“Tebbit Test is immaterial now. If I were in charge of cricket, football or athletics in the country, I would be choosing British-Asians, Blacks and people from Ethiopia. I cheer for them. The race isn’t an issue like it used to be. The time to talk stuff like ‘whether it’s in the blood’ is gone now. It has gradually washed away. Assimilation has already occurred. The more non-ethnic English get into the English cricket team, the more it will become obvious that the door is open to full integration.”
The typical liberal view — but when articulated by Norman Tebbit, the man who framed that cricket test, it comes as a surprise. Lord Tebbit, 87, is at home in Bury St Edmonds, around the corner from The Angel Hotel where Charles Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers. Back in 1990, Tebbit, a member of the Conservative party and considered Margaret Thatcher’s blue-eyed boy, devised a provocative test: “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”
It came to be known as the Tebbit Test, a test of loyalty of British Asians, and created a huge furore whose ramifications are felt to this day.
“Looking back, I suppose it was provocative. But hell, lots of funny things are said at some time or the other in life,” says the man who has been described by liberals as “a semi-house-trained polecat”, “Chingford Skinhead”, and “the Count Dracula of the Conservative party”. He chortles on hearing those old monikers again, and enquires the type of tea one wants.
Indian? No, English please, you say and he goes, “Ah, it might be a bit weak for you, but!”
“The cricket test was actually a plea for integration of sorts,” he continues. “I think if you are second-generation British passport holder, living here, educated here, if you are still supporting India, you are looking backwards, not forwards.”
Britain’s best prime ministerial candidate today is Sajid Javid, home secretary in Theresa May’s government, he says. Javid’s parents migrated to England from Pakistan. Could age have mellowed Lord Tebbit?
“Yes, it has,” he replies. “But Javid is the best man out there. And he does say he isn’t religious in conventional sense of the word. His family is well-integrated in this country.” As Britain muddles through Brexit, Tebbit remains a firm supporter of Leave, even though he does believe it could have been handled better. “I love (prominent Brexiteer and former foreign secretary) Boris Johnson’s company,” he says. “A funny man, but I wouldn’t trust him to organise the proverbial piss-up at a brewery. And they let him run the government!”
Tebbit continues to have a large number of critics, political and cultural, and is still in news for his controversial comments against gay marriage. He was the working-class boy who went on to become a pilot for British Airways, a Member of Parliament, and a close associate of Thatcher’s. He might have been prime minister too, but he chose not to run because of his wife’s poor health. He travelled to India first as a pilot and later as a politician, and met Indira, Rajiv, and Sonia Gandhi.
“It was January 1984 when I met Mrs Gandhi. I was warned by the high commissioner in Delhi that she can sometimes scarcely exchange a word, but she was very open and interesting. She had concluded that the reforms we were carrying out in UK were also needed in India. The next day, I met Rajiv and Sonia in the garden of the mission. Lovely couple, I remember. Rajiv was an airline pilot and so we had a lot in common,” he recalls. “Both the mother and son were of course murdered.”
Tebbit is no stranger to assassination attempts. Two weeks before Indira Gandhi was shot dead, an IRA bomb intended for Thatcher went off at The Grand Brighton Hotel in the middle of the night. The ceiling crashed on the bed in which Tebbit and his wife were sleeping. “I was bleeding continuously, lost a lot of blood, and wasn’t sure whether I would live.” They lay there, holding hands, until help arrived. He had a fractured back that has begun to cause problems these days; his wife Margaret was paralysed and confined to a wheelchair for life.
More trouble lay ahead for the Tebbits. Margaret was later hit by a severe form of dementia which left her with hallucinations. “When she is not in medication, she imagines that birds and animals are coming out of nowhere to attack her. It’s foul. I have no reason to believe the bomb attack had anything to do with it. Sometimes she sleeps a lot – the record is 34 hours.” Every now and then, in the night, for years, Tebbit would gently turn her to sides to avoid bed sores. These days, he has a staff to look after her. “Some days, she is awake all night; we never know how she is going to be. She can no longer remember why she can’t walk. That part of life has disappeared.”
It allowed him to emphatise with what Margaret Thatcher herself went through in her later years. “Dementia can be very cruel affair.” He says he got to see less and less of Thatcher in the later years. “As I know with my wife, it’s not easy on the person too when other people visit. She was wonderfully taken care of by her husband and one of her long-time bodyguards. She was a remarkable woman, a powerful personality. There were three bits to her: one she was a daughter of a lower middle-class shopkeeper in middle England. Other one she was a devoted non-conformist Christian. Third, she was a scientist, worked as one. No one but her could have taken the hard decisions that were needed to be taken in those times.”
There’s a lot that he talks about — Thatcher (“we used subversion and cunningness but we got her as the head!”), Brexit (“We don’t need to be instructed by the Germans, the French or the Italians on how to run a country. Thank you very much but we have been doing it for quite a long time.”), and some of the incredible personalities he has met in his life (including Airey Neave who walked out of a German prison in a fake officer’s uniform, telling the sentry in German, “What’s the matter with you man, don’t you know how to respect an officer?”)
In the end, asked whether he at least took a pen from his day at home office for memorabilia, he chuckles and takes you upstairs to his library. Lined on a shelf on the wall are three ‘Red boxes’ used by MP’s to carry documents. “I didn’t take it, they give to you.” Below, on the side, a portrait of his with his wife hangs.Tebbit is looking straight back; Margaret is staring out in the distance at nothing in particular. “I think the artist sensed her state of mind. She looks a bit lost, doesn’t she? Mentally not there.”