Goodness me

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice: A Politician’s Psycho-Biography of Margaret Thatcher by Leo Abse
    Cape, 288 pp, £13.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 224 02726 3

Mrs Thatcher, like Hedda Gabler, thinks of herself as her father’s daughter. For a hero, Alderman Roberts may be lacking in style. ‘A cautious, thrifty fellow’ is how Hugo Young describes him and it’s easy to tell he isn’t impressed. But Alfred Roberts was an imposing figure in Grantham and his businesses worked at a time when a great many failed. What we chiefly know of his wife, the elusive Beatrice, is that her daughter wishes her not to be known at all. Young calls Mrs Roberts ‘a practical downtrodden woman’, and in a photograph taken at a Rotarian dinner she is said to be ‘shy and dour-faced’. Mrs Thatcher may have gone too far in excluding the customary reference to her mother from the account of herself that she gives in Who’s Who, but the Prime Minister always goes too far. Only a Freudian committed to the notion that – in the home and in the House – women are nature’s Wets would fail to see why the young Margaret Roberts should have decided that her future depended on not taking after her mother. Leo Abse, however, is a Freudian of precisely that kind.

For thirty years Labour MP for Pontypool, Mr Abse retired at the last general election. An active backbencher, interested above all in how people (rather than nations or classes) get on with each other, he played an important part in the liberalisation of the law on issues such as homosexuality and divorce. That, one could say, is the good side of combining an involvement in politics with a commitment to Freud. The bad side is this penchant he has for large-scale psycho-biography. His first effort in the genre, Private Member, an account of the House of Commons as a place peculiarly populated by the emotionally unsound, was published fifteen years ago. Aneurin Bevan, Abse said there, was a Freudian case-study; Harold Wilson’s ‘seeming calmness’ a ‘regressive schizoid phenomenon’. The book undoubtedly scored a few (underhand) hits and Anthony Howard called it a ‘revolutionary’ work.

In fact, Private Member was pretty modest by comparison with what we have here. ‘Live dangerously,’ an inauspicious epigraph from Nietzsche insists: ‘Send your ships into uncharted seas! Be robbers and conquerors – you lovers of knowledge!’ Abse knows that he isn’t quite Nietzsche’s equal – ‘I do not presumptuously claim the purity of Nietzsche’ – but, like the Prime Minister, he is quite certain that he’s better than everyone else: better than the professional psychoanalysts cowering in their consulting-rooms, and better certainly than any political scientist. Take Robert McKenzie, the television psephologist and master of the swingometer, a figure well-known in the Sixties, but now safely dead – and, as we shall see, without heirs who might want to sue on his behalf. A TV producer once had the idea of filming Abse and McKenzie as they were having a meal together.

The production was a failure. McKenzie was a voyeur, relishing his forays into pornographic shows in Denmark and Holland, liking to view the displayed obscenities even as he enjoyed being viewed on TV, but never, never touching: not for nothing did he live in an isolated homestead. The intimacy of our dinner table ... discomfited him. The meals my wife provides and the wines I pour at dinner parties are secularised versions of Biblical feasts, unselfconsciously designed to bring communality, and the success of an evening is to be measured by how close we have brought people together. This was anathema to McKenzie and in such an ambience he could not maintain his impeccable television standards: he botched the programme.

It would be interesting to know what Mr Abse might have found to say about Thatcher were there no libel laws to protect her. In the circumstances, however, he has to make do with slander by psychoanalysis – and in the process succeeds mainly in slandering psychoanalysis.

The trouble with Mrs Thatcher is, first of all, the fact that she’s a woman. Of course, Mr Abse doesn’t put it that bluntly. Instead he says things like this: ‘The Tory MPs’ choice of Thatcher was made at a time when they were overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness; it was made to gratify an unconscious infantile need and did not spring from a conscious mature assessment. It was in a despairing mood that they submitted to the lady and paved the way for the first woman prime minister in Western Europe.’ Then, to make matters worse, she isn’t the sort of woman a woman ought to be. Mr Abse doesn’t actually say that every woman should stay at home, look after the children and provide meals like the meals his wife provides. But he sneers at Mrs Thatcher for not doing these things (heaven knows what he would have said had she not had children at all) when in fact she did the one thing most women dream of doing: she married a millionaire. On the one hand, he speaks of her ‘hermaphrodite leadership’. On the other, he blames her in the time-honoured way for succumbing too readily to the lure of a more powerful man: ‘Thatcher’s deprivation of her defaecatory pleasures’ – more of these later – ‘made her an easy lay for Milton Friedman.’ Or, more simply, ‘she could refuse Reagan nothing.’

The reason the Prime Minister isn’t the kind of woman Mr Abse believes, or seems to believe, all women should be is that her mother wasn’t either. Nor was her grandmother. Poor Mr Abse: not just one (bad) woman to contend with but three. ‘During each election I have fought’ – single handed? – ‘against Thatcher I have always been aware that my real opponents were Beatrice Roberts and the grandmother who enveloped the household. These women, of so little public importance in their lifetimes, rule us from their graves.’ Phoebe Stephenson, Thatcher’s mother’s mother, was a ‘martinet’; because of that, Beatrice Roberts was ‘drained of affect’; because of that, Mrs Thatcher, having had a bad time both on the breast and on the pot, is deranged; and because of that, the country is in the shape it is in today. ‘The balance of our human stock is threatened,’ Keith Joseph famously said in a speech in Birmingham in 1975. ‘A high and rising proportion of children are being born to the mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up.’ The remark is generally held to have cost him his chances of leading his party. There is some irony in the fact that the daughter of one of those not-good-enough mothers got the job in his place.

Why did Mrs Thatcher put an end to free school milk? To avenge ‘the deprivation she felt at the breast’. What is the reason for her dislike of the Welfare State? It puts her in mind of ‘the qualities with which mothers less atypical than Beatrice Roberts are so bountifully endowed’. Why can’t she be friends with her colleagues? Because her mother ‘could not speak to the baby at her breast’. Why does she keep saying ‘Goodness me’? In order to ‘mask the “badness in me” which unconsciously she feels and fears’. Why is she so often angry? Because ‘only then does she regain the self-esteem she was not granted in the cradle.’ Why is she so impatient? Because as a baby she couldn’t be confident that the good breast would soon return.

What can’t be explained by the breast can be explained by the pot. Why does she make such a virtue of cleanliness? To defend herself against ‘a nostalgia that she feels may pull her back to her unspent coprophilia’. Why does she set such store by the money supply (as in monetarism and Milton Friedman)? Because she was deprived of ‘her defaecatory pleasures’. Why did she ‘open the doors of the Stock Exchange’? Because she herself had been forbidden ‘the joys of shitting’. Why won’t she allow us to join the European Monetary System? Because she can’t accept ‘any external control of her private peristalsis’. One of the few pleasures afforded by Mr Abse’s book is that we can now think of Mrs Thatcher as the sphincter without a secret.

It is a wonder of psycho-biography that it can say so much with so few facts at its disposal. According to Mr Abse, the Prime Minister suffers from ‘a narcissistic personality disorder’ – one of the most serious charges psychoanalysis can bring. He isn’t of course alone in thinking that Mrs Thatcher may be off her head: it’s a view that a large section of the electorate has held for some time. And only last week it was reported that Thatchergate, her plan to erect a set of railings across the end of Downing Street, had ‘sent a buzz of speculative excitement through psychiatric circles’. Anthony Storr, for example, believes that the railings may be a manifestation of paranoid feelings. No one has so far likened them to vagina dentata but we are still waiting to hear from Mr Abse on the matter. In the meantime it remains for him to explain why Mrs Thatcher’s sister, who presumably had much the same upbringing, did not become prime minister. Psychoanalysis would be a more interesting field of endeavour if it were able to tell us why some people don’t acquire narcissistic personality disorders.

Kind Michael Foot, the only living politician to escape Abse’s criticisms, has said – the quote is on the dust-jacket – that Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice is ‘an extremely important political book’; and that no doubt is how Mr Abse would like his readers to see it. Presumably, it wasn’t down to chance that its publication coincided with the Labour Party Conference. Did Mr Abse maybe think it would sway the block – or blocked – votes? ‘I believe it can do incalculable, but highly necessary damage to the whole Thatcher face and image,’ Foot continues. Perhaps Mrs Thatcher’s own party is Abse’s real target. Not that many others, after all, need any persuading.

Animosity against the Prime Minister is now so widespread that one might be excused for thinking that in the matter of anti-Thatcherite comment anything goes. Mr Abse has proved that this isn’t the case. We may be used to politicians (and others) writing their memoirs in order to score off their enemies, but not since William Bullitt got together with Freud to slam Woodrow Wilson has anyone made such scurrilous use of the paraphernalia of psychoanalysis. One thing is certain. Mrs Thatcher, whatever else we may think of her, wouldn’t stoop so low. But then politicians in power have even more disagreeable ways of making themselves felt.