Shortly before the last election, a cabinet minister made an indiscreet prophecy over lunch. After Mrs Thatcher, he said, the Conservative Party, like a great river, would return again to its ancient course. When the past decade is far enough behind us for biography to become history, it will be interesting to see how many chapters the years alter Downing Street will comprise in any authoritative work on Margaret Thatcher, how far the Thatcherite silt will shape the river that flows beyond her.
Mrs Thatcher has already proved is difficult to judge since leaving office as she was when holding it. The voice of Britain in the Eighties has been most audible in recent months in the United States. In the Commons, where on the day of her defeat she carried all before her, she is now silent when not absent, but on the steps of her Eaton Square home, with Kurdish children clinging to her skirts, three sentences of Thatcherite imperatives mocked with their rhetorical certainty the serviceable prose of her successor and chided him to the most dramatic initiative of his premiership. Her voice rings as if from across the ages, yet it is immediately recognisable. How far that recognition is welcomed by those who sat at her knee for so long is a more difficult question. In the speech he made to the Scottish Conservatives in Perth, John Major remembered to mention her only once, in an ad lib from his text.
The Conservatives are trying to do in government what, historically, political parties do in opposition: to secure the future by re-inventing the past. The re-inventing of Conservatism must be seen to be done by John Major, but the risky business of defining what it is is being left to his Party Chairman, Chris Patten. If he and his generation are gently to prise themselves away from their immediate predecessors, without at the same time losing their grip on government, they must find a new language of Conservatism.
Again Mrs Thatcher makes the task harder. How is her successor to measure himself against her rhetoric – ‘Enterprise Culture’, ‘Value for Money’, ‘Victorian Values’, ‘Conviction Politics’? By contrast, John Major’s catch-phrases, ‘God bless,’ ‘Who’d have believed it,’ ‘Wait and see,’ remind one of the homely sentiments of Ronald Reagan. However, last October, in an extraordinary speech for a Chancellor to a Tory Conference, there was a glimpse of something more. Brushing aside his Treasury brief as swiftly as he decently could, he came out with an explicit statement, delivered within eight weeks of the fight for the leadership, in which he married a rough disdain for liberal intellectual preoccupations of which Mrs Thatcher would have been proud with a recognition of values beyond the scope of her utilitarianism. He paid homage at her altar of ‘choice and opportunity’, promised to build on it, but went on:
As we do so, the Labour Party will accuse us of being materialists. I plead guilty ... What materialism means for many people is that they are better fed, better clothed, better housed than ever before. They own homes, cars, washing-machines and televisions on a scale earlier generations never dreamed of. They live in a society where literature, art and music are available in abundance ... in which the class barriers that once strangled social mobility are gone.
Mr Major’s property-owning democracy, it turns out, is crammed, not just with cars and videos, but with works of literature and paintings too. Mrs Thatcher’s vision of homes fit for Tories appeared, however unfairly, to focus on the satellite dish rather than the bookshelves.