- A Guide to the Correction of Young Gentlemen or, The Successful Administration of Physical Discipline to Males, by Females by a Lady, with illustrations by a Former Pupil
Delectus, 140 pp, £19.95, August 1994, ISBN 1 897767 05 6
Sometime in the late autumn of 1977, I went to a book party that was held in the Rosebery Room of the House of Lords. Why I went I can’t think – the volume was some piece of unreadable bufferdom extruded by Lord Butler, who as ‘Rab’ had never in his life done anything to live down the Greek Street sobriquet ‘flabby-faced old coward’. He himself was vaguely present, moving about the carpet like a terrible tortoise. A sprinkling of hacks and politicos completed the scene, which was identical to a score of similar gatherings except in point of its grand setting. And then there was a sort of sensation at the door and in came Margaret Thatcher. Rab’s shell crackled and contracted a little, as he tried to look flattered by the attention of his new leader: she whose whole purpose it was to cram Butskellism as harshly as possible into the WPB of history.
And I? Reader, I was bewitched. A dull pre-dinner drink-stop had been entirely transformed. You may have forgotten, but the regnant left-liberal idiocy of the period had it that Thatcher was a shrill, suburban and narrow housewife, the outcome of a spasm of folly among the Tory back-benchers. Unsound, unelectable, extreme ... shouldn’t be long now before the voters remind us that politics, as Rab had once so originally said, is the art of the possible. Having observed her arresting qualities of domination at the previous Conservative Party Conference, I had been ridiculed for writing, in the New Statesman, that she was a great fanged and clawed feline, replete with sex and spite, her tawny whiskers flecked with cream past, cream present and cream to come (I exaggerate only slightly). And I wondered to myself. Had she read my paragraph? Surely, if you’re leader of the Tory Party and the (then) leading journal of socialist opinion says that you’re a bit of a bombshell, you get to hear about it? Would she recall the byline? Peregrine Worsthorne sportingly offered to introduce us. I eased my way over to her side. Worsthorne did his stuff, saying that he and I had just returned from a most interesting trip to Rhodesia. And here also was a good test, because Thatcher had attacked the two-party consensus on the Smith-Muzorewa deal, suggesting that if elected she would lift sanctions on Salisbury.
At once we were in an argument. Of Joshua Nkomo I remember her saying: ‘I think Joshua is absolutely sweet.’ That was the least of our disagreements. On one point of fact, too abstruse to detail here, I was right (as it happens) and she was wrong. But she would not concede this and so, rather than be a bore, I gave her the point and made a slight bow of acknowledgment. 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. Nothing that happened to the country in the next dozen years surprised me in the least.
Actually, I was surprised by a few things. (After all, within a year or so of being elected she had steered Zimbabwe to independence under an elected majority government, something that no Labour government had summoned the nerve to do in more than a decade of dithering and funk.) But whenever I read of the humiliation of some over-mighty cabinet colleague – Geoffrey Howe, say, or Jim Prior or John Moore or Francis Pym – I could picture the scene only too well: