On Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher is the third most written about person in the ‘LRB’ archive, after Shakespeare and Freud. These are some of the things that were said.

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Servicemen are starting to wonder more and more precisely what the reason was for which Britain spent so much treasure, and for which they and their friends were asked to risk their lives. It is now dawning on many of them that if Mrs Thatcher really cared about the Falklands or the Falkland Islanders she would have come to some arrangement with a country that will always be only 18 minutes away by Super-Etendard. Servicemen are tumbling to it that the Falklands War was not about Queen and Country or the British national interest, that from a very early stage the sending of the battle fleet had far more to do with domestic politics and the political reputation of the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

Tam Dalyell, 5 April 1984

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The brutality of the riot police drafted in from southern counties has left deep scars on the minds of the people of this village, and an inheritance of hatred and mistrust of the local police. This hatred will take until long after this strike is over to heal – not months, but generations. The contempt which the government and the upper echelons of NCB management have for the miners has never been so blatant as during this trouble. Many miners remember the bad old days – private ownership, low wages and the absence of safety precautions – and we will never accept these conditions again. Meanwhile the only weapon we hold is the withdrawal of our labour and the determination to secure a just and lasting victory.

Harold Hancock, 15 November 1984

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A propos the safety measures now required of soccer clubs it is pointed out to Mrs Thatcher that many of them are too poor to afford such outlays. She then expresses surprise that clubs of this kind have survived at all. The same argument could of course be applied to churches. It’s a good job Mrs T isn’t archbishop of Canterbury, or we would just be left with the cathedrals and a few other ‘viable places of worship’.

Alan Bennett, 5 December 1985

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What makes things even worse for radical, progressive spirits is that the ultra-right appears to be even more in control of the Conservative Party this year than it has been previously. Mrs Thatcher clearly regards herself as a dea ex machina, sent down from on high to ‘knock Britain into shape’. She will wield her power over the next few years dictatorially and without compunction. On the other hand, there is a tremendous danger – to which Dr Owen has succumbed – in believing that ‘Thatcherism’ is somehow now invincible, that it has established a new consensus and that all the rest of us can do is debate alternatives within its framework. It is essential to demythologise ‘Thatcherism’.

Tony Blair, 29 October 1987

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With Mrs Thatcher safely in the lead, that voice and the little scuttling walk threatening to lead us into the next century, Conservative commentators like P. Worsthorne feel it now safe to admit that perhaps there is just a little truth in the general distaste for Thatcherism, the decay of manufacture, the throttling of the health service etc, and in the last few days of the campaign it might be as well to look at these details. The well-being of half the country and all it is now is an election garnish.

Alan Bennett, 10 December 1987

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When Thatcherism becomes a ‘wasm’, everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. Abroad, the term means nothing, although there are probably one or two European politicians who think it has something to do with being rude to foreigners at conferences. True, in some other countries, but not in Germany or Japan, or not for long, new right ideology has been translated into policy: but no one calls it Thatcherism.

Gordon Brown, 2 February 1989

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I realise it’s too much to expect a sense of our common lot from this government (‘you common lot’ more often the note), but since Mrs Thatcher has schooled half the nation to put its foot in the face of the other half it’s not so surprising if ‘youths’ put the boot in after office hours. No amount of moralistic afterthoughts by the home secretary is going to alter that. Meanwhile he should look round the table.

Alan Bennett, 31 March 1988

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Personally, she is neither nice nor interesting. She has immense energy, remarkable tenacity and stamina, and a good brain. But she has a shallow mind, little imagination and an immense, bullying ego. As she goes ramping on and on and on through these pages, just as she has gone ramping on and on and on through the last decade of British life, it’s hard not to feel a sort of appalled boredom. There is, moreover, no end to her presumption: to the already notorious quotes one can add another culled by Hugo Young, who finds her measuring ‘my performance against that of other countries in the real world’.

R.W. Johnson, 20 April 1989

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If you want to see the cutting edge of Thatcherism, go to Basingstoke. There, as we learn in Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher, the local council (careful, no doubt, with its ratepayers’ money) has allowed an insurance company to take over and manage a large part of the town’s shopping centre. In the interests of ‘safety’, this company now patrols the area with security guards, whose job it is to exclude the more ‘undesirable’ elements of the local population. How these ‘undesirables’ in prosperous Hampshire are to be recognised is not entirely clear. But bouncers in Basingstoke probably operate much the same way as bouncers anywhere and pick on the usual targets: dirty clothes, ghetto-blasters, cans of lager peeping out of the pockets and all the other outward signs of nuisance or just nonconformity. If your face doesn’t fit, no entry – and, in this case, no shopping.

This slightly bizarre example of ‘fortress shopping’, unthinkable ten years ago, is one clear indication of how the whole fabric of civic life has changed since Margaret Thatcher came to power. The traditional boundaries between the private and the public spheres have moved. Private or sectional interests increasingly encroach on amenities once held in common. What is now at stake is the citizens’ right to civic space.

Mary Beard, 26 October 1989

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Mrs Thatcher’s arrival at the top, a decade and a half ago, instituted a more scorching erasure. Discrediting, and if possible disavowing, the prime ministership of Edward Heath was one of the earliest tasks of the Thatcherite project. It was what gave coherence to an otherwise confused and erratic new leadership. The leader knew what she detested long before she knew what she liked, and her own part in the Heathite reign of error only magnified her disgust. As John Ranelagh, who once worked for her at the Conservative Research Department, says, she was no intellectual. His book purports to be about the people who did her intellectual work for her, and what they undoubtedly had in common was the conviction that the Heath years were a disaster. This is what first bound together Ranelagh’s galère, ranging from Keith Joseph to Alan Walters, from Alfred Sherman to Denis Thatcher: the Institute of Economic Affairs competing the while with Enoch Powell for the role of the enduring spiritual godfather whose time had come.

Hugo Young, 5 December 1991

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Phoned by the Guardian in a round-up of what people think of the departure of Mrs T. I say that I’m hopeless at this kind of thing and am simply relieved I shan’t have to think about politics quite so much. They print this fairly uninspired comment but preface it with ‘’oo ’eck’ and systematically drop all my aitches. I suppose I should he grateful they didn’t report me as saying: ‘’Ee ba gum I’m reet glad t’prime minister’s tekken her ’ook.’ Actually now that she’s gone what it does feel like is the week after Christmas.

Alan Bennett, 24 January 1991

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It is perhaps worth making it clear that Class War came into being as a loose federation of urban counter-terrorists, exegetes of riot, at about the time when the class whose anguish they unilaterally exploited was busy voting Margaret Thatcher, madonna of bother, into everlasting power.

Iain Sinclair, 27 February 1992

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The picture which Nigel Lawson draws of Thatcher herself is a remarkable testimony to the manner in which her government’s grand strategy was determined. Increasingly, ideas were translated into policy via will, whim and pique. The advice of responsible ministers was superseded by that of courtiers, among whom Professor Walters was more notable for his eminence than his greyness. In 1989 the Thatcher government had long been formally committed to achieving membership of the ERM, yet Lawson’s plea for the belated implementation of this commitment met with the retort: ‘I do not want you to raise the subject ever again: I must prevail.’ The British position at the Madrid Summit that year was apparently improvised single-handed by the prime minister behind the back of her chancellor. Not surprisingly, within months he had handed her a letter of resignation. ‘At first she refused to take it,’ he recalls, ‘but then she took it and popped it into her handbag unopened, saying that she did not wish to read it.’

Peter Clarke, 28 January 1993

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She pierced me with a glance. ‘Bow lower,’ she commanded. With what I thought was an insouciant look, I bowed a little lower. ‘No, no – much lower!’ A silence had fallen over our group. I stooped lower, with an odd sense of having lost all independent volition. Having arranged matters to her entire satisfaction, she produced from behind her back a rolled-up parliamentary order-paper and struck – no, she thwacked – me on the behind. I reattained the perpendicular with some difficulty. ‘Naughty boy,’ she sang out over her shoulder as she flounced away.

Christopher Hitchens, 20 October 1994

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The army of rats has now been joined by Lord McAlpine of West Green, Thatcher’s ‘jolly bagman’, as he calls himself. Margaret Thatcher’s affection for the British construction industry was legendary. She loved the world of quick profits from government contracts, and for all her much-hyped commitment to hard work and Methodism, she revelled in the company of the idle rich. Almost as soon as she became Tory Party leader in 1975, she appointed the chubby heir to the McAlpine millions as party treasurer. Who could have been better suited to collect money for the Tory Party than a jolly right-winger who was born in the Dorchester Hotel and had spent most of his life collecting art treasures with and for his wealthy friends?

Paul Foot, 3 April 1997

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How much difference being female made to her success in other respects is difficult to estimate, in part because she herself has always been understandably reticent on the issue. If we are to believe former male cabinet ministers in their memoirs and in their cups, at the apex of her power, she exploited her sex ruthlessly, drawing on while subverting the dynamics of the harem. She would straighten a supplicant minister’s tie, pat his shoulder, button (not unbutton) his jacket. Her lips would be carmine, her eyes clear, and all the while she would move so as to exhibit elegant legs in invariably high-heeled shoes. She acted in her prime – if this version is to be believed – like a sultan’s favourite, displaying her allure before those unable to sample it and thereby reduced them effectively to eunuchs. Yet, lethally, she was not the sultan’s favourite. She was the sultan. Too many wrong moves on the part of a Tory minister or MP, and she could summon the mutes – or in her case the Whips – and destroy him in an instant.

Linda Colley, 7 September 2000

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Westminster, in Alan Clark’s diary portrayal, was peopled almost wholly by buffoons and crooks. The Laird of Saltwood, it was evident, had no need to spend his days doing what they did: sucking up to Thatcher, plotting the downfall of mediocre rivals, pretending to take an interest in the squalid misfortunes of constituents. Clark was a volunteer, an amateur who on the tiniest of whims could instantly repair to Kent in order to repair his moat, or to swap a few more of his daddy’s paintings for a few more vintage cars. And as to the politics, here too he was above the dreary fray. He had no real political principles but he did have quite a few well-rooted prejudices and was not afraid to voice them. Upper-class gut instincts, if presented with sufficient vehemence, could easily be passed off as ideals. He was an old-style patriot, he liked to say. He wanted to cut down on welfare handouts, immigration quotas and so on. Although Thatcher was his social inferior, he saw her as a spiritual kinsperson. Indeed, his rare moments of bewilderment were usually to do with her fluctuating attitude to him: why didn’t she recognise their kinship, why didn’t she turn to him for help? Maybe she didn’t fancy him, or was it that she fancied him too much? Puzzles of this sort did not keep Clark awake at night, but they did leave one or two small puncture marks on his disdain.

Ian Hamilton, 14 December 2000

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Apropos the transport shutdown due to the volcanic cloud there have been the inevitable outbreaks of Dunkirk spirit, with the ‘little ships’ going out from the Channel ports to ferry home the stranded ‘Brits’. It’s a reminder of how irritating the Second War must have been, providing as it did almost unlimited opportunities for bossy individuals to cast themselves in would-be heroic roles when everybody else was just trying to get by. ‘Brits’ – so much of what is hateful about the world since Mrs Thatcher in that gritty hard little word.

Alan Bennett, 16 December 2010