Stormy and prolonged applause transforming itself into standing ovation

Ross McKibbin

  • Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcherism by Ian Gilmour
    Simon and Schuster, 328 pp, £16.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 671 71176 8

Ian Gilmour could scarcely have timed the publication of this book better. The last few weeks really have been a Marxist ‘conjuncture’: a heightened moment when social realities can no longer be contained by dominant ideologies; or, in the idiom of an un-Marxist age, the moment when the sky is darkened by chickens returning to roost. Within the same few days the true nature of the recession – that it is now largely out of control – has been generally admitted, even by those who throughout the last election campaign stoutly declined to say anything sensible; the precarious position of British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce cars which, like Jaguar and Rolls-Royce aeroengines, had been so unwisely privatised, became all too public; Black Wednesday itself, when delusion and false pride were punished with a speed uncommon even in Classical tragedy. One minute the Prime Minister sees the pound as Europe’s hardest currency; the next it is chased out of the ERM, softer than the peseta. And finally, the astonishing decision to obliterate half the country’s coal industry – a decision itself a direct consequence of the way gas and electricity were privatised by the Thatcher Government. In the midst of all this Lord Gilmour has published his account of Thatcherism, Dancing with Dogma, a felicitous title to a book which comes wrapped in the fine photo of the author dancing with Dogma which readers of the London Review saw last July – he slightly uneasy, she unnaturally coy. She had just dismissed him from her Cabinet.

Ian Gilmour is unusual among modern politicians. He approaches politics in a markedly intellectual way and with a powerful historical sense – as his recent Riot, Risings and Revolution demonstrates. He also follows the scholarly conventions, which makes him even more unusual. This book is thus substantially a product of research and any reader who has an old-fashioned desire to find out what ‘actually happened’ can do so. It breaks one scholarly convention, however – it is gracefully and wittily written. It also differs from most scholarly books in that the author was both observer and actor. From 1979 to 1981 he was a member of the Thatcher Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and deputy Foreign Secretary. Thereafter he was an active backbencher – in touch but unquestionably on the outer circle. The result is that Dancing with Dogma has two different tones: one autobiographical, the other detached and historical. The two tones are nevertheless not discordant; partly because of Lord Gilmour’s ease of style, partly because the overall argument is afforced by personal observation. Thus at one point he describes Lady Thatcher as ‘mistress of the irrelevant detail’ and notes how in meetings she would cling to one unimportant fact from which she could not be prised. This was widely known before she became prime minister and many examples (some of them very funny) circulated privately during her premiership. After 1979, however, it was not publicly mentioned; I do not know how many times I read of her customary ‘mastery of detail’, noted even by some who were not otherwise her admirers. Such are the rewards of power.

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