The Right Honourable John Redwood rises to make his Union speech with infinite confidence. He talks authoritatively, without notes, on the causes of our economic woes. I find it extremely hard to maintain my grip on left-leaning values and not to succumb to his extreme right-wing message. His powerful voice fills every corner of the Chamber with resounding gravitas. Frequently he is interrupted by applause, and occasionally by counter-arguments which are swiftly dealt with. Experts on the opposing side soon stop taking his points of information for fear of looking foolish. This is John Redwood, intellectual giant of Conservatism and one of the founders of the Thatcher revolution.
Speaking to him afterwards, Mr. Redwood tells me that he considers his work as Thatcher’s chief policy advisor as the finest achievement of his career.
‘My greatest triumph was taking privatisation to Margaret Thatcher and finding a leader who had the courage to do it. It has transformed the big industries in Britain in a way which has created lots of jobs and prosperity and it has not been reversed by the Labour government.’
Mr. Redwood has been a Fellow at All Souls and written numerous books on economics. With this in mind I refrain from meekly pointing out the mass unemployment Thatcher’s policies caused, confident that my single year of economics studies will not match up to his decades of expertise. I move on to less contentious ground. As a stalwart of the right for many years – the Yorkshire Post called him the ‘Pol Pot of privatisation’ – I ask what the most formative elements have been in shaping his political views today.
‘Growing up in a country that had been gravely damaged by bad government, high taxes and mistaken leadership. ‘
Mr. Redwood also cites the moment his parents bought their own home and left their council house behind as a pivotal turning point. It inspired him to see to it that others could do the same – hence his influence in Thatcher’s ‘Right to buy’ programme. Despite coming from a relatively poor background, he managed to secure a place studying history at Magdalen. What does he think have been the biggest changes in Oxford since he was an undergraduate in the late sixties?
‘Well I think the culture here is richer, it’s more dedicated to high academic standards than when I was here. That makes it better in many ways and I’m always very impressed by what I see when I come here.’
Struggling to imagine Mr Redwood grinding a drunken path through Shark End, I ask what he did with his free time at Oxford.
‘I tried all sorts of things. I went to a lot of drama productions since I’m a great lover of English literature and English theatre. I helped put on a production at Magdalen. I wrote a bit, I spent a lot of time messing about in boats during the summer. I think I spent every evening out doing something.’
Every evening? Perhaps an odd night out at Risa (or its sixties equivalent) was on the cards then. One might have expected Mr. Redwood to have devoted himself the specious glamour of the Union, the thankless drudgery of OUSU or at least the utter irrelevance of the JCR. But no, like many Oxford-educated political heavyweights – Blair and Cameron among them – Mr. Redwood avoided the greasy pole of student politics like most of us avoid that dancing pole at the Bridge. Perhaps not a good sign for the Holts and Iwus among us. Mr. Redwood had some simple advice for our beloved hacks on how to become a successful politician: ‘Follow your instincts.’ Unless of course your name is Roche, in which case, don’t.
Besides, Mr. Redwood had no need for student intrigue. He launched himself into the real world of politics at twenty-one as Oxfordshire’s youngest ever councillor. Since then he has served as Thatcher’s senior advisor, Secretary of State for Wales and in numerous shadow cabinet positions. He currently chairs a Conservative Economic Committee, yet his views on social policy seem somewhat out of step with Cameron’s Compassionate Conservatism. Since he has voted in support of capital punishment and opposed lowering the homosexual consent age, I ask if he ever feels out of touch with mainstream British society. Our conversation takes a rather sour turn as I get a blank look and a blunt answer. ‘No I don’t.’ An awkward pause before he goes on. ‘I think you’ll find those votes were cast some time ago.’ Yet the death penalty vote only took place in 1994, and the one concerning homosexuals five years later. I sense a distinct embarrassment about his voting record, possibly borne of a reluctance to appear distant from the new Conservative image.
Another aspect of Mr. Redwood’s past which he’d probably rather forget dates back to 1993 when he was Secretary of State for Wales. In a televised conference, he was filmed inaccurately miming the words to the Welsh national anthem. No doubt his subsequent word-perfect recitations were the work of some hasty lessons by Welsh colleagues. His frequent portrayal in the media as one of Star Trek’s Vulcans (a result of his resemblance to Mr. Spock) is understandably not a subject he warms to. When I raise it he responds only that ‘I think the joke’s run rather thin.’
Mr Redwood’s latest book examines the significant decline in Britain of party membership and election turnout. I wonder why students today are generally the most apathetic group in the country.
‘Well I think they got very disenchanted with traditional party politics in Britain for a variety of reasons. I think they feel the parties are too spun – too homogenous and probably don’t have the ability to do as much as they would like to do once they get into power, so students feel let down by them. Students now I think are more interested than my generation in picking up a campaign and working with a lobby group rather than working within the traditional party framework.’
Yet Mr. Redwood is optimistic that the old days of party-based student activism are not over forever.
‘I think you may find that interest gets rekindled and is much stronger in the next general election because with the state of the world economy there are very big issues around that people will want to express a view on. Things may well change.’
A result of that change may well be Mr. Redwood’s party back in government after the next election. Whatever you think of his politics, it would be impossible not to come away from an encounter with this man without feeling deeply impressed by his natural authority, formidable intellect and fierce Conservative passion.