Lord Michael Heseltine may be best known as the politician who challenged Margaret Thatcher for leader of the Conservative Party, a move which ultimately led to her downfall.
More recently, he has been no less bold on the public stage – a statement that he would vote Lib Dem rather than Tory because of their position on Brexit got him booted out of the party.
What is less well-known is that Lord Heseltine, 86, started Accountancy Age 50 years ago. He also spent time in the early years of his career training to be an accountant, although that career was quickly abandoned. Accountancy Age spoke to him earlier this year about the ways the profession has changed, how those early entrepreneurial years influenced his political position, and whether or not it is true that people mellow with age (clue: not in this case).
How did you come to try a career as an accountant?
At around 16 I was going to be a surgeon then I was confronted by the experience of dissecting animals, I was alright with the frogs and the dogfish but the smell of the rabbits was quite awful. I looked around for something else and accountancy seemed a possibility.
It must have been very different to the accountancy world of today…
My first task, 9th January, 1955, was to go to one of the big slaughterhouses in London, and add up cast, as it was called, the ledgers for the farmers’ invoices, and I spent the whole day doing that. I remember rushing out of the building at about five o’clock clutching my head, I couldn’t take anymore of this endless adding up of columns and figures. I have to say that I was not a great success as an accountant, I got through the intermediate, never took the finals.
How did Accountancy Age come about?
I had also become involved in the property business, and we had this hotel. I used to work in the city all day and go home and paint the rooms of the hotel at night and weekends. A friend of mine bought a publishing business, asked my opinion, I gave it to him, he said, ‘that’s good, why don’t you join me?’ So I was in property and publishing by the end of the 50s.
In 1960 we did a property deal which delivered a bit of money and we used the money to buy a very grotty trade magazine, a quarterly, to enable the tailors and cutters of Savile Row to promote their products to young people. And we turned it into a magazine called Man About Town but it rapidly became Town, and it was a huge publishing visual presentational success. Our printers were a company called Keliher, Hudson & Kearns, and they came to us and said ‘you buy more magazines and we’ll print them, and we’ll share the profits,’ and we did that deal.
I set about buying more magazine companies, and I did that by writing to a thousand people who owned magazine companies, or ran them, or whatever it was, and the letter was always very courteous and charming: ‘I’ve long admired what you do, I’m sure there’s ways we can work together.’ I always bought a magazine from that. I got a letter from the managing director of Gee & Company, who were basically textbook, accountancy textbook company.
I said, ‘I must congratulate you on the incredible sales story you must have to sell all these page after page after page of advertising,’ he said, ‘oh no, we don’t sell it, it comes in through the post.’ Three months later we launched Accountancy Age. It made money from day one and we sold it, I think, in 1980.
Were you sorry to sell Accountancy Age?
We sold that and Computing at the same time. Computing was another very successful project based on classified advertising, and we sold them for a lot of money, which enabled us to do all sorts of other things at the time which were attractive. I was sorry to see them go.
You had some run-ins with the unions at the time, do you think that influenced your opinions of union power?
I think it gave me a personal experience which confirmed my political judgements. We did have difficulties with the unions at that time but we resolved them.
Did your entrepreneurial experience from the property sector and then publishing have a big influence on the way you saw politics?
Yes, enormously. My whole experience of running great departments was built on my experience of starting small businesses. It was on a very different scale, but many of the rules are the same. So going from running a medium-sized company to running a large government department was an evolutionary, not revolutionary, experience.
Did that sometimes put you into conflict with politicians who had gone straight into politics from university?
It certainly gave me views which many of my political colleagues did not share about how we ran government departments, but those views are as clear today as they were then.
Would you say you have mellowed with age at all?
The lessons I learnt in the 60s in publishing are still as vivid today as they were then and have seriously influenced my views about politics. I think that running boarding houses and small hotels, and running employment agencies in the 60s, which I did, told me a lot about immigration and racial tensions. My experience in the property business probably gave me a familiarity with the language, if nothing else, which was relevant in dealing with some of the difficulties of urban policies.
You’ve decided to be quite outspoken about Brexit and the impact that’s going to have on the economy; what made you decide to speak out, what kind of moral imperative did you feel?
I was there in the Second World War, I lived through the formation of the European movement. I know why they did it, I know why every Conservative leader I worked for told me it was the right thing to do, and I have never found any convincing arguments that they were wrong. It is quite apparent to me that Brexit is a serious threat not just to our economic wellbeing but to our place in the world, to our power structure, to our ability to influence what is going on across the globe let alone our own continent, and it is a volunteering of diminished power and status. I cannot understand anyone who would vote for that.
Is it partly your experience as a businessman that gives you that perspective?
No, I would say not, because it isn’t a business venture; Europe is about the determination of a generation of people that it must never happen again, and what must never happen again is the Franco-German war, the First World War, the Second World War, and the Europeans, the men and women from the prisoner of war camps, the resistance movements, said; this must never happen again and we’re going to create a structure to draw Europe together and keep it together in the name of democracy and peace and prosperity, to ensure it never happens again. That is what it was all about and I strongly support it. And in the post-imperial world it is the only destiny for Britain that gives us a position on the world stage commensurate with the pride I have in our past.
What can you remember from the Second World War, what kind of impact did that have on you when you were a child?
The bombs, is that enough?
I wasn’t in Swansea for the whole time but I was there enough to know that our little dog knew bombers would come at nine o’clock and was always waiting at the top of the basement stairs to go down when the air raid sirens started. He was always there and we always went down at nine o’clock.
Were you frightened?
I can remember listening to Neville Chamberlain announce the declaration of war in September 1939, so it gives you a perspective. I was the first minister to speak in America after Britain joined the European Union in 1973, so I’m just appalled by this trivia that is paraded as an alternative to Britain’s position at the heart of Europe.
People say we live in uncertain times. How do they compare to everything you’ve lived through?
Everything’s better nowadays than it was, that’s the simple truth. By any statistics that you’d like to measure, peoples educational attainment, their housing conditions, their living standards, their medical achievements, their life expectancy, the figures are starkly better than at any period passed. Of course you’ve got to persuade people of that because they don’t judge it with the sense of perspective of someone my age. if you were to consider what being poor in the 20s was all about, for millions, look at their health conditions, look at their life expectancy, there’s no comparison.
The people jumping into those inflatable dinghies aren’t the elderly, the idle, or the shirkers. They’re the cream of the most energetic, the youngest, who want to share all that we’ve got for their kids – who’s to blame them if they come, they’re going to keep coming and we’re going to have to cope with that problem.
Do you think we’re in danger of seeing major unrest in Europe again?
I’m not a gloom monger, I’m on the optimistic side of life and I believe not and I hope not, but I have enough sense of history to know how much miscalculation, misjudgement, mistake, plays a role in dynamics of human society. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia, who would have thought that would have precipitated the First World War?
Of course the consequences of failure are more devastating because the weaponry that we’ve all developed is capable of horrendous consequences. So I’m an optimist, the human condition is improving, terrible things are happening but for the majority things are better than they were, the vast majority. We should keep it that way.
What are you most proud of?
The speech I made to Tory Party conference in 1981 about my experiences of dealing with the riots in Liverpool and the trauma of the economic failure of Liverpool, and the traumas of the immigrant communities, that would be the best speech I ever made.
What would you say to young people who are perhaps starting out in their professional lives to encourage them to take heart?
It’s pretty meaningless for people to give advice to other people, particularly those whose circumstances they don’t understand. But if there’s one thing I say to anyone who asks I say, ‘do something that makes you look forward to a Monday morning,’ because I can’t think of anything more awful to dread than going back to work for five days.