Why did it end so badly?

Ross McKibbin

  • Margaret Thatcher. Vol. II: The Iron Lady by John Campbell
    Cape, 913 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 224 06156 9

Si monumentum requiris, circumspice. Even those, John Campbell suggests, who have little or no memory of Margaret Thatcher, live in a world she created; and from which there is no going back. More than any other British prime minister, even Gladstone, she conforms to Max Weber’s type of the modern demagogic politician: the leader who appeals directly to the electorate over the heads of the party machine; and who subordinates the machine to his or her political personality. In the end, the machine overthrew her; but there is no escaping that personality. Even her foolishness was larger than life.

Campbell’s biography, of which this is the second and final volume, is not the only one – and there will soon be an official one by Charles Moore. It will, however, be difficult to trump. Its argument is always fair and judicious: Thatcher-haters will be just as disappointed as devotees. The book begins in 1979, the year Thatcher became prime minister, and covers her active political life since then, as well as (such as it is) her private life. Much ‘official’ material remains unavailable to him: the records of the first year of her government will not be released until 2009. But this is now a very leaky country and it is unlikely that Campbell will have missed much. It is more or less de rigueur for disaffected civil servants to leak to the press, while disaffected ministers are happy to ignore the stupidities of the Official Secrets Act. Furthermore, the American archives can be a gold mine and, as Campbell notes, for all their limitations, official inquiries like the Scott Inquiry into the Matrix Churchill affair tell us a great deal about British government in general and Thatcher’s government in particular. ‘Witnesses’ – friends, colleagues, enemies – are now readier to speak frankly than they once were. Campbell has been able to write a very full biography indeed. There are a number of conclusions one can draw from his account and it is probably best simply to enumerate them, not necessarily in chronological order.

1. Her first government (1979-83) was probably the best. Although she was careful to ensure that the treasury was staffed by like-minded people – led by the chancellor, Geoffrey Howe – the fact that a majority of the cabinet were ‘wets’ meant that she had to argue her case, and the opposition or scepticism of the wets reinforced what was then her habitual caution. Campbell argues that, in practice, Howe forced the pace, though (unlike the wets) she did support his deflationary 1981 budget, which was, in a sense, the Thatcherite Rubicon.

2. Crossing the Rubicon was not something the electorate wished to do. At the time of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands in 1982, her government was in low water. That invasion (‘salvation in the South Atlantic’) had two consequences: it made support for the government almost a patriotic duty, and Thatcher’s self-estimation and confidence were enormously increased. Although Campbell argues that in the long term the war represented an almost insane misdirection of priorities, Thatcher emerges from his account rather well. However much her government was responsible for what happened, she plainly couldn’t not do anything. She was in addition a good war leader. She admitted her own inexperience, admired the professionalism of the armed forces, and let them get on with it. She was very lucky, and so were they, but they made their luck, and for that Thatcher deserves credit.

3. Thatcherism developed only slowly, partly as a result of the prime minister’s political caution. Campbell points out how nervous she was of touching institutions that enjoyed wide public support. She was, for example, much less ready than Kenneth Clarke to reform the NHS. The enforced sale of council housing was part of her original programme, but it was assumed to be risk-free and had long been contemplated by the party. It was the success of the privatisation – a word she did not particularly like – of BT and British Gas which set the whole thing going. Only then did she become an enthusiast; but she was not always the most enthusiastic. Indeed, some of the worst excesses of ‘Thatcherism’ occurred under her successors. She was similarly cautious in her attitude to the miners. She gave in in 1981 because she thought a fight then would not be worth it. But she was determined there should be no further capitulation and made her preparations accordingly. Campbell argues that however socially divisive the 1984 miners’ strike was, it was a fight Thatcher had to win – especially once the NUM was in the hands of Scargill and others who wished to defy an unpleasant reality.

4. Campbell notes her almost obsessive interest in the ‘secret state’: the nexus between the intelligence services, the arms industry and foreign policy which lay behind one of her government’s most serious crises, the Westland affair, and what might have been one of the most damaging, the arming of Iraq. Thatcher does not emerge well from Campbell’s absorbing discussion of these crises and it was fortunate for her that in the Westland affair Neil Kinnock fluffed his opportunities and that it was, in any case, probably too complicated and arcane an issue for the electorate to master.

5. Campbell’s analysis of her attitudes to Europe and the United States (attitudes not unrelated to the secret state) is also shrewd. It is not an unchanging story, though it involves some of her most basic impulses. In the early days she was more pro-European and, privately, more critical of the United States. This changed when, after the 1983 election, the Labour Party became more pro-European and the TUC discovered that the EU was more likely to protect the interests of its members than any British government. Campbell makes less of this than he could have. What is true of Europe is true also of Thatcherism more generally: as a political doctrine it tended to be what the Labour Party was not. It was against what Labour favoured; that is what unified it. Its apparent incoherence matched negatively, so to speak, the incoherence of the Labour Party in the early 1980s – its simultaneous belief, for example, in both a planned economy and free collective bargaining. Once Labour began to turn to the EU, Thatcher began to turn against it. The hostility to Europe grew as she perceived herself to be a world figure: Europe was not only un-Thatcherite, it was provincial. Nonetheless, the constraints of office to some extent checked that hostility and her more extravagant admiration for the United States. Campbell argues convincingly that her government was never as subservient to American policy as is Blair’s. He also shows how cautious and flexible her policies towards the Soviet Union were. She was especially anxious not to do anything that would undermine Gorbachev. It was only after she resigned that her hostility to Europe and admiration of the US became unbalanced and here her behaviour did immense damage to the unity of the party and the standing of Major’s government.

6. Her premiership accelerated the decay of cabinet or collective government. This was partly because she was originally in a minority within her own cabinet and bypassing it was a way of frustrating the majority. But she always had a preference for ad hoc committees (which she usually chaired) and dealing with ministers on an individual basis. She was suspicious of her colleagues, even the most loyal, like Howe, and her treatment of him and of Nigel Lawson was appalling; though it is easy to exaggerate the political differences between her and them. Nor should we be oversympathetic to Howe, one of the most obstinately wrong-headed of chancellors, or to Lawson, one of the most reckless. There was an increasing reliance on court favourites – particularly Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell, the man Campbell describes as the real deputy prime minister.

7. Campbell is interesting on Thatcher’s attitude to local government and here he attempts some psychological history. He makes the point that Thatcher loathed not just Labour, but all local government, and suggests that this derives from her attitude to her father. Although she was inclined to say she owed him everything, Campbell notes that she got out of her native Grantham as fast as she could and rarely went back. Her hostility to local government, he argues, was a way of striking at the joylessness and repression of her childhood. Whether or not this is right, there is no doubting the hostility, whose apotheosis was the poll tax. She was at first characteristically nervous about the tax, but once converted, characteristically immovable. The attack on local government probably sums up Thatcherism better than anything; and the event that captures its essence is the sale of County Hall, the dignified seat of London government, to be not a university (as it might have been) but, among other things, a hotel and an aquarium.

Campbell makes the point that Thatcher’s Thatcherism was based on a number of paradoxes. Many are now well known. There is the paradox of the woman who wanted to free the people and disarm the state but left us yet more burdened by an increasingly bullying and authoritarian state; who advocated prudence, saving and hard work but who bequeathed us a hedonistic and debt-laden economy; who gave up being a research chemist – presumably, in Thatcherite terms, a ‘useful’ occupation – in order to become a lawyer; who wanted a classless society free of Old Etonian types yet created hereditary peers and did not protest when her husband was made a baronet, a hereditary honour which ensured that her son became Sir Mark; who promoted a benignly neutral market but ruthlessly engineered it to serve the interests of some at the expense of others; who wished to promote a vigorous entrepreneurial class which was, like the East African Asians or the Jews (whose support in her Finchley constituency she always cultivated), most likely to come from outside, but who was at the same time determined to preserve the country’s racial and cultural homogeneity whatever the economic cost.

I am not sure how far these were real paradoxes, at any rate for her. Take the state. When speaking of the state and its relation to society, Thatcherites use the word ‘freedom’, rarely ‘liberty’; and for them, freedom means freedom within a market politically constructed to favour some against others. They do not often use the word ‘liberty’ because it has different political connotations. Thatcher is a conservative and conservatives are not libertarians. The market for them has a disciplinary function, as does the state. Which of the two a government uses for a given disciplinary purpose depends on circumstances, but either will do. Similarly, the fact that the Thatcherite economy was not in practice based on prudence and delayed gratification – quite the opposite – would not have appeared paradoxical to its founder. In one of the most striking sentences in the book – a sentence full of implications – Campbell writes that Thatcher had ‘no experience of business’. She knew nothing of the history of the British economy; nor did most of those who increasingly had her ear. She had no real idea of what made a successful capitalist economy. To the extent that she had an idea it was negative: that the role of a government was to eliminate its ideological enemies, trade unions, for example, or state controls. Once that was done, instant felicity. That a prudent government, which wanted a hardworking and provident people, might not have abolished exchange or credit controls is simply not an objection Thatcher understood intellectually – though she might have done so at some instinctive level.

Campbell touches on a further paradox which cannot be fully developed within a biography, though it has a biographical component. Given that, as he rightly suggests, Thatcher, on the whole, won the argument, and given that for the majority of the population there was, for whatever reason, a significant rise in real living standards during her premiership, why was the whole thing in the end such an electoral disaster for the Conservative Party? The fact is that the disaster owed much to Thatcher’s own behaviour and aspirations. Her fundamental aim was to destroy the Labour Party and ‘socialism’, not to transform the British economy. If the destruction of socialism also transformed the economy, well and good, but that was for her a second-order achievement. Socialism was to be destroyed by a major restructuring of the electorate: in effect, the destruction of the old industrial working class. Its destruction was not at first consciously willed. The disappearance of much of British industry in the early 1980s was not intended, but it was an acceptable result of the policies of deflation and deregulation; and was then turned to advantage. The ideological attack on the working class was, I think, willed. It involved an attack on the idea of the working class – indeed, on class as a concept. People were, via home ownership or popular capitalism, encouraged to think of themselves as not working class, whatever they actually were. The market thus disciplined some, and provided a bonanza for others. The economy was treated not as a productive mechanism but as a lottery, with many winners. The problem with such a policy was that it created a wildly unstable economy which Thatcher’s chancellors found increasingly difficult to control, and in which many of the apparent winners later became aggrieved losers.

The attempt to destroy the Labour Party also involved many risky political strategies. For the Conservatives to take up populism, to declare themselves in favour of a classless society and against Old Etonians, is to play with fire. There is no certainty that the outcome will be the one that is wanted. Although, as Campbell demonstrates, Thatcher spent much time cosseting tabloid editors and grovelling to their employers, it is arguable that in the long term the journalistic techniques of a commercially driven tabloid press did as much damage to the Conservatives as to Labour. The Sun is an unreliable ally, and those elites Thatcherism was designed to prop up emerged no less damaged by it than trade-union leaders. At any event, one consequence of these ‘democratic’ attempts to refashion the British class system for an essentially reactionary purpose was to create a middle class only loosely tied (or tied not at all) to the Conservative Party and almost to destroy the old Conservative working class, an indispensable element of its traditional electorate. And Lady Thatcher bears much of the responsibility for this.

The last paradox is that her legacy to the Conservative Party has been so powerful that the party can do nothing about this failed strategy – other than hope for the best. Of the four men who succeeded her as leader, only one, John Major, was not a Thatcherite as the Thatcherites understood Thatcherism, and Thatcher did her best, on the whole successfully, to undermine him. William Hague gave up any serious attempt to reposition the party, and his two successors have been Thatcherites of the purest water. Michael Howard, of course, was not elected simply because he was a Thatcherite: he was elected because he is a bruiser who the party assumed could do more damage to the government than anyone else. In this sense, his election is purely cynical and opportunist. But to see it only in those terms is to ignore the fact that no candidate thought to be outside the canon could have been elected. It was not a question of Thatcherite or non-Thatcherite, but which Thatcherite. Howard will certainly be more electorally acute than Thatcher was in her last days, but he will not depart in any essential from the legacy, despite what it has done to the Conservative Party. Si monumentum requiris . . .

Although Campbell probably underestimates the political and social ambition of Thatcherism – its attempt to recast British society – his overall conclusion is just. Thatcher was not the genius imagined by her many admirers nor the evil genius imagined by her many opponents. She did not destroy the welfare state or transform the fundamental values of the British people. In many ways, she simply went along with a movement common to all Western societies, particularly English-speaking ones. (Indeed, some, like New Zealand, went further and faster than she did.) For the most part she was only on the side of history, however much she tried to make it. But she gave this historic movement a vocabulary, a dynamic force, an indomitable character, which personalised it and made it almost inescapable.