Monday, 7 November 2016

An anti-Thatcher Conservative and his life in politics

Sir Julian Critchley MP
(1931 - 2000)

‘A Bag of Boiled Sweets’ - the only safe pleasure for a politician – is the title of the memoirs of Julian (later Sir Julian) Critchley MP. The former Conservative member for Aldershot was a prominent opponent of Margaret Thatcher and once described her as the ‘great she-elephant’. As the famous prime minister was on the rise, her party was in decline, Critchley once wrote. It is clear he was never going to have a role in her government – but this didn’t bother him too much. The backbenches were his habitat and it was from this position that the Europhile MP operated. He was a constituency MP as well as regularly writing articles for newspapers and his talent for the written word is obvious once you start turning the pages of this charming book.

Growing up in the 1980’s, I was acutely aware of the harshness of Mrs Thatcher and her government. It was hard for me to bring myself to feel anything but antipathy for ‘the grocer’s daughter’. My late maternal grandmother – a staunch Fine Gael supporter – was an ardent admirer of Britain’s first female prime minister – probably one of the few matters of disagreement between the two of us. During her time in office (1979-90) I rather ignorantly assumed that the only people who disliked Mrs Thatcher lay outside the Conservative and Unionist Party. How wrong I was!

Julian Critchley's was one of the few voices, within the Tory ranks, that refused to be silenced in opposition to the authority of Mrs Thatcher. He grew up in Shropshire during the 1930’s and 1940’s, living through World War II while at school. After attending public school he went on to spend time in Paris and became a lover of that city and its lifestyle. He even was involved, at one point, in the establishment of a Young Conservative Club in the French capital. Critchley married three times during his lifetime, yet he comes across as a gentleman. One suspects he may not have been entirely comfortable around gay people – but that is probably due to the era in which he lived through more than any great prejudice. There is no evidence to suggest the author was anything other than a caring, decent man – but one who enjoyed life’s finer past times nevertheless.

He first entered the House of Commons in 1959 representing the constituency of Rochester and Chatham. Following a period in the political wilderness – due to electoral defeat – he returned to the mother of all parliaments in 1970, for the safe Tory seat of Aldershot. He fought every subsequent general election until his retirement at the 1992 general election which saw John Major’s government unexpectedly returned to office. Critchley suffered from polio in childhood yet managed to overcome this problem to live an almost trouble free life for decades before it returned with a vengeance when he was in his 60’s, sadly rendering him disabled and leaving him in terrible pain. However, for many years he’d got used to living the good life drinking fine wines and dining well. All this high living contributed to his waistline – the perennial hazard of a life in politics – but it didn’t diminish his enthusiasm for life.

Towards the end of the book we are reminded of the events of November 1990 in which Mrs Thatcher spectacularly lost the leadership of her own party and with that her premiership. There then followed a witch hunt by pro-Thatcher Tories in which attempts were made to de-select some of the MP’s who had plotted against her. Critchley was one of those MP’s. Although efforts were made to have him de-selected, his local Conservative Association in Aldershot gave him the benefit of the doubt and stood by him. All attempts to remove him were thwarted and Critchley managed to see off his enemies. However as time went on the Conservatives became more and more right wing – despite Mrs Thatcher’s departure from front line politics. Anti-European sentiment had taken root and this would eventually lead to Critchley leaving the party that he had spent his life supporting. This larger-than-life figure, who was a friend and political ally of Michael Heseltine (he once wrote a biography on the Conservative grandee who is now aged 83), could never tolerate the ideological direction many of his colleagues were travelling in. He went on to be a vocal critic of William Hague’s leadership when the Yorkshire man succeeded John Major in 1997.

Julian Critchley eventually left his second wife as their relationship gradually became more strained. In the early 1990’s he began a relationship with Prue Marshall, who he had known in the 1960’s. Romance didn’t blossom then, but this time was different. The relationship worked out and the couple were together until his death in the year 2000 at the age of 69. This book, written in 1995, is a fitting tribute to a fascinating political figure who – although never assuming high office – entertained many with his witty observations. One wonders what he would make of ‘Brexit’ and the state of the Conservative Party today. He’s perhaps safer in his grave, no longer suffering the stresses of political life. Anyone with an interest in British politics during the latter half of the 20th century should seek out this book. It is an entertaining and stimulating read from start to finish.

  • 'A Bag of Boiled Sweets' by Julian Critchley (Faber & Faber, 1995)