Schadenfreude

R.W. Johnson

  • The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher
    HarperCollins, 914 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 00 255049 0

‘What Tory MPs really wanted,’ Margaret Thatcher writes of the Westland affair, ‘was leadership, frankness and a touch of humility, all of which I tried to provide.’ A great deal of indignant energy has fired the reviews of this book, many of them by Mrs Thatcher’s former Cabinet colleagues, largely because of the sheer outrageousness of those claims to frankness and humility. And there has, of course, been no difficulty in showing that, in these memoirs as in her career, Thatcher has been neither frank nor humble.

Mrs Thatcher appears to suffer from a quite advanced form of egomania, or megalomania, or both; and it is genuinely difficult for her not to see everyone else as either her opponent or an instrument of her will. The former are immediately translated into enemies whom she will war to the knife. The latter are pushed forward as so many pawns on the board – in a strictly psychological sense she has never had such a thing as a ‘colleague’; and they are always dispensable. If her former ministers showed independent judgment they would be hectored and bullied into line. And when the situation required it they were ruthlessly pushed into advanced positions to catch flak intended for Thatcher herself. If they got wounded in the operation – as Leon Brittan did over Westland – they would be discarded with a cutting remark about their being clumsy or accident-prone. The important thing at every point was that Mrs Thatcher herself should never be seen to have been wrong about anything. Indeed, she sincerely believes she never has been – there can therefore be no such thing is an admission of error, let alone a guilty conscience. She is as natural an autocrat as any tsar.

All this we know: Thatcher herself gave it away with such tell-tale slips as using the royal ‘we’, referring to herself as ‘head of state’ and talking of ‘I, as a government’. Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson may have fulminated against her, in the course of reviewing this book, but they helped launch the good ship Thatcher and sailed in her fatly for many a year, long sustaining and defending her against those who objected from the outset to government by egomania. Having at length fallen foul of that ego themselves, they now want to go on at length about Madam’s appalling personality, like so many schoolboys still smarting at a clip from matron. For the rest of us the ‘personality question’ is of less interest than what Thatcher and Thatcherism have done to Britain.

Lawson and Howe aren’t alone in this fault. Much of the public reaction to the book has centred too narrowly on its slighting references to ex-colleagues. Robert Harris’s furious depiction of it (in the Independent on Sunday) as spluttering with ‘rage, malice, contempt and hatred’ is probably the extreme case. The memoirs of other premiers, Harris notes, have shown saintly restraint towards erstwhile opponents: Churchill, for example, writes of Neville Chamberlain as having exhibited ‘the highest degree of moral courage’, while Callaghan, even as he sacks Barbara Castle, speaks of her ‘courage and great intelligence’. Harris finds this sort of bogus generosity deeply noble, as if some of us actually take it for real. ‘Where such generosity was, in all conscience, impossible,’ adds Squire Harris, ‘there was, if not magnanimity, then at least a dignified silence.’ He then excoriates Thatcher at length for her lack of magnanimity and inability to keep silent and suggests that her frequent and tart comments on colleagues and opponents make the book a landmark in hatred comparable only to Mein Kampf, ‘to which it bears more than a passing resemblance’.

This sort of thing is silly. The book bears about as much resemblance to Mein Kampf as it does to Robert Harris’s big toe. The fact that earlier prime ministers, in their evident hunger for the warm glow of posterity, have managed to sound nicer than they really were, should not cloud the issue. Thatcher’s frequently abrasive remarks about her opponents and ex-colleagues not only enliven this book – they are essentially true. We know perfectly well that Maggie felt and feels this way. It is difficult to see how the book would have been improved had she opted instead for the dishonest homilies critics such as Harris would evidently prefer. As it is, Thatcher’s memoirs are a good ad for ghost-writing: she is, after all, the sort of person who has to have jokes explained to her, while the book is positively witty.

The Downing Street Years is a formidable work, as one would have expected of a woman who was nothing if not formidable. It is professional in every sense: a team product, with Mrs Thatcher directing a crew of ghostwriters, researchers, typists, archivists and advisers. Mrs Thatcher in government was never one for limpid and lofty understatement – and she isn’t here either. Where a Butler or Macmillan would have had a few sparse sentences about local government reform, for example, Thatcher sails in with voluminous figures and a mastery that extends to every last detail of rate-capping, resource equalisation and competitive tendering.

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[*] The Turbulent Years (Faber, 498 pp., £20, 13 September, 0 571 17077 3).