Cecil Parkinson died yesterday. When he was Secretary of State for Energy I met him on a few occasions and quite liked him as a guy. He was one of those rare politicians who changed things. The liberalisation of the City, appropriately termed Big Bang, released incredible amoral forces. His break-up of electricity in privatisation changed the landscape of the country forever, bringing down King Coal and sending me on to a different career path from the one I’d chosen. By then I was Finance Director of the CEGB. As Chou en Lai might have said about the French revolution, it’s too early to say whether Parkinson’s reforms were good or bad things. Undoubtedly, carbon emissions have fallen as a result. Britain has boomed as the world financial hub.
But I’m a northerner, without the patience of a Chinese intellect. The resulting higher exchange rate from Britain’s financial status and eighties Government indifference meant that our manufacturing base closed down far more quickly than elsewhere. These days, with my son at Nottingham University, I sometimes drive past Ratcliffe Power Station down the A453, and get goose bumps at the throb of the turbines I can always feel. The CEGB’s best power station, I can remember first going there when I was just turned 30 as Financial Controller of Midlands Region for a torrid meeting over the next year’s budget. Towards the end of the meeting, the Maintenance Superintendent challenged me to an arm wrestle over the last bone of contention. I took one look at him and gave in. Those guys were totally committed to doing the best job they could. Now all coal plant will be closed within 10 years, replaced mainly by combined cycle gas turbines. There’s nothing like as much engineering fun in those. It’s not too early to say I don’t like what’s happened.
The one thing I could never understand about Cecil was that excruciating accent, even worse than Mrs T’s. Son of a railwayman (I’m 14 years younger and the Grandson of one), from Carnforth, with local role models Thora Hird and Eric Morecambe speaking the clearest, plainest English you can get, he preferred to sound like a constipated cow. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson were only changing trains.
I know there are generational reasons. When I went up to Oxford in 1964 a northern accent was hip, whereas a generation earlier the great BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme moved his Boltonian into neutral. Peter Kay hasn’t had that need. My wife is from East London, my children from North London and they speak naturally in their native tongues, with only the occasional misunderstanding between us. It’s their identity and my gruffly lugubrious tones are mine.
The Armed Forces and the Conservative Club no doubt both had their impacts for Cecil. For me he changed his voice well beyond what was necessary, to something so much less pleasing because it was clearly false. He spoke so deliberately that he could sound slow-witted. His mid-career downfall maybe demonstrated that too well. He should have stuck with Lanky.
Does Mandarin have northern and southern accents?