Sir Keith Joseph – a man who changed lives


In 1995 Margaret Thatcher made a marvellous speech in tribute to her dear friend and mentor Sir Keith Joseph.

Every word is spoken from the heart, and it perfectly captures how so many of us who were drawn into political activism by him felt about the great man.

The whole speech is worth re-reading and can be found here. But these are three lines which stood out for me:

  • “He changed the course of history not only for us but for those in other countries who followed his life and work.”
  • “Keith never treated politics as the art of the possible but as the art of making the impossible happen.”
  • “He talked about economics but he felt about people.”

I remember meeting Sir Keith for the first time following up on a critique he sent to me of a political pamphlet I had co-authored called “The Right Direction.”

It was a precocious effort from a couple of teenage Young Conservatives. We sent a copy to Sir Keith not really expecting to hear back.

He sent a critique that was longer than the pamphlet and invited me to come up to the Centre for Policy Studies to discuss some of the ideas.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more chuffed by anything in my life.

The second time I saw him he was the speaker at a student event at the LSE. He spoke without notes and took questions by walking around the hall standing inches away from each questioner.

No matter how aggressive the questioner he addressed each as if raising a particularly challenging point in a seminar discussion. It was like attending a university tutorial group, but one with a few hundred people present.

The third time he was a guest at a fund-raising event I organised for the Conservative Associations in Haringey. He managed to spend the whole event running through not our successes but our failures.

He seem too tortured by the few things which had not been achieved to celebrate the successes, but his message was clear – learn from our mistakes. He was critical of those people who adopted Bismarck’s dictum of settling for “the next best.” To him it was not a matter of what could not be achieved, but what should.

Interestingly Mrs Thatcher said something similar in that Oxford address:

“Keith never treated politics as the art of the possible but as the art of making the impossible happen.”


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