Patrick Cosgrave is a well-known political journalist who has been within and without the Conservative Party for many years. He has played Boswell to Margaret Thatcher’s Johnson, having come in from the cold, as it were, of the Heath years. He has now written a book about Peter Carrington, who resigned, of course, as Foreign Minister after the Argentines invaded the Falklands in April 1982. The book may sell: but not to Lord Carrington.
Mrs Thatcher’s England is also the theme of a curious book written by Count Filo della Torre, the London correspondent of the newspaper La Repubblica. It is a labour of love.
The third book is another of Cosgrave’s works, Thatcher: The First Term. Perhaps at this stage I should be permitted to enter my own qualifications for putting pen to paper. It is as well that the reader should know my prejudices before I tackle the prejudices of others. I am a Tory MP whose admiration for the Prime Minister is qualified by apprehension, irritation and doubt. We should know where we stand.
Let us deal first with Cosgrave’s Carrington. The theme adopted by the author is one of failure: marginal failure, it is true, for in his time Lord Carrington has been chairman of the Conservative party, Secretary of State for Defence and later for Energy, and, under the new regime, Margaret’s Foreign Secretary. He is now the Secretary-General of Nato. Five major posts and still a failure? We should first examine Dr Cosgrave.
I wrote earlier that the author had been both within and without the Conservative Party, first as a functionary employed in the Research Department of Conservative Central Office, and later, in his salad days, as ‘special adviser to Mrs Thatcher’ from 1975 to 79. He wrote a biography of the Prime Minister in 1978 and very laudatory it was, too. This should give my readers a clue. The author is a partisan in the civil war which has been quietly raging within the Conservative Party since it elected Mrs Thatcher as its leader in what I have called the ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ of 1975. Lord Carrington could be described as a ‘wet’: that is, he belongs to the traditional wing of the Party. Cosgrave is a dry, which means that he belongs, more or less, to the radical right of the Conservative Party.
And there is worse to come. Carrington was not only a close friend and associate of Edward Heath (whose name remains at the top of Mrs Thatcher’s list of hates, the next two being Arthur Scargill and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), but also exemplified the style and attitudes of the Foreign Office (insouciance and intelligence). The Foreign Office is among the great institutions of which the Prime Minister and her fellow radicals disapprove. As Norman Tebbit has growled, it ‘is there to look after foreigners’.
Mrs Thatcher’s first Administration (1979 to 83) enjoyed two successes: the settlement of the problem of Rhodesia, which had frustrated her predecessors, and the recapture of the Falkland Islands in the summer of 1982. Carrington was the author of the first and the casualty of the second. Dr Cosgrave asserts that Mrs Thatcher was responsible for both victories. I was in the House at the time of the negotiations and have taken the trouble to talk to those who took part in them, and I believe that it is Carrington who should take the credit. It was he who took time to argue Margaret out of her fixed positions, and whose skill, together with that of Lord Soames, the Governor, substituted a black Marxist government for a white minority regime – a solution in the tradition of Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech of 1960, which charted our withdrawal from Africa.
Carrington was certainly the casualty of the Falklands War, although if blame is to be allocated, I would place it on Sir John Nott, the Secretary of State for Defence, whose policy of running down the Royal Navy (with Mrs Thatcher’s support) gave the Junta the signal it sought to embark on a bit of smash and grab. I was on the platform at the sensational meeting of the Conservative backbench Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees, attended by the bulk of the Parliamentary Party, in which Carrington defended his role (and that of the Foreign Office) before an audience rendered hysterical through humiliation. Carrington was not tactful; his lack of experience in dealing with MPs was a grave handicap, and he defended himself with an asperity which at times verged upon arrogance. Nevertheless, the Conservative Party was at its very worst.
Peter Carrington’s real disadvantage was that he was in the Lords and thus would have been unable to take part in the weekly debates on the progress of the war which took place in the Commons. His resignation was an act of honour, and the Franks Report, to the disappointment of his enemies, absolved him of all blame. We had lost, however, the most able and attractive Conservative at Westminster, someone who, had he been in the Commons in the mid-Seventies, would have been elected the Party’s leader. It is an ill wind ... our loss is Nato’s gain. His appointment as Secretary-General of the military organisation of the North Atlantic alliance is worth a tank army to Nato. Cosgrave’s book is well-written – he is a clever fellow: but it tells only half the story.
Belgium and Italy have three things in common: membership of the Common Market, membership of Nato, and a superfluity of Counts, real and bogus. There is nothing bogus about Count Paolo Filo della Torre, whose admiration for Mrs Thatcher knows no bounds. Not even the most ambitious newly-elected Conservative MP, faced with a meeting of party activists, has ever laid it on so thickly. While at this year’s Party Conference at Blackpool I spent time browsing among the books on offer at the Central Office bookstall: there were Cosgraves, Archers, Riddells, Hurds and Critchleys (the last on sale under the counter in plain brown wrappers), but no Filo della Torre. He would have made a killing.
The Count tells us that an Italian travel agency ‘has started to sell the “Thatcher Itinerary” in the same way that travel agencies sell pilgrimages to the places where Christ was born, educated and crucified’. It includes visits to Grantham, Oxford, Finchley and to Dulwich, where she will one day retire. The culmination of this via dolorosa is a drinks party in the Palace of Westminster ‘hosted’ by Sir Fergus Montgomery MP, who was once, a lifetime ago, Margaret’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. I am almost lost for words.
The Count has written Viva Britannia on his knees. But even in this country, Mrs Thatcher was received at first with something like adulation. She was the darling of the popular press. A handsome woman of robust views dedicated to putting the ‘great’ back into Great Britain, she was made to bask in the Sun. Time, and the erosion brought by inevitable error, has dimmed the lustre of those early years – but not, it appears, for foreigners. Margaret is still America’s favourite prime minister. Count Paolo Filo della Torre is likeable, but his book is ludicrous: his admiration for Mrs Thatcher and what she has done for the English is overwhelming; he should have paused and regained his breath. Like Mussolini, Margaret has apparently made the trains run on time.
Patrick Cosgrave’s other book, Thatcher: The First Term, must be treated more seriously. He treads on the footsteps of both Peter Riddell of the Financial Times and Hugh Stephenson of the New Statesman as a chronicler of the rise and rise of Mrs Thatcher. Stephenson is no fan; Riddell stays neutral; Cosgrave treats her as he would an old flame.
The Tory Party suffers from an addiction to the Führer Prinzip. This is, of course, a general complaint. The authoritarian nature of the Party, dented only by the decision to elect its leader in the first place, manifests itself in the power of the leader (when in Opposition) to choose his shadow cabinet, and when in Downing Street, to hire and fire almost at will. This inheritance is magnified by the steadily growing power of the prime minister, no longer primus inter pares, which has been observed since the end of the war – a process which has served to diminish the power and status of the Cabinet. Given that Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979 with an idée fixe, or, to be more accurate, several, the exercise of this enhanced strength, and the use to which it was put, are central to the story of her first Administration. The account of the battles fought between the Prime Minister and her colleagues – particularly in 1981, when it seemed that her opponents might carry the day – is the most interesting part of this important book.
We shall not know the whole truth until the contestants themselves put pen to paper – until the publication in ten years’ time of a spate of works of self-justification: Not One of Us by Lady Grantham, Going Down with the Ship by Sir Ian Gilmour, The Non-Playing Captain of the Wets by Lord Whitelaw and The Broken Reed by Messrs Sherman and Strauss. We shall have to wait until Willie tells the story of his encounter with Margaret in a room behind the stage at Blackpool after the Prime Minister had officiously applauded all those speakers from the floor who had called, to the fury of her Home Secretary, for the return of the rope and the rod. It will be some time before we can read a blow-by-blow description of how Sir Robert Armstrong got the better of Mrs Thatcher’s advisers in Downing Street – former academics with bees in their bonnets who saw their task as that of hastening the coming of the counter-revolution. For those of us who can bear to wait, there are treats in store.
In the meantime we shall have to make do with Dr Cosgrave’s affectionate account of the alarums, excursions and harooshes which have inevitably followed upon one woman’s attempt to persuade the British to pull up their socks. As a sceptic, might I offer an interim balance-sheet? Mrs Thatcher has certainly altered the framework of political discussion. Among Tories, she has substituted populism for deference and, by so doing, has enlisted, for a time at least, the upwardly mobile members of the working class into the ranks of her supporters. Her views are robust, nationalistic and simple. By sheer force of will she has dominated her colleagues, some of whom cannot stand the sight or sound of her. She is intolerably energetic. Harold Macmillan has described her as ‘a brilliant tyrant surrounded by nonentities’, and she has been lucky in her enemies. She seems to me to have operated along the lines of the Spanish proverb: ‘the greater the number of enemies, the greater the honour.’ Whatever else we have been, we have never been bored.