Norman Fowler loves the tranquillity of life in Seaview. It’s a world away from the hustle, bustle and turmoil that were integral parts of his life as a Conservative MP for more than 30 years.
Although the sea is barely a pebble’s throw from the front door of the house where he lives with his wife Fiona, Norman admits he has never been one for sailing. Maybe a bit more nautical experience would have helped him ride out some of the political storms he found himself immersed in during his time in Government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.
Now an active member of the House of Lords as Lord Fowler of Sutton Coldfield, Norman openly admits: “I like a challenge, but I don’t think anyone likes the heat of criticism that can come with it at the time.”
During his time in the Commons there were plenty of controversial, but hugely satisfying times as he accepted a variety of roles within Transport, Social Services and Employment, as well as serving as Chairman of the Conservative Party and Shadow Home Secretary.
Although he always had designs on a career in politics he became a journalist on the Times newspaper for nine years after graduating at Cambridge, where coincidentally he was part of a young Tory ‘mafia’ that also included Leon Britton, Ken Clarke, Michael Howard, John Gummer and others.
He recalls: “I joined the Times as Home Affairs correspondent hoping it would be a step towards becoming a politician. Then rather surprisingly, I was selected for Nottingham South in 1968, and won. But the first statement I heard in the Common was the Queen’s Speech which implemented the Boundary Review, and my seat disappeared off the face of the earth – there was no longer a Nottingham South.”
So for two years he was MP for Nottingham South and candidate at the next election for Sutton Coldfield. Norman served as Sutton Coldfield MP for 27 years, taking his overall Commons career to 31 years. Margaret Thatcher put him into her Shadow Cabinet. He smiled: “It was a surprise. I hadn’t even voted for Margaret Thatcher to become leader of the Conservative Party. She gave me Health and Social Security. It was a baptism of fire!”
He was later moved by Maggie to ‘Transport’ when the Tories won the 1979 Election he became Transport Minister. One of the first things he did was privatise the ferry service across the Solent, which used to belong to British Rail.
The most significant change though was the introduction of compulsory wearing of seat belts. He recalls: “I felt it was going to be extremely difficult to enforce the law, but Parliament should have the right to determine it once and for all. We had spent more than a decade avoiding the decision on seat belts, but I was instrumental in allowing that decision to be taken.”
In 1981 Norman moved to Health and Social Security, and stayed six years, longer than anyone since the war. He reflected: “In those days it was a hell of a fight. We had a health strike, and any change you made inside the health service was fought all the way.
“I suppose the thing I look back on with most satisfaction was what we did with regard to HIV Aids in 1986. People were dying, so we mounted a massive public education campaign with TV adverts, and sent leaflets to every house in the country. I was accused of scaring people, but I preferred that rather than allowing it to go on.
“We also introduced clean needle exchanges. It was criticised but brought down the level of new cases of HIV Aids, and has been followed around the world. It has been shown to be a life saver.”
In 1987 Norman was switched to Employment, and says: “I was very lucky. Every month I was there unemployment came down. I took pride in getting rid of the old Dock Work Regulation scheme, which was gumming up ports. Since then port areas have expanded.”
Norman talks openly about life under Margaret Thatcher, explaining: “We had a perfectly reasonable relationship. I was a supporter of her from the beginning, even though I didn’t vote for her! But I found as the years went by that she surrounded herself with advisers rather than Ministers, and she became more remote as far as Cabinet Ministers were concerned. I was never her opponent, but she had got out of touch with the people who had supported her, and the real turning point was in 1987 when she won the third election.
“She thought she could do everything, but turned to areas she had not touched before like Poll Tax, which did more than anything to bring her down. She had been a radical PM but also reasonably cautious, which made her great. But she threw caution to the wind, and by 1987 she told me we were going to be unpopular in 18 months time – and we were!
“She was a great Prime Minister. Her determination was formidable, and the way she conducted business was extremely good. She worked round the clock, and I don’t think anyone else could have done what she did in the 1980s. It might sound corny but it was an enormous privilege to have served with her, and I don’t think we will see her like again.”
Norman left Government in 1990 to ‘spend more time with my family’, and had a few years as a back bencher, before becoming Party Chairman under John Major. He continued: “John Major was a totally different animal to Margaret, and at a time when everyone wanted a totally different animal. But he was overtaken by a whole range of events that he did not recover from. We committed political suicide; Tory MPs arguing with one another. Europe became the dominating issue, and we gave the wrong image to the country. We looked utterly divided, and you don’t get anywhere when you are like that.
“In 1997 we went down catastrophically, but I went back into the Shadow Cabinet with William Hague, and enjoyed that. I served as Shadow Home Secretary for a couple of years, but then packed up.”
That was when Norman moved to the House of Lords, and among other major issues was instrumental in implementing the ongoing Leveson inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. He claims; “In my view it was necessary. I am entirely in favour of the freedom of press, but I don’t defend prying into private lives and people with long range cameras managing to get a shot of someone. So we need a system that divides one from the other.”
Away from the Lords, Norman and his wife love the Island. He said: “When we got married in 1979 and had children we found that going across Europe to a far off beach became less appealing, so we came back here, where Fiona had been many times. Seaview is a fantastic place for the children and now the grandchildren. It feels safe, and fits into our life extremely well.
“You live in a place because of the people rather than the location, and people here are so friendly. I have been president of Seaview Regatta, which I enjoyed immensely, so it couldn’t have been better.”