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Article from The Guardian Unlimited, 27 th November 2001, revealing Conservative leader Michael Howard´s Jewishness:

[Highlights in red and image added by Radio Islam]


Grin and bear it

He has a fine mind and is the only member of the shadow cabinet to have held major office. So, as he prepares to do battle with Gordon Brown over the dispatch box today, why is Michael Howard still defined by a bruising encounter with Ann Widdecombe four years ago?

By Simon Hattenstone
Tuesday November 27, 2001
The Guardian


Michael Howard.

There's a spring in the step of the shadow chancellor, formerly Britain's most reviled home secretary. Michael Howard welcomes me to his lofty Commons office, overlooking the Thames. John Major used to occupy the place, which seems appropriate. Howard is the only surviving big hitter, the last throwback to the Tory glory years. Others have eased towards the back benches, most have gone for the rich pickings of the lecture circuit and directorships.

But Howard has returned to what still seems a hopeless cause. After all, it's only four years since he had his chance of the leadership blown by his colleague Ann Widdecombe when she said, rather lyrically, that he had "something of the night about him". He decided not to run. Soon after, he retired to the backbenches, exhausted, humiliated, silenced.

Today, though, he can't stop smiling. The smile of a man rejuvenated by his recent elevation to the shadow cabinet. We retire to a corner of the room stuffed with soft leather chairs. There are three nautical paintings on the wall, a fax and photocopier, piles of memoranda on his desk. Nothing to give away anything of his life - no pictures of his wife, the former model Sandra Clare, or his children, nothing that would hint at his interests, not even a book about his beloved Swansea football club. Along the walls are the most beautifully sculpted wooden cupboards. I'd love to know what's inside them.

So what's it like to be back in the thick of things? "Well, it's a bit too early to tell, really, as Mao Zedong famously said when asked about the French Revolution." Howard swings an insouciant leg over his chair and beams with satisfaction. He seems so pleased with himself, so content, that it would be churlish to tell him it was Chou Enlai who said it.

Today, in parliament, he faces his first big test as shadow chancellor, responding to Gordon Brown's pre-budget speech. Howard is renowned for his barrister's brain; for being able to sum up a creed in a soundbite. So in 20 seconds, where will he say Brown is going wrong? "Right," he says with relish. "The key thing is, great, right, the 20-second thing is, he's undermining Britain's competitiveness, and public services, everyone's prosperity, everything depends on that. We've slipped from 9th to 19th in the world competitiveness league since 1997. He's imposed far too much red tape and extra taxation on business."

Despite appearing to have embraced the pearls of Thatcherism, Howard says Labour is still wedded to socialist dogma. "Look at the sheer volume of jubilation on the Labour benches that Railtrack shareholders were having it stuck to them, and the sheer delight in that it was, you know, a bad investment - 'tough, you bought shares'.""

What first attracted him to politics? He takes me back to his grammar school in Llanelli. "I was 15 and Suez was happening, and a lot of teachers were interested in politics." Were his parents political? "No. They were interested in a passing way, in the way most people are." His father, Bernat Hecht, was a Romanian Jew who arrived in Wales in 1936. His mother Helen, also Jewish, was brought to Britain from Russia as a baby.

I ask him whether he felt like an outsider. "No. Absolutely not." Did it affect his upbringing that his father was Romanian? "OK. It's obviously important in one sense. My father was in a very good position to judge what a great country this is, and I suppose I got that from him." What made it great? "Its freedom, I suppose, more than anything else. The fact that they weren't regimented, they voted for their governments, they could say what they wanted. It's a free country. And that's something we all take for granted because it's something we grow up with, but he didn't take it for granted."

Was Romania anti-semitic? "I think at times probably it was." His father was, briefly, a cantor there and it's strange that Howard is so reluctant to talk about his family's past. He's a bright, informed man - of course, he must know that Romania was vehemently anti-semitic, that it had the Iron Guard, its own brand of Hitler's Nazi brownshirts, as early as 1930.

Howard was born Michael Hecht. Does the original family name mean anything to him emotionally today? "No, my father changed it [to Bernard Howard] when I was six, I think."

He did well at school and ended up as part of the Cambridge University mafia that included Kenneth Clarke, Norman Fowler and Norman Lamont. Wasn't it strange for a Jewish-Welsh lower-middle-class kid to be hobnobbing with the nobs? "Well it was, up to a point. But quite a few of the others in the Cambridge mafia came from grammar schools as well."

He says they were idealists who felt they could change the world. How? "I think I can best answer that by saying that, for most of us who were Tories, Iain Macleod was our great hero. He had a vision of real practical idealism. He believed in free enterprise, in freedom. He was what you might call rightwing on economic issues, and he was liberal on race, independence for the colonies. It was a very attractive combination of political attitudes."

Howard feels he was proved right - he did change the world. Or at least Britain. He is most proud of the fact that crime fell by 18% during his time as home secretary.

So why was he unpopular? "Well I wouldn't accept that. I know the Guardian thought that... I took the view that in order to do what I wanted to do to bring crime down we had to do things in a completely different way and that meant challenging deeply held beliefs on the part of what for want of a better word we'll call the liberal establishment. It did go beyond Guardian readers, that is true. It included many judges, it included the whole criminal justice establishment."

I tell him I had asked random people what word came to mind when I said Michael Howard. Guess what people said? "I don't know. I don't know ," he says enthusiastically.

"Intolerant. Malevolent. Peevish. Spiteful."

"OK." He looks away.


"Right." He squirms. And smiles.


I say that I was surprised by oleaginous and unctuous because, politically, he was anything but. "Indeed," he says. "This establishment I was challenging was absolutely affronted and fought back very hard using every weapon at its disposal, and hurled a huge amount of personal abuse at me. Some of it stuck. But it's by no mean universal. I don't know whether I should say this, but I was walking along Liverpool Street station on Tuesday and a young man came up to me, a young black man, as it happens, and said, 'I want to shake your hand; I think you were a great home secretary'." He says that when his opponents meet him face to face what really outrages them is his reasonableness.

It's strange how your face annoyed people, I say - how the public saw such arrogance and effortless superiority in your lips. "Well, I can't explain that. One person uses that description and then it sticks. I had a policy, a lot of people disagreed with it, I was determined to stick to my policy, I listened to what people said, sometimes I changed my mind, most of the time I didn't - a lot of people would describe that as arrogant. I don't think it is arrogance."

When Ann Widdecombe said Howard had "something of the night about him," his career reached its nadir. I tell him that most of the people I asked to describe him responded gleefully, "something of the night". The image has stuck. "If you say so," he says tersely, still smiling. Howard always smiles, stuck in perma-grin, whatever the situation.

It's a terrible thing to say about a colleague, I say. "Well, I am not going to go back along all that. That's a closed chapter." The problem is though, as he himself said earlier, there aren't closed chapters in politics - the past shapes the present. Howard is still defined by that something of the night.

"So what?"

But of course he knows the importance of public image in politics. I tell him I thought there was a hint of xenophobia, possibly antisemitism in the remark. "No I'm not going to talk about that I'm afraid. It's a closed chapter, and I'm not going to talk about it. Sorry."

Having said that, it was a cracking line. Did the barrister in him admire it? "I'm not going to talk about that. That's finished. Closed chapter. I'm really interested in looking at the future."

Fifteen years ago, Britain was regarded as a one-party country - Tory. Now, it's another one-party country, I suggest - New Labour. "Well, it'll change. You know these things go in swings and cycles." Does he think the Tories will form the next government? "I think it, I think it... could be." He's hardly brimming with confidence. This doesn't sound like the Michael Howard of old.

At the last election, he showed he still had teeth when he sank them into "bogus" asylum seekers. When his constituency party announced in an advert that the greatest worry for the people of Folkestone and Hythe was asylum seekers, Howard was accused of pandering to racial prejudice. I ask him whether he still thinks it is their greatest worry?

"It's a big problem for the whole country, yes. I see it first hand because of where my constituency is, yes. I see a lot of people, most of whom are not genuinely refugees, although some obviously are. As they said to me when I went to Sangatte [the Red Cross centre outside Calais], the reason why they make such incredible attempts to get to this country is because they think they get more money and better accommodation here. "

I think of the wonderful free country he describes his father entering in 1936. Isn't his asylum policy a betrayal of his own family? "We have a fair immigration policy which allows people to come in if they've got a particular job to go to or if they've got close relatives here, all of which is absolutely right and good, but what is happening at the moment is that immigration policy is being undermined because anybody who comes and says the words 'I claim asylum' is entitled to stay here while their claim is being determined."

So would you have allowed your parents into Britain? "My parents did not come by saying 'I claim asylum', as I've explained. There we are, I've got to go." But he hasn't explained. He has never explained. And he would be a lot more human, and humane, and credible, if he did so.

On the way out, I glance at the papers on his desk. "What are you looking at and noting?" he asks anxiously. As we are cajoled out of the office, I open one of the grand wooden cupboard doors. There's nothing there but wall. It's just a facade.

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