Biographical / Historical
Nicholas Ridley was born on 17th February, 1929, at Blagdon Hall, Northumberland, the younger son of the third Viscount Ridley. He was educated at Eton School and Balliol College, Oxford. Ridley had initially wanted to become an architect, following his maternal grandfather, Sir Edwin Lutyens, but was persuaded by his father to study mathematics and engineering at Oxford. Upon graduation Ridley became a civil engineer and rose to managing director of Brims & Co. Ltd in Newcastle.
In 1950 he married Clayre Campbell, daughter of the fourth Baron Stratheden and Campbell and they had three daughters. The marriage was dissolved in 1974 and five years later he married Judy Kendall.
Ridley’s political career began at the 1955 general election, when he unsuccessfully contested the safe Labour seat of Blyth. He was then selected as Conservative candidate for Cirencester and Tewkesbury and won the seat at the 1959 election. He represented this constituency throughout his time in Parliament.
Ridley quickly established a reputation as a forceful backbencher favouring economic reform. He opposed the Macmillan plan to lend money to the National Coal Board in 1961 and strongly supported Edward Heath's policy of abolishing retail price maintenance in 1963. He voted for Enoch Powell against Heath in the 1965 leadership election.
He was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary in 1962, and from 1964 he was a Select Committee member before joining the front bench.
In the late 1960’s he was instrumental in setting up the Economic Dining Club. A secret association of a dozen free market Conservatives who met regularly and privately, usually in each other's homes. One object was to keep contact with Enoch Powell, whose political views had taken him away from the mainstream Tory economic debate. Many of the clubs members became ministers after 1979 - including Margaret Thatcher.
Ridley found himself so out of place in Edward Heath's Conservative Party that he resigned as a junior industry minister in protest at the 1972 industry bill U-turn. In 1973, he formed the Selsdon Group, which was opposed to the abandonment of the radical 1970 manifesto by Edward Heath. The members of the group were seen as disloyal at the time but their ideas came to dominate the Thatcher years.
Upon Margaret Thatcher’s election his career was modestly advanced and he became Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His time at the FCO is best remembered for his attempt to settle the Falklands dispute. He visited the islands first in 1979 and returned with a plan to yield Falklands sovereignty to Argentina in return for a lease-back agreement. This plan was unpopular in the House of Commons, where Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties combined to attack the idea. Ridley’s warning that Britain must discuss sovereignty with Argentina or prepare effectively to defend the islands was ignored. By the time the invasion came, Thatcher had appointed Ridley as Financial Secretary to the Treasury.
In October 1983 he joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Transport. This was followed by Secretary of State for the Environment from May 1986 until July 1989, and then Trade and Industry Secretary until his resignation in 1990. Ridley maintained his reputation as a robust free marketeer, particularly with the privatisation and deregulation of the bus and water industries. As a Secretary of State he led from the front, committing his departments, especially the Environment, to substantial programmes of legislation.
His ministerial career was cut short on account of an unguarded interview with the Spectator's editor, Dominic Lawson, alleging German determination to dominate the European Community.
Ridley was not anti-European. At one time he had even co-authored a pamphlet advocating a united Europe in the 1960s. However, since the publication of the Delors report he had become increasingly alarmed at the momentum driving Britain towards Euro-federalism.
On 28 July 1992, he was created a life peer as Baron Ridley of Liddesdale, of Willimontswick in the County of Northumberland. Ridley died of lung cancer relatively soon after his elevation to the House of Lords. His last days were spent declaiming against the Maastricht treaty, speaking in the House of Lords just two weeks before his death.