David Young, the secret SPAD

David Young, the secret SPAD

Lord Young for JC June 2021

One day in April 1987 David Young — Lord Young of Graffham — decided to lay down a little bit of contemporary history, by creating a taped diary of his account of Margaret Thatcher’s crucial third election.

As Secretary of State for Employment, he was a member of Thatcher’s Cabinet, but “realised I had never canvassed, I had never asked anyone to vote, I had never attended a political meeting in my life”. In fact he’d only joined the Conservative Party when he attended his first Cabinet meeting, and put in his application that afternoon.

But Thatcher had specifically asked Young to help with the election, about which there were all manner of concerns. “I thought, I was going to go through something which would be unique in my life. So I had a dictaphone and I made up my mind, and I kept to it, to make these tapes. I only missed one night. The election came, we won, and I put the tapes away and forgot about them.”

Im 1990, he was obliged to take a year off between leaving government and going back into the commercial world: and in this “gap year”, Young rediscovered the tapes, had them transcribed, hired someone to put in explanatory footnotes, and again put the tapes away.

It wasn’t until last year, casting around for something to read, that he found the transcripts, unread for 30 years. And now, Young’s diaries have become a book, “Inside Thatcher’s Last Election”, a ringside seat at the internal convulsions of the Conservative Party.

For political nerds and the merely curious alike, the book is a sometimes over-detailed account of many, many, “pleasant” or “jolly” lunches and dinners, punctuated by seemingly endless meetings, arguments, and rather a lot of people called Norman. (Two politicians, Norman Tebbit and Norman Fowler, civil servants Norman Blackwell and Norman Blackstone, together with David Young’s faithful driver, Norman Dodds). The good-humoured Young admits that looking over the diaries he is rather shocked by the amount of food and drink routinely consumed during the election campaign, but laughs, saying “Well, it was 30 years ago…” It doesn’t seem to have affected him one bit: he is due to celebrate his 90th birthday next February, and beams from his Zoom screen with an enthusiasm befitting his surname.

David Young came into government sideways: he was a solicitor who did not enjoy the law, and so moved to work for Sir Isaac Wolfson at Great Universal Stores, the retail and mail-order giant. Working as Sir Isaac’s assistant, he began “buying a medium sized firm a week”. This early training, and an acute sense of entrepreneurship with the encouragement of private enterprise, soon led Young to branch out on his own.

Satisfyingly, it was a Jewish charity — British ORT, which he chaired — which brought him to the attention of leading Conservative politicians. Thatcher spoke at an ORT dinner, and Young had escorted a number of politicians, including Norman Tebbit, to see ORT’s work in Paris. Young particularly took the fancy of Sir Keith Joseph, a Jewish MP who became Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in the 1979 Conservative government.

Young had become close to Joseph, and it is a tribute to Young’s emollient nature that he became first Joseph’s special adviser, or SPAD, and then followed him into government as Minister Without Portfolio (in 1984). Sir Keith was touchy, prickly, perceived as socially difficult, though said to be brilliant — perhaps the Dom Cummings of his day.

The truly striking thing emerging from Young’s account of the 1987 election — “which was never as close as we thought it was” — is the sheer absence of women. Thatcher, indeed, is one of the few female figures we encounter who is not a secretary. We meet Sally Oppenheim, (MP and junior minister in the Department of Transport) but she is a rather peripheral figure. Even Young’s beloved wife Lita is only recorded as leaving notes on the front door of their home, giving notional marks out of 10 on one of his TV or radio performance. In 1987, so it seems, the idea of female ministers in the Conservative Party was just unthinkable, and Thatcher herself seems to have suppressed her female side until it was almost negligible (although I once saw her in full Deep Flirt mode at the residence of the British ambassador in Israel, and it was quite a sight).

Through the anxious days leading to the June 11 1987 election — a date chosen, he tells us, so as not to coincide with Shavuot a week earlier — Young charts some Thatcherite meltdowns. Knowing what we now know about Harold Wilson’s decision to stand down as Prime Minister because of incipient dementia, and of Thatcher’s own long descent into Alzheimer’s before her death in 2013, had he detected any early signs of such a condition?

No, he says, firmly. “In Margaret’s case, [the tantrums] were self-induced. She seriously had only two to three hours sleep a night. I was in a very privileged position in government. I was a political eunuch. I was no threat to anyone, I was not elected. So I would see her a lot, every week…and she, every time I went to see her, I got the feeling she knew more about the workings of my department than I did. She was the antithesis of Boris: he does not know what’s going on, I believe. But she — she would work on her boxes until three or four in the morning. She was always tired during the day. She had been leader of the party for 13 years and Prime Minister for eight, and I think there is a limit as to how many years you can do that. The strain is immense, and you could see that her nerves got frayed very easily”.

If things were politically incorrect as far as women were concerned 30 years ago, there was not, says Young, a whiff of antisemitism in the Conservative Party of the day. “I did not come across any instance of antisemitism. Today… well, in the last few weeks I have seen the worst antisemitism of my life, arising from what has been going on in the Middle East. Just appalling”.

Just over 20 years after he left government, David Young was drafted in to become Enterprise Adviser to David Cameron, giving him, yet again, a privileged inside view of the machinations of government. He spent five years in this new role, and was made a Companion of Honour in the 2015 New Year honours.

So, naturally, I am curious to compare and contrast the politicians of the 1987 diaries with those of the present day. How did Lord Young rate David Cameron, for example? “I had agreed with David that I would only do the job if every paper I produced was agreed by Cabinet before it was published. We got so many new things going to help small firms, it was wonderful. But David Cameron was not like Margaret Thatcher at all, in any shape or form, because he lacked a belief system.

“When I came back to Downing Street I was 36 years older than my Prime Minister, 40 years older than my Chancellor. I didn’t have a father complex, I had a grandfather complex! In no sense could we ever have been colleagues — but he did show me respect.”

When he dealt with Thatcher, he could usually tell how she would respond. That was never the case with Cameron, he says: “I never knew if he’d say yes or no. In many cases it was how he felt that day”. Cameron, judges Young, “was conscientious, read all the [briefing] papers, but just did the job because ‘that’s what our people do’ — he spoke and acted like a prime minister, but he had no sense of direction. Anyone with a bit more seichel would have handled Brexit differently”.

He has a pithy summing up of Boris Johnson, too: “Very clever, very able, but very lazy — and, still, he is right as a leader, because he gives confidence in a very odd way”. Moreover, “there were many reasons to dislike Corbyn, even if you were not Jewish, and the present leader [Sir Keir Starmer], lacks charisma, even though he seems a nice fellow”. Dominic Cummings — “a disaster, except for running a campaign”.

Occasionally, Young says, he is driven to wish that he could sort things out. “There are some things in our society that are so wrong, and social media is one of them. It’s a poison. I was brought up in a world where if an anonymous letter came in, we’d tear it up, pay no attention. But now, anonymous letters are the norm and I have been pushing every Home Secretary to try to make the internet companies responsible as publishers unless the identity of the person saying it can be ascertained.”

We’re just about to conclude our talk when I ask him if he still sits in the House of Lords, and he says he’s ready to step down, having been a peer since 1984. Besides, he offers, “I do work with ministers in other ways”. What ways? For the first time he looks slightly uncomfortable and says he’d rather not say. So he’s a secret SPAD? He roars laughing.

Inside Thatcher’s Last Election, by David Young, is published by Biteback Publishing at £25

  • 7 June, 2021