Maggiefication

Peter Clarke

  • The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher
    HarperCollins, 656 pp, £24.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 00 255050 4

Whatever you think of Hardy, you have to admit that Jude the Obscure is one of the most gripping books ever written about university entrance requirements. For a novel about an equally unpromising subject, ‘the drama of English local government’, Winifred Holtby did pretty well with her bestseller South Riding in 1936. The prologue depicts a novice reporter in the press gallery: ‘His heart beat and his eyes dilated. Here, he told himself, was the source of reputations, of sanitaria, bridges, feuds, scandals, of remedies for broken ambitions or foot-and-mouth disease, of bans on sex novels in public libraries, of educational scholarships, blighted hopes and drainage systems.’ It’s an acquired taste, of course; but acquired early in life, it might lead anywhere. Look what happened to the daughter of Councillor Alfred Roberts of Grantham.

‘Perhaps the main interest which my father and I shared while I was a girl was a thirst for knowledge about politics and public affairs,’ Baroness Thatcher tells us in The Path to Power, thus confirming the centrality of Councillor (later Alderman) Roberts as the inspiration behind a political career which resulted in the longest premiership of this century. The story of that premiership, of course, was preemptively told a couple of years ago in the first volume of her memoirs to be published, The Downing Street Years. But told by whom? There hung over that weighty tome a spectral pall, the result of much collaborative assistance from ‘my memoirs team’. In one sense, however, it did not matter who actually wrote what, page by page or paragraph by paragraph. No more than Churchill did Thatcher draft every word published in her name. Yet The Downing Street Years was created by a team whom she superintended and by methods similar to those which produced most of her public utterances. It was inimitably her book, both in tone and substance.

With the same team back in The Path to Power, the same is true, only more so. If it sounds like Thatcher, it is Thatcher, because that is how she intended to sound. We know that this is literally true from the way in which, on becoming leader of the Conservative Party, she put herself in the hands of Gordon Reece, a former television producer, who knew just what needed to be done. The hair was wrong, too suburban: it was restyled. The clothes were wrong, too fussy: they were replaced. The voice was wrong, too shrill: it was lowered in pitch through lessons from an expert in breathing. With singular dedication. Thatcher made herself into the leader whom we remember, knowing too well that she was not born to it, that it did not come naturally, still less easily.

Speech-writing was tackled in the same way. Before her first Party Conference as leader, the sixty-page handwritten draft of her speech – ‘I found no difficulty: it flowed and flowed’ – was the starting point; but she tells us how she readily turned to others. She relied on Woodrow Wyatt’s ‘experienced journalist’s eye’ for cuts and reshaping; she incorporated new material from Chris Patten, then at the Conservative Research Department; Adam Ridley ‘helped with the economics’; Angus Maude, another old journalist, chopped and changed; Gordon Reece coached her on how to milk a ‘clap line’ for maximum applause. Finally, the playwright Ronald Millar was brought in, and even the lack of jokes could be remedied as the text was ‘Ronniefied’. These were among the means by which British politics was ‘Maggiefied’.

Likewise, as an author. Though she was lucky to get such a big advance for her apprentice manuscript – half a dozen of Martin Amis – she set about learning the tricks of the trade from those who knew better, and is still learning. This, her second book, shorter and sharper than her first, is generally a better read. Compared with The Downing Street Years, it has the more difficult task of interesting us in the years of obscurity and preparation. It thus risks bathos in moving, so to speak, from the world of Churchill to that of Holtby. But Thatcher nicely conveys the provincial ambit of her early life, with an awareness that avoids affectation. There are no surprises here, still less skeletons tumbling from Lincolnshire closets, but her debt to her upbringing is brought out nicely.

It was an amalgam of three influences, all with strong mutual affinities, and all mediated through her father. First came the moral ethic of judgmental Methodism. Young Margaret was sent to Sunday school in the morning before accompanying her parents to chapel; and was then expected to attend Sunday school again in the afternoon, though let off the evening service. Then there was the economic ethic of the family grocery business. Satisfying the customer’s needs, at any hour of the day, from a range of produce freely imported from all corners of the world, told its own story about the wealth of nations. ‘There is no better course for understanding free-market economics than life in a corner shop.’ Finally there was the political ethic of the overburdened ratepayer. Here was the archetype of the respectable. God-fearing, hard-working citizen, faithfully represented by Councillor Roberts, the old-fashioned Liberal who became a staunch Conservative. As a Wesleyan lay-preacher, he would put on a ‘sermon voice’ which his precocious daughter noticed – and later emulated, of course.

‘What I learned in Grantham ensured that abstract criticisms I would hear of capitalism came up against the reality of my own experience; I was thus inoculated against the conventional economic wisdom of post-war Britain.’ There is little reason to doubt this, or a related comment on Keynesianism; ‘Before I ever read a page of Milton Friedman or Alan Walters, I just knew that these assertions could not be true.’ She readily makes the link from economics to values, insisting that members of Bloomsbury, with their ‘rejection of the Victorian virtues in their own behaviour’, paved the way for the abandonment of the classical restraints in economic policy. The clash between Bloomsbury and Grantham, made explicit in this passage, is an implicit theme throughout the book. In the process, Grantham ceases to be a real place and is re-invented as a construct. It becomes a sepia-tinted community where the sober virtues of thrift, hard work, pride and independence have – miraculously but inspiringly – survived among ordinary self-respecting people despite half a century of liberal condescension.

The fact is that Margaret Roberts left Grantham a long time ago. A place at Somerville College, Oxford was the means of making good her escape in 1943. As a woman she could not join the Union Society; therefore she focused on the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA). As treasurer and later president of OUCA, she also became involved in the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations, known in that more innocent age as FUCUA. As a result she was soon hobnobbing with leading Tories when they came as visiting speakers and networking at conferences with rising figures whom she was to know for forty years. Oxford opened these doors; what kept them open was her determination to work in the London area, where she could keep in the swim. The lucky break – the first of many – was being shortlisted for the unwinnable constituency of Dartford in 1949. As usual, she made the most of her chances; she secured the nomination in the 1950 General Election, and in the process met and became engaged to Denis Thatcher, a man whose ‘views were no-nonsense Conservatism’.

This was the making of Mrs Thatcher, not only literally, because it gave her the name under which she was to become famous, but because Denis’s support was irreplaceable. He willingly played a vital role in the progressive elevation of his remarkable wife, in whom his own faith proved unshakeable. This much is handsomely made clear in The Path to Power. What Thatcher fails to say, however, is that Denis’s money was crucial. True, there is a pre-Dartford comment, that ‘with no private income of my own there was no way I could have afforded to be an MP on the salary then available,’ but no further allusion to how these difficulties were subsequently magicked away. Only a photograph of the rather substantial house which the Thatchers bought in Kent gives a glimpse of their lifestyle (or Country Life style). It is not just the politics of envy to draw attention to this reticence. There is an obvious ideological significance in Thatcher’s failure to acknowledge her good fortune as a millionaire’s wife. To do so would be to vitiate her faithfully re-created identity as the grocer’s daughter.

When Thatcher entered the House of Commons in 1959, she was a notable addition to a very small group of women MPs. She writes later of the ‘male chauvinist hilarity’ which she could expect and of her difficulties ‘as a woman striving for dominance in this noisy, boisterous, masculine world’. She also suggests that ‘a woman – even a woman who has lived a professional life in a man’s world – is more emotionally vulnerable to personal abuse than most men.’ Characteristically, she does not whinge about this; but it may help explain her own steely determination, and often her unrelenting hardness, as a defence mechanism. Moreover, as a woman she still felt a sense of alienation from this particularly male-dominated club. Again, rather than vainly seeking acceptance, she continued to assert her own outsider status, even as prime minister, writing of ‘the fact that I so often had to act as a lone opponent of the processes and attitudes of government itself – the Government I myself headed’. Her disadvantages as a woman were thus turned into a corroboration of her populist credentials.

There were some corresponding advantages in being a woman – one of only seven, as against 246 men, sitting on the Conservative benches in the 1966 Parliament. It was virtually impossible not to promote someone of her ability under these conditions, a point of which Thatcher shows herself conscious. She became Iain Macleod’s deputy, shadowing the Treasury, and, as usual, she exploited the opportunities which came her way, doing her homework with a thoroughness which made her a formidably prepared opponent. The move to the Education portfolio followed, subsequently assuring her of a place in Heath’s cabinet in 1970, if only as the token woman.

The remarkable transformation of Thatcher’s standing, which saw her installed as leader of the Conservative Party by 1975, was relatively sudden. Moreover, it was intimately linked with the perceived failures of a government in which Thatcher was a leading cabinet minister. She now makes no bones about ‘the indefensible record of the Heath government’, to which she repeatedly attributes the inflation which subsequently surged under Labour.

She brusquely rejects short-term explanations for the economic difficulties of the mid-Seventies, notably the inflationary impact of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. The frank admission of ‘the benefit of two decades’ hindsight’ prefaces the chapter on the Heath Government, coupled with the verdict: ‘His errors – our errors, for we went along with them – did huge harm to the Conservative Party and to the country.’ Never let it be said that Thatcher is incapable of admitting a mistake, if only as a means of convicting Heath of an even bigger one.

What she has come to appreciate, of course, is the longstanding nature of the Conservatives’ deviation from the homely maxims of Grantham in favour of policies which later became labelled ‘wet’. Not just the Heath Government, therefore, but the Macmillan Government before it, was culpable for ‘accepting a fundamentally collectivist analysis of what was wrong with Britain’. This was why Macmillan had lost his prematurely dry Chancellor of the Exchequer, Peter Thorneycroft; and Thatcher now writes that ‘in retrospect I thought that his courageous resignation on the issue of public expenditure in 1958 had signalled a wrong turning for the post-war Conservative Party.’ As she now sees it, therefore, her own party had been heading down the road to ruin ever since she was first elected to Parliament to support it.

Blaming her own party along with Labour, Thatcher scorns ‘the damaging moral, social and economic developments of the Sixties’. It is not surprising to find that this indictment goes far beyond technical matters of monetary policy: more surprising, perhaps, to be reminded that the young MP for Finchley voted in favour of Leo Abse’s Bill on homosexuality and of David Steel’s Bill on abortion. ‘I now see that we viewed them too narrowly,’ she confesses as she looks back on these measures. The youth culture, with its ‘bizarre clothing’ and drugs, becomes part of a deplorable ‘world of make-believe’, symbolised by Carnaby Street, the Beatles and the mini-skirt. The best that she can now say about any of this is that ‘they did indeed prove good export earners.’ However ambivalently she looks back, Thatcher cannot claim to have stood out at the time for a radically different approach. Enoch Powell, who did so, is commended for making ‘the two intellectual leaps in economic policy which Keith Joseph and I would only make some years later.’

It is easy to see why The Path to Power is dedicated to the memory of Keith Joseph. It was his speeches in 1974, following the Conservative Government’s defeat at the hands of the miners, which signalled the revolt of the economic liberals, or monetarists, or New Right, or real Conservatives, or whatever. First, they tried jettisoning Heath’s policies; within a year they had succeeded in jettisoning Heath too. As it turned out, the revolt was a corrective to the maxim that treason doth never prosper – for when it did, everyone ended up calling it Thatcherism. Joseph, initially, looked set to become the right-wing standard-bearer in a leadership contest against Heath. Thatcher confirms that, after the General Election of October 1974, she was strongly for getting Heath out and at that stage for putting Joseph in. It was only when Joseph phoned her with the news that he was unprepared to run himself that Thatcher, like Joan of Arc, heard voices – or rather a voice. ‘I heard myself saying: “Look, Keith, if you’re not going to stand, I will because someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand.” ’

Again luck was on her side and again she made sure that she took full advantage of it. Heath may have been doomed as leader, but he need not, by ignoring all the hints to resign, have sealed the doom of the loyal Whitelaw, too, as a potential successor. As it was, Thatcher’s boldness in allowing herself to be used as the means of removing Heath meant that she picked up enough support to become irresistible. As she puts it, ‘I had what the Americans call “momentum”.’ (The unenterprising British, sunk in decline at the time, must have forgotten this useful word.) Her election as leader of the Conservative Party in February 1975 was the first of three moments when events ran decisively her way, giving her an uncovenanted bonus of support which she could hardly have foreseen, and perhaps did not wholly deserve, but which she was determined not to squander. It was a pattern that was to be repeated over the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9 and the Falklands in 1982.

Thatcher’s indispensable contribution to Thatcherism was not new ideas, nor even old ideas, but an ability to locate and mobilise a constituency behind them. When, before becoming leader, she had talked of the need for the Conservatives to re-establish their middle-class support, she was naturally accused of appealing to a narrow social group. She responded with the argument that being middle-class ‘has never been simply a matter of income but a whole attitude to life, a will to take responsibility for oneself’. On the eve of the leadership election, she followed up with the claim that ‘if “middle-class values” include the encouragement of variety and individual choice, the provision of fair incentives and rewards for hard work, the maintenance of effective barriers against the excessive power of the state and a belief in the wide distribution of individual property, then they are certainly what I am trying to defend.’

The themes were familiar. The trouble was that Thatcher’s attempt to by-pass the rhetoric of class reached out for the sort of ordinary people she remembered from the sepia photographs of Grantham Rotary Club; she did not reach the constituency which she actually needed. Gordon Reece, in charge of press relations, apparently saw what was required to update a populist pitch: ‘His view was that in getting my message across we must not concentrate simply on heavyweight newspapers, the Times and the Daily Telegraph, but be just as concerned about the mid-market populars, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express and – the real revolution – about the Sun and the News of the World.’ What made the difference here, however, was not so much the policy rethink which the Conservatives were currently engaged on but the impact of events.

Thatcher candidly admits that in 1977, when, much to her frustration at the time, the Lib-Lab pact temporarily shored up the Callaghan Government, ‘we were not yet ready to form the kind of government which could have achieved a long-term shift away from the policies which had led to Britain’s decline.’ Even in her own party, she was unable to get her way on a tough approach to trade-union legislation. Of September 1978, when Callaghan teased everyone with the prospect of an election, only to carry on regardless, Thatcher now thinks that the pending industrial disputes might have been beyond her, if she had come to power. ‘If we had been faced with that over the winter of 1978/9 it might have broken us, as it finally broke the Labour Government.’ As it was, she was again let off the hook.

It was the trade unions themselves which turned the whole situation in her favour, giving her an opinion poll lead of an order which she had never before enjoyed and swinging her party against a conciliatory policy towards the unions. ‘Thankfully,’ she now admits, ‘the shocking scenes of the Winter of Discontent ensured that this feeble approach was now out of touch with reality and people’s expectations.’ The unions thus succeeded in doing for her what she had hitherto been incapable of doing for herself: creating a popular constituency which could be mobilised behind her agenda.

‘Personally, I was conscious that in some strange way I was instinctively speaking and feeling in harmony with the great majority of the population. Such moments are as unforgettable as they are rare. They must be seized to change history.’ It was in this sub-Churchillian mood, confident that she, too, was walking with destiny, that Thatcher fought the General Election which finally paved her path to power in May 1979. She ends her own account with a paragraph on the gains which her party achieved among skilled workers – the consummation of her love affair with the C2s, whose support thus became the bedrock of Thatcherism. Re-inventing the destiny of Britain, however, was to prove a less lucky enterprise.