Diary

Ross McKibbin

In the days since Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation I have had a strong sense, not so much of history being made, as of history being invented: all the actors in this drama seem to be declaiming their parts as much for the history books as for the audience. That is true also of those whose duty it is to watch the drama and criticise the actors. Even before the heroine expired in the night there was everywhere an assumption that the play was over; everywhere a scuttling for cover and the hasty construction of intellectual positions which put actors and critics in as good a relation to history as possible. Whether the play is over remains to be seen. The plot was always paltry, the dialogue incoherent, the characters usually unpleasant: but the stage on which it was acted is well-constructed, firmly buttressed and many hands have an interest in keeping it erect.

How the heroine chooses to defend herself also remains to be seen, and she will no doubt unsettle her successor with ‘revelations’ and barbed justifications. In the meantime, however, her admirers (even those who were urging her to go) have presented a version of history which is doubtless acceptable to her. A year ago we had the Lawson version; a week ago the Howe version; over the next few weeks we will have many other versions. Why so much history? All politicians, of course, retrospectively wish to justify themselves; since most depart in some sort of failure or disgrace this is understandable. But for members of Mrs Thatcher’s governments the appropriation of history is especially important. They served in a ministry and were part of a system which adopted a hyperbolic and Utopian rhetoric and they will be obliged to defend their actions against claims which, even in their high days, were fearsome. In the dog-days these claims are simply impossible, but they have to convince us that they have fulfilled them. They have a further reason to write their own histories: only by doing so can they free themselves from responsibility for an enterprise which is increasingly seen to have failed, and failed in a rather nasty way. They must also free themselves from a more damaging criticism: that its failure was predictable. Before they appropriate history, therefore, history should appropriate them.

First, Sir Geoffrey Howe. Nothing so distinguished his career as the manner of his leaving it. It was a sprightly performance from one not famous for his sprightliness; and in its outcome deadly. It also did wonders for his reputation: he was lionised by the Europress, the Euro-enthusiasts and the ‘civilised’ Thatcherites. Yet the argument on which he chose to make his stand, ‘Europe’, is a curious one. It is clear that the present unpopularity of his party – the reason, indeed, for Mrs Thatcher’s fall – has nothing to do with Europe. And we can be fairly certain that Europe will not be uppermost in the minds of Tory MPs as they cast their votes in the leadership ballot. What, then, is the fuss about? It cannot surely be about Europe. There are certainly differences between Sir Geoffrey and Mrs Thatcher, but what happens in Europe will be determined largely by the Germans and the French. Since we are ‘in’ Europe and do not propose to leave it, we will be obliged to acquiesce in what others wish to do. And that is so whoever is leader of the Tory Party. Yet Sir Geoffrey, like Mr Lawson before him, has chosen to resign on an issue which is of little party-political significance.

Why has he done that? The answer is to be found in his resignation speech. Its first part was a laudation of himself and the Prime Minister. For the first few years of their partnership they had achieved miracles: Sir Geoffrey modestly suggested, indeed, that he was more responsible for these miracles than the Prime Minister. Nonetheless, he observed, without her courage and leadership they would not have come to pass. In the last few years, however, something had gone wrong: in particular, he noted, inflation had gone wrong. He did not say, but might have, that it was now as high as it was in 1980; nor did he say, but might have, that the fall in manufacturing output announced on the day he made his resignation speech was the highest since 1980, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. For someone who served throughout the government, in both its miraculous and post-miraculous phases, this recital ought to be embarrassing. Were it not for ‘Europe’ it would be. But Sir Geoffrey, like Mr Lawson a year ago, has an explanation which unsurprisingly exculpates him: had Britain entered the ERM in 1985 none, or few, of these things would have happened. The miracle would have been preserved, largely by holding down inflation, as would his reputation. It is, therefore, precisely Mrs Thatcher’s hostility to ‘Europe’ which is responsible for Britain’s present plight, and why he was compelled to take his leave of her.

This is Sir Geoffrey’s version of history and he will presumably stick to it. It is not a version which I recognise. The suggestion that something went ‘wrong’ in the mid-Eighties is a feeble response to those who have always argued that only fortunate circumstances concealed the fact that the productive capacity of the economy never recovered from the first two years of his Chancellorship. In any case, he supported the high-spirited budgets of his successor, which even his successor admits to have been misjudged. It will require more intellectual dexterity than Sir Geoffrey displayed in his resignation speech to convince history that the current recession, the current inflation, the current payments deficit are not directly related to the budgetary policies of both himself and Mr Lawson. And it will require a truly Thatcherite miracle to convince it that membership of the ERM would have obviated them. Or to convince the public. The Government’s present unpopularity is the result of policies which have no conceivable bearing on Europe, but which all had Sir Geoffrey’s approbation.

Which brings us again to Europe. What is there in Europe for him? The economic and social traditions of the EEC are very different from his own faded Manchesterismus, and the high-spending and interventionist governments which dominate it have always regarded Thatcherism as eccentric. I am not aware, for example, that he trembled on the brink of resignation when his then leader dismissed the Social Charter so brusquely. Nor was it apparent from his resignation speech whether he favours a single currency or not. Furthermore, there is little evidence that membership of the ERM would have made much overall difference to our current position. Mr Lawson’s policy of ‘shadowing’ the mark, which was a fair approximation of the ERM, made hardly any difference at all.

The EEC has, in addition, a political dimension which is almost entirely odds with Sir Geoffrey’s politics. Many of the things which this government has done with his support – the abolition of the GLC and the ILEA, the whole damaging rag-bag of local government legislation, the relentless accumulation of power in Whitehall – would simply be unconstitutional in ‘Europe’. Were Sir Geoffrey to announce his conversion to a federal system, or electoral reform, or written constitutions, to all the kinds of thing they have there, we might take him more seriously: but I do not imagine he has any of this in mind. Since Sir Geoffrey is in all fundamental respects a Thatcherite (and we have his word for that) there is nothing to suggest that Europe is in fact any more compatible with his way of thinking than with hers.

‘Europe’ has a different function in Sir Geoffrey’s politics, as it does in the politics of those in the press and Parliament who stand with him. The argument is the same for both: there was a ‘good’ period which would have become better if only we had joined ‘Europe’. It is thus the Prime Minister’s prejudice which undermined the achievements of the first few years. ‘Europe’ lets Sir Geoffrey, like Mr Lawson, off the hook. It also allows people who were originally complicit with Thatcherism – who helped create the climate which permitted it to flourish – to disengage themselves from an increasingly indefensible political position. For opinion-formers who persisted in the belief that Thatcherism was a liberal, market-based, anti-bureaucratic intellectual system from which Mrs Thatcher herself inexplicably (if repeatedly) deviated, instead of what it is, a narrow, reactionary doctrine whose net effect, despite some (possibly important) incidental gains, has been wholly destructive – for these people ‘Europe’ is a useful way of escaping the awkward questions which history will certainly ask of them.

Second, Sir Geoffrey’s victim, Mrs Thatcher. Her version of history needs little repetition: it has been in construction ever since the deflationary measures of 1979-80 got wildly out of control. A colossal engine of persuasion was put at her disposal and from it emerged the lady of the miracle. At the best of times the extravagant praise of her achievement and greatness was ridiculous; at the present it passes belief. Even those actors in the drama who were wiping her blood from their knives, however, felt required to compete with each other in such sycophantic terms that a stranger might wonder why she was ever compelled to depart. There seems little doubt, therefore, what her version of history will be and how it will be expressed. But what will be missing from Mrs Thatcher’s history?

We will not, for one thing, find a very convincing picture of this formidable political personality. One reason is that Mrs Thatcher is politically elusive. Whereas Sir Geoffrey, most of her Cabinet and the greater part of the electorate have concluded that something has gone ‘wrong’, the Prime Minister has made no such admission. She has never commented, for example, on the effects of the 1987 and 1988 Budgets, on why it might be that we have such a huge payments deficit or such high interest rates. Whenever one of her ministers has resigned, she has professed puzzlement as to why he should have gone. It is not clear whether this blankness is a deliberate strategy or whether she simply does not understand that there is a problem. My own guess is that the way she sees politics doesn’t allow her to judge political actions by their outcomes; puzzlement or blankness can be her only response. She has immense physical resilience and self-confidence, an alarming urge to dominate, and a combative and powerful presence. But she is also uninformed, endlessly self-deceived and, though by no means unintelligent, seemingly incapable of intellectual reflection or discrimination. Her speech in the no-confidence debate was a perfect example of this combination: great vigour and (I think) a genuine conviction of rectitude, but in a defence of her government which was utterly devoid of intellectual content. And at no point more so than in her response to Simon Hughes’s intervention: full of fire but, in fact, a shrill incantation of the most wretched piece of right-wing folklore. My own guess is that history will judge this to be a disastrous combination of attributes, though I do not suppose Mrs Thatcher’s version will agree.

I also assume that her version will personalise her premiership, as those who reluctantly bid her adieu have done in the last few days. But Mrs Thatcher is as much a creature of Thatcherism as its creator: it is important to remember that, since many of those who have been compromised by Thatcherism will choose to forget it. We cannot, for example, understand her career without examining the Conservative press which devised the role she was to play, and devised it with such success that she could play no other even when elementary prudence suggested she should; the right-wing think tanks who fed her the vocabulary which so excited her; or the Conservative Party whose character, unlike that of any other governing party in Western Europe, made possible her style of leadership; or the social panics of the Seventies which brought the hour to the woman. It is Thatcherism as a system of reward and mobilisation which history will marvel at. Mrs Thatcher, who has always known that every man has his price, helped to build it, but it will long outlive her. It is a bad system: yet it will not be easily dismantled – either by the Labour Party or by anybody else.

For all her blankness, however, Mrs Thatcher’s version of history will still have to try to explain her fall. I imagine that, in the end, she, too, will opt for an explanation like Sir Geoffrey’s: the astounding achievements of the early years were undermined, not probably by ‘Europe’, but by circumstances beyond even her control. What she will not say is that her enforced resignation was the inevitable consequence of the policies pursued over the whole course of her government. The balance of probabilities is one thing that can be learnt from history, and that balance suggests that if you do as Mrs Thatcher and her governments did almost from the moment they took office – attempt to justify a utopian ideological end by a series of reckless and irresponsible pieces of electoral engineering – you are likely to come to grief. Social reality, once the luck runs out, can be defied for only a short time, and it requires no great prescience to see that.

When time diminishes Mrs Thatcher’s miracle and when posterity casts a cold eye on those who announced it, we shall no doubt hear much more of ‘Europe’, of tragically lost opportunities, and also of greatness and achievement. We should treat all that sceptically. As to Sir Geoffrey: Engels described the statesman-like posture adopted by Sir Robert Peel after his fall in 1846 as the ‘mere souvenir of a Party man’, and that is how we should regard Sir Geoffrey’s defence. As to Mrs Thatcher: she is altogether a more substantial figure, but we should see in her career, not a ‘cure’ of the English disease, but, alas, its most spectacular symptom.