Michael Heseltine’s half-truths

In Summer 2019 The Oxford Union hosted a talk, followed by Q&A, by The Rt Hon Lord Heseltine. The last time I heard him speak in public was many years before I began this blog, and roughly coincided with the last time I heard him speak in private. He was holding forth at a neighbouring table at a restaurant off Eaton Square in London. Over that I shall draw a veil.

This video lasts more than an hour and sixteen minutes: the talk is thirty-two minutes long. Simple arithmetic tells us that the questions keep coming for essentially three quarters of an hour, and indicates both the interest shown by the audience and Heseltine’s accommodation of it.

No paper. Heseltine is shooting from the hip. I should have been sorely disappointed had it been otherwise.

He opens with the usual courtesies to the Union; but then in quiet and measured tones, which inevitably lay silence upon the audience, he talks of his youngest days. He tells us he was born on the day Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany (not quite accurate – about five weeks out), and gives us landmarks from his youth which formed his views on what was to become the European Union. It’s a clever and very effective ethos-laden opening.

The whole speech is clever. It’s a politician’s speech, dripping with confected sincerity. But it is a brilliantly constructed tapestry of half-truths. I will supply two examples.

He can’t resist disinterring the weary canard of Winston Churchill saying that we must build a United States of Europe, but like others of his persuasion he carefully omits that in all such urgings Churchill made it clear that Britain should be not part of it, but apart. Churchill said –

We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed.

He also cites Harold Macmillan’s Winds of Change speech. It will probably come as no surprise to you that I have the transcripts of many notable speeches of history; and to make sure of my recall of that one I dug it out and read it. Heseltine implies that Macmillan was heralding concepts like the EU, whereas he did the opposite. He was calling for freedom and self-determination of nation states.

This sort of misguidance could be the idle result of sloppy research – like the inaccuracy of his birthdate not quite coinciding with Hitler’s election – but merely a cursory glance at his career in politics and business would suggest that sloppy research would not be a habit. I believe we’re looking at carefully constructed half-truths. And, as Mark Twain observed –

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.

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