The Antagoniser’s Agoniser

Peter Clarke

Thatcherism continues to cast its long shadow over British politics. At the general election Tony Blair explicitly claimed to be moving beyond Thatcherism and William Hague implicitly claimed to be moving back to it. During the campaign it was difficult to be sure what image best captured the brooding presence of the eponymous Lady. If she appeared to the Tory faithful as a painfully nostalgic evocation of the glory days, this may remind us that the average age of party members is currently 67. If she inspired Labour to suggest that an otherwise dull election was fraught with unsuspected ideological peril by showing us, on the hoardings, that the bald fact of Hague’s leadership threatened a hairy and scary exercise in recidivism, it was actually a backhanded tribute. Dear, dead days or ever-present danger; messiah or devil; dream or nightmare: here was a reproach to the politics of apathy which acknowledged the heroic status of the Thatcherite era.

They were giants in those days. And who more so than Keith Joseph? ‘England’s greatest man’ was how Thatcher herself chose to describe him – or, more informally, when the Prime Minister happened to see her Secretary of State for Education scurrying through the streets, ‘a darling man’. It was an affection touchingly reciprocated by Joseph: ‘I beam at the very sight of her.’ There were, even at that time, churlish persons who intruded a jarring note of scepticism, verging on mockery. It was apparently Chris Patten, as director of the Conservative Research Department in the late 1970s, who came up with the ‘Mad Monk’ epithet which stuck to Joseph for the reason that makes some nicknames and caricatures irresistible: immediate recognition. It was not the whole truth; it was not simply a hostile slur (Joseph saw the joke himself); it was, even so, a way of tagging a major politician whose driving ambition was not focused simply on his own advancement.

Andrew Denham and Mark Garnett capture the trajectory of a career that saw Joseph transformed from a run-of-the-mill Conservative minister of the second rank into a major figure in the ideological revolution that we know as Thatcherism. This is a solid and well-organised account, based on meticulous research, whether in printed, archival or oral sources. Though buttressed with the full panoply of scholarly references, it is far from dry, in any pejorative sense of that loaded word: neither unduly academic in its scholarship nor indulgently partisan in its ideological bearings. The only thing that is dry, in fact, is the wit that spices several of the later chapters, deflating some Thatcherite pretensions without diminishing the importance of the issues at stake.

‘Keith should have become Prime Minister,’ Thatcher said at his memorial service. ‘So many of us felt that was his destiny.’ He himself was engagingly frank in discounting this scenario, saying that ‘it would have been a disaster for the Party, country and for me.’ Certainly, he never looked back with any wistfulness, still less envy, on the way that this possibility was foreclosed by the spectacular rise of Thatcher herself in the mid-1970s. If Edward Heath’s reaction has been called the longest sulk in history, Joseph’s was surely the shortest.

It was all over remarkably quickly. Until February 1974, Joseph and Thatcher had sat side by side in Heath’s Cabinet, of which they had been loyal members – or deeply complicit, anyway. While Thatcher had been busily closing down more grammar schools than any Education Secretary before her, Joseph had correspondingly been breaking all public spending records at the Department of Health and Social Security. It was with the collapse of the Heath Government, following its confrontation with the miners, that the pair of them emerged as prophets of a different creed.

Joseph’s account has become one of the canonical texts of proselytising Thatcherism: ‘It was only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism. (I had thought I was a Conservative but now I see that I was not really one at all.)’ There followed a succession of well-publicised speeches, notably one at Preston in which he proclaimed his disillusion with the Keynesian policies that every Government had followed since the Second World War. ‘Inflation,’ he warned, ‘is threatening to destroy our society.’ The Times obliged by carrying the full text, as though this were Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign. The other landmark speech was the one he made at Edgbaston. It was no less apocalyptic. This time the message went beyond economics, into eugenics, or so it sounded when Joseph uttered the fateful words: ‘The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened.’

With the speech in Preston in September 1974, on the eve of a further general election, monetarism had found its voice and the Tory Right its apparent champion. As soon as the results showed that the Conservatives had lost again, Thatcher announced herself as Joseph’s campaign manager. With Edgbaston, only days later, there came a pause for second thoughts – not least on the part of Joseph himself. By November, when new rules for the election of a Conservative leader made an immediate challenge to Heath feasible, Joseph suddenly said that he was withdrawing. ‘If you’re not going to stand,’ Thatcher told him on hearing this, ‘I will, because someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand.’

To say that the rest is history – rather than myth – is incorrect, as Denham and Garnett make clear. What they bring out is that Joseph never had Thatcher’s forthrightness as a challenger; that he had only been looking at himself in the mirror in the event of Heath deciding to resign; that others had pushed him further than he or his family were prepared to go; that Edgbaston and its reception constituted the proverbial accident waiting to happen; and that this incident was not an immediate cause of his withdrawal but one exemplary indication of the pressures that he was likely to encounter under constant exposure. Norman Tebbit – even then adept at formulating the relevant test to apply and the right euphemism in which to cloak it – had already said that what Joseph lacked was ‘that indefinable quality that makes a national political leader’.

In short, the whole story is in need of the tempered revision it receives from Denham and Garnett. One of their strengths is their cool and dispassionate treatment of the rather over-heated and over-hyped Thatcherite narrative (and their refusal simply to turn it inside-out, so that white becomes black). In the process, it is made apparent that Joseph was a rather more consistent politician, if also a more inconsistent personality, than either he or his admirers subsequently liked to acknowledge.

This reassessment has to take account of Joseph’s self-proclaimed conversion in 1974. The authors adduce sound reasons for doubting whether it could have been quite so sudden, quite so sweeping a revelation. Faced with the debacle that ended the Government in which he had served, perhaps this polite and diffident man had not wanted to claim prior insight into where it had all gone wrong? Mea culpa, head in hands, was always a characteristic response (or should it be pose?). Instead of trying to shift the blame onto others, he went around the country in penance for shortcomings that he exaggerated, for either tactical or psychological reasons. Would it, then, be right to conclude that, on the Damascene scale, Joseph’s conversion experience hardly merits a rating of more than two (‘restatement of the familiar, no substantial change apparent to the naked eye’) or at most three (‘signs of ambivalent ruefulness, bystanders unimpressed’)?

Joseph had, after all, long held economic views that stressed the importance of the free market, of incentives and of entrepreneurship. To this extent he was on the side of the winners, lauding their animal spirits, fearing that these would be dampened by state control and restriction – or simply by over-taxation. If this was Conservatism, as Thatcherites came to understand it, then Joseph did not need to be converted in 1974. But he had also identified himself with another agenda by concurrently evincing sympathy for the losers. This wasn’t merely a matter of inserting token words of compassion into his speeches, as is sufficiently demonstrated by his foundation of the Mulberry Trust, a housing association in the Paddington area, where the notorious slum landlord Rachman had become a byword for freebooting extortion.

It was the tension between these strong impulses that drove Joseph’s politics, provoking restless inquiry into ways of synthesising them. In the process, his definition of the problems showed many changes, partly in a salutary process of refinement in the face of new evidence and more sophisticated analysis. But what changed most over time was which priorities he chose to stress, as the balance tipped between competing imperatives, at least in his own mind.

The result was a series of shifts that can truly be called kaleidoscopic, with random changes nonetheless disclosing some systematic pattern. Though the general themes of his career remained remarkably similar, his responses to particular problems displayed a disconcerting unpredictability to those who had to work with him, political colleagues and civil servants alike. In all of this there were many attractive features, among them a manifest absence of careerism that inspired trust in his motives and tolerance of his foibles. His intellectual integrity showed itself in a readiness for debate and a thirst for book-learning that was certainly unusual among busy ministers. ‘He was alarmingly well informed – if there was a recent study of a topic under discussion he had often read and digested it, even if his officials hadn’t yet got hold of it,’ one civil servant recalled. ‘And he was exceptionally open minded and ready to pick up ideas wherever he could.’ He would read eclectically, and recommend others to do the same, sometimes in terms that struck them as either patronising or naive.

The career of this complex man cannot be captured by the stylised terms often used to encapsulate the history of the Conservative Party during the second half of the 20th century. Thus it’s often said that the old regime was one of noblesse oblige, when Tory toffs displayed their paternalist instincts, safely insulated by their own rentier incomes; that the Thatcherite revolution came as a peasants’ revolt, using the streetwise idiom of the marketplace to denounce scroungers and dependency. It is manifestly difficult to place Joseph within such a framework. He wrote feelingly in 1959 in defence of the social services as a means of enlarging personal freedom. Moreover, his remarks had a clear reference to his own privileged position: ‘Surely it is not seemly for critics – sometimes secure other than by their own efforts and seldom thereby demoralised – to seek to deny some share of security to their fellow citizens.’

For a man with a psychological relish for uncomfortable truths, Joseph’s material circumstances had been nothing if not comfortable. His view of entrepreneurship was a hymn to self-made individualists, struggling against all odds, earning every penny to their name through their own heroic endeavours. The Josephs, by contrast, were a close-knit Jewish family, bound together by a remarkable string of marriages with the Glucksteins in the late 19th century. To put this shortly (but hardly simply): Keith’s grandfather Abraham Joseph married his first cousin, Sarah Gluckstein, whose sisters Clara and Catherine married Abraham’s brothers Coleman and Samuel Joseph, while their sisters Emma and Kate Joseph married Sarah’s brothers Joseph and Henry Gluckstein. (The family tree is very helpful at this point.) Moreover, this interlocking, involuted, inter-married nexus operated not just as a cousinhood but as a cartel, with a financial pooling of resources known as the Fund. Such arrangements undoubtedly facilitated the entry into business, in the next generation, of Keith’s father, Samuel Joseph, when he went into partnership with (of course) his cousin, Sidney Gluckstein, in acquiring a run-down building company from Mr Charles William Bovis.

Bovis is a name to conjure with in this story. Some of the conjuring was done by Keith Joseph himself, who liked to tell of how a multi-million-pound construction business had been founded on little more than ‘a horse and cart, a ladder and a telephonist’. This account is plainly a few coppers short of the price of a conference call. But Bovis indeed grew and it owed much to the driving efforts of Samuel Joseph, who capped a successful business career with a less happy term as Lord Mayor of London during the Second World War. For Keith Joseph, born in 1918 and himself a product of Harrow and Oxford, Bovis was not only an inspiring model of entrepreneurship: it was a milch cow allowing him to function as a political grandee. He hung on to his shares when Harold Macmillan brought him into the Cabinet in 1962 – responsible for house-building at that – in a way that would not survive scrutiny by today’s less relaxed standards.

The images of Joseph from that era are not easily reconciled with that of the Mad Monk. Rich, dashing, with an American wife who had been compared to Audrey Hepburn, the new Minister of Housing and Local Government was talked up by the Daily Mail as potentially ‘the Tory Jack Kennedy’. He was on the progressive wing of his Party. James Callaghan evidently thought that the best way to score against him in the Commons was to play this up: ‘The Right Hon. Gentleman is not fully a Socialist yet, but he is coming along.’ In his retrospective mood of repentance, Joseph played it up, too. ‘I was at that time a statist,’ he confessed. ‘I went along with the then fashionable policies.’

Thatcherite demonisation of the 1960s is clearly evident here. The paradigm, of course, relies on exaggerating the sinfulness of the previous fallen state, attributing it to weakness rather than ignorance, and thus pointing crucially to redemption as an act of will. Thus Joseph in hindsight: ‘I was convinced intellectually that the way to get rid of Rachman was to get rid of rent restriction. But it required a great deal more moral courage than I had at the time.’ What was needed, on this reading, was a more courageous Redeemer than Joseph, not one who was cleverer. Here are the implicit terms on which Joseph deferred to Thatcher’s superior claims as leader, while she deferred to his as prophet.

Two further points help to establish Joseph’s bearings. One is to look a little more closely at what he was actually saying about social problems. Even in his ‘statist’ phase he had been rather less indulgent, or rather more ambivalent, in his views than was often appreciated. As early as 1968 he suggested that ‘the 19th-century distinction between “the worthy poor” and “the feckless poor” had some relevance to present conditions, though one would have to find some new words.’ He was subsequently to put into circulation the phrase ‘cycle of deprivation’. Was this a useful common-sense concept, describing an intractable association between different aspects of relative poverty and under-achievement, thus sanctioning an integrated remedial strategy on the part of public policy? Or were these the ‘new words’ rehabilitating the moral imperatives of the Victorian Poor Law? There was a continuum in Joseph’s rhetoric, running from sympathy with social groups in need of assistance or protection to concern about those in need of guidance or correction. The Edgbaston speech had a long pedigree.

Second, one can ask where the specific new ingredient of the Preston speech – monetarism – fits in. This is not a small point since early Thatcherism rested so squarely on claims about the control of inflation via the money supply. Joseph’s association with the pioneer free-market think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, dated from 1964, but that did not make him an early captive of the doctrines of Milton Friedman. ‘We are not like America,’ Joseph pointedly assured the Commons in debating monetary policy, with explicit reference to Friedman, in 1969.

Whatever can have happened to change his mind during the next five years? Well, one thing that happened in the wake of the binge-and-bust monetary roller-coaster of the Heath years was that Bovis, valued at £160 million in 1972, was taken over at the knock-down price of £25 million just before the general election of February 1974. Perish the thought that Bovis itself might have been the victim of its own entrepreneurial failings! Joseph looked elsewhere to explain economic circumstances in which he had lost the bulk of his fortune. Later that year, the Preston speech publicly accepted the analysis, as Denham and Garnett deftly put it, ‘that the problem, at root, was a moral one (significantly, he would later characterise his preferred economic policy as one which guaranteed “monetary continence”).’ This is one of their more provoking suggestions; and it may well stand up rather better than their later attempt to claim that the true heirs of Joseph’s agenda are the Blair Government.

Joseph’s period in the Thatcher Cabinet was a curiously inconsequential conclusion to his career. He was widely seen as Thatcher’s most trusted lieutenant in her hour of triumph. Yet he was a success neither at the Department of Trade and Industry nor at Education. A grateful Prime Minister kept him in the Cabinet, even after he himself wished to leave, because she could not bear to lose such a loyal, if often embarrassing, ally. His eccentricities were already legendary; by the end there were more deeply disturbing signs of stress. His health had never been robust. No doubt because the sources are still guarded by the family, this otherwise revealing biography tells us tantalisingly little about his recurrent medical problems or about the domestic difficulties that led to the breakdown of his first marriage during the final phase of his political career.

Here is both an exemplary tale and a cautionary tale of the intellectual in politics. Joseph impressed and depressed his supporters by simply being his incorrigible self. He did not like to be stereotyped; he was somewhat counter-suggestible; he would pursue an argument for its own sake; he had a poorly developed self-preservation instinct; he never knew when to stop. He worried away at problems, which may be a more engaging trait in an intellectual than in a political leader. By contrast, Thatcher could walk away from problems, leaving other people worried. She was the great simplifier, polarising opinion – and with a useful knack of making the right enemies. If he was a great agoniser, she was a magnificent antagoniser. Joseph’s strengths and weaknesses were tightly bound together. Those who saw in him a future prime minister wanted an edited Joseph, purged of disabling flaws, but were asking the impossible – and he knew it.