Rubbishing the revolution

Hugo Young

  • Thatcher’s People by John Ranelagh
    HarperCollins, 324 pp, £15.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 00 215410 2
  • Staying Power by Peter Walker
    Bloomsbury, 248 pp, £16.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 7475 1034 2

A year after the Great Fall, there is already a fin-de-siècle air about memoirs of the Thatcher era. It seems so long ago. The lady herself clutches on to a form of political existence more as a menace than a force. She rages, more in reported than direct speech, against developments in the European Community. She has a group of followers on the backbenches who continue to see her as a leader, and possibly as her successor’s nemesis, on this issue. But she is leaving the House of Commons – and even a countess will seem like an extinct volcano in the Lords. Her allies in the press are falling away. The Sunday Telegraph has ceased its passionate flirtations with nostalgia. Besides, John Major is either dismantling some of what she did or failing to conceal his embarrassment at the consequences of what he cannot undo. In the balance between exalting the Thatcher years and distancing itself from them, the Major Government has slowly but inexorably moved towards the second option. This may prove to be an impossible task: as, indeed, it deserves to be, since only one member of the present Cabinet can show a clean pair of hands. But the choice has been made. The Conservative Party is engaged in breaking with the recent past. It is a process that has happened before.

Mrs Thatcher’s arrival at the top, a decade and a half ago, instituted a more scorching erasure. Discrediting, and if possible disavowing, the prime ministership of Edward Heath was one of the earliest tasks of the Thatcherite project. It was what gave coherence to an otherwise confused and erratic new leadership. The leader knew what she detested long before she knew what she liked, and her own part in the Heathite reign of error only magnified her disgust. As John Ranelagh, who once worked for her at the Conservative Research Department, says, she was no intellectual. His book purports to be about the people who did her intellectual work for her, and what they undoubtedly had in common was the conviction that the Heath years were a disaster. This is what first bound together Ranelagh’s galère, ranging from Keith Joseph to Alan Walters, from Alfred Sherman to Denis Thatcher: the Institute of Economic Affairs competing the while with Enoch Powell for the role of the enduring spiritual godfather whose time had come.

Ranelagh’s book is badly organised. Having begun as an attempt to fulfil its claim to unveil ‘Thatcher’s people’, it degenerates into a swift and unrevealing account of the later Thatcher years. It essays a lot of generalisations about Mrs Thatcher’s advisers that seem no better than more or less true, nor more or less different from what might be said about some other group of semi-public people: that they were outsiders, pro-American not pro-European, often but not always Jewish, sometimes but not invariably self-made, anti-élitist, didn’t belong to the Athenaeum, didn’t go to the opera. Ranelagh gives a flavour of some of the higher idiocies that peppered the dialogue of some of these dreamers. Norman Strauss, a former Unilever manager and an early Thatcher person, evidently told her as early as 1977, ‘We must create the new history for tomorrow’s traditions’: a piece of gobbledegook that may, however, have fallen with more telling effect than it deserved on the mind of its recipient. For around the same time, the author tells us, Mrs Thatcher seems to have been unusually removed from reality. She told a friend that Friedrich von Hayek was one of the three great intellects of the 20th century. Who were the others? he asked. Albert Einstein and Ian Gilmour, she allegedly replied. Let no one say that Margaret Thatcher was a slave to consistency. Within four years, the Einstein of British Conservatism had been sacked from the Cabinet.

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