minister, continued to invite him as Leader of the Opposition. Nixon had gone to China in 1972, I think. The Chinese at that time were in deep and serious conflict with the Russians. So, they were looking around the world for anybody who was hostile to Russia. So, they looked at British Conservatives and they looked at Nixon in the US who were the enemies of communist Soviet Russia and the Chinese worked on the principle that the enemies of my enemy are my friends. So that’s why they did the opening towards Nixon and that’s why they invited Mr Heath. I accompanied him as his political secretary, and we travelled all around China. And then finally Mr Heath had the great invitation that the Chairman would see him whereupon Ted Heath, who was an instinctive negotiator, who had negotiated us into Europe, said “Well, I’m not going to agree to meet the Chairman unless I am allowed to bring all my staff too”. Nobody else had ever asked that before. And there was great consternation from the Chinese. So, we all went there: Tim Kitson was the parliamentary secretary, Douglas Hurd and I, and the press officer who was called Maurice Trowbridge. Mao held on to his hand for a long time and said through the interpreter, “This is a very dangerous man”, because he was the pressman, which was a joke, though it made Maurice rather nervous at the time. Mao was coming towards the end of his time, but he was still a vigorous and dominant figure, and it was an extraordinary privilege to be there. 

Interviewer: In the past five years or so especially, there have been growing tensions between China and Western powers. However, in recent years Russia seems to have become an even bigger opponent. Do you think that we’re going to look at Russia in the future as the primary aggressor of this generation? Or do you think the threat from China creates more danger? 

The Provost: This is a very big question for your generation. It seems clear that within a relatively short time, China will be a military and economic power equal and comparable to the United States. I do, in one sense, believe that China is a ‘status quo’ power. I do not believe that China wants to conquer anybody; although they do believe that Tibet and Taiwan are part of their nation, they’re not a traditional imperial power in the sense of wanting to expand their borders outwards. They want safety and unity within their nation, which is why they’re so neurotic about any kind of ethnic or religiously based division: they’ve been through many crisis periods of civil war in their history. It’s essential for the world that China is built into our international systems. You can’t deal with another defining issue of our time – global warming – without China being completely central to whatever is done. It doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to what’s happening in China in relation to human rights, but I myself think that China’s main interest still lies in making a huge population richer and giving them a higher standard of living, which, as China knows, requires being part of a world trading system. 

On the other hand, Russia is a very different kind of thing. It is quite a modern empire in many ways. The Russian population is not very big for its enormous landmass, and it is declining, which is probably one of the things that drives Putin: population diminution. The country has an economy the size of Italy’s or Australia’s. It is armed to the teeth and neurotic, and not without reason, given its history of being attacked. So, it’s full of neuroses and it didn’t learn how to govern itself properly either under the Tsars or Stalin. It’s never had a satisfactory system of government that’s worked for any long period. It can be characterized as an over-armed nervous empire without clear borders, either in the east or in the west. And that makes it troublesome. Of course, we’ve got to try and live with it, but it is difficult not to be pessimistic about the present situation. If Russia perceives that it’s been defeated by Ukraine as it was defeated by the Japanese in 1905, famously and shockingly to them (that defeat began the decline the Tsar’s regime); if Russia is perceived as having suffered a defeat in Ukraine, what replaces Putin? It’s quite hard to imagine some nice social democratic party appearing from somewhere. It could get worse. So, what I’m saying is I don’t see an immediate solution to the Russian problem. 

I think that Russia is a problem in a way that China isn’t because I think China has its role in the world, sees itself rather arrogantly as the only place that really matters, but has an immense task to bring all its people up to western levels of wealth. It has run the greatest anti-poverty programme the world’s ever seen in the last 30 years already. And it’ll go on doing that, and it needs world trade for that, and it doesn’t want to bust up international systems fundamentally. But the present leader is giving himself effectively life power, which is always a bad sign because emperors for life want to leave a legacy. And what’s the legacy? Taking back Taiwan which could be dangerous. But in the past, I’ve always thought that China takes a longer view and that they think the world is going their way again and that they’ll be back in the proper position they were, in say, the 14th century, as the world’s greatest economic power, minding their own business trading with anybody who wants to trade with them. Russia is different. Russia’s borders are never fixed. Its internal government is always bad. It produces wonderful culture, music and science and art and every conceivable thing. But the one art it’s never learnt is to govern properly. I mean, one has to remember how recent Russian history is. Serfs were effectively slaves. They were owned by the landowners until the middle of the 19th century. Then savage revolutions and slaughter internally, awful war experience with Germany in the Second World War, and now feeling that they’ve lost all their imperial possessions in a very unfair way and everyone’s getting them down. It’s a dangerous, difficult situation which needs real diplomacy from the West. And we really need good American and European leadership, and we need to get the Chinese to play a little bit bigger part, which they will, I think, in steering Russia in a more sensible direction.

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