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.

This is not Ranelagh’s only eccentric disclosure. As well as being disorganised and repetitive, his book is littered with judgments that do not inspire confidence. To call Jim Prior a technocrat is perhaps to show how distant British politics is from any conception of technocracy. To describe Enoch Powell as ever having been ‘destined for the leadership of the Party’ misunderstands the very nature of post-war Conservatism. To emphasise loyalty as one of Mrs Thatcher’s most conspicuous characteristics overlooks a record extending far beyond the said Einstein. ‘If you’ve been in the Thatcher Court, you’ll always be close to her’ is an anonymous quote – one of too many – that the author endorses. While this may have been true of a tiny band of civil servants like Charles Powell, her foreign affairs secretary, and Bernard Ingham, her press officer, and a handful of personal familiars like David Wolfson and Tim Bell, it is hard to think of a single Cabinet politician, perhaps excepting the ever-supplicant Joseph, who did not eventually find themselves, after a period in the sun, banished into the half-light: the most recent victim of this expulsion from the court-in-exile being the once and future son now resident in Downing Street.

Ranelagh’s analysis does, however, raise a good question which, as we see the recent past once again being buried, has modern relevance. If Thatcherism consisted in a desire to bury Ted Heath, who will dance on the grave John Major is hoping to prepare for Margaret Thatcher? Whose continuity, in the different strands of Conservatism, is now likely to be reinforced? Or to put it briefly, is Peter Walker, Heath’s closest comrade and, as he would have us believe from his memoirs, an upholder of Heathism throughout his 11 years as a Thatcher minister, leaving Parliament at the very moment when his philosophy is reclaiming the high ground of Conservative politics?

Central to the Thatcherites’ case against Heath was the evidence, as they saw it, of betrayal. In this way they deflect the charge of turncoatery from their own heroine to her predecessor. As a cabinet minister from 1970 to 1974, Mrs Thatcher was part of everything that happened in that notably united government.

Her failure in that time to disclose a single moment of dissent from a policy which was in the end centralist and corporatist, and which favoured recklessly high public spending, became embarrassing for such a proud exponent of moral rigour, but it was disposed of with the claim that Heath had betrayed the platform on which he was elected. His ministers, on this analysis, observed their duty of collective solidarity, but they were not culpable. It was the helmsman’s U-turn in 1972, around the marker buoy of incomes policy, that sent the Party off in a direction it did not want. His successor, far from forcing it off its proper course, was merely returning it to the compass-bearing fixed between 1965 and 1970.

Ranelagh does not question this thesis. It leads him to stress the similarities between the two leaders, beginning at a personal level. Since this is a common apprehension, especially among betrayal theorists in the Thatcher camp, it is natural that he should do so. But it gives a misleading picture. Both, for example, came from lower-middle-class homes, and in that sense the Broadstairs carpenter’s son can indeed be said to have prepared the way for the daughter of the Grantham grocer. But that is where the personal resemblance ended. From these roots as a Tory outsider, Heath struggled by every means to make himself the complete insider.

Far from taking on what Ranelagh dismisses as ‘protective coloration’, he became, through Balliol, the Army, the whips’ office, Buck’s club, and apprenticeship to a succession of grandees, the essence of an establishment man. From Grantham, by contrast, Mrs Thatcher took a different route. It was determined, like Heath’s, by insatiable ambition. But partly by the accident of gender, she was barred from true insiderdom in the male world of politics. She remained an outsider, a position that served her well when, in 1974, the men on the inside proved to be as exhausted as their party.

To see Mrs Thatcher as making good, in personal terms, the social revolution Heath had bungled is therefore false. But rather more significantly false is the premise that it was Heath rather than Mrs Thatcher who set Conservatism on the path it followed throughout the Eighties. This assumes a close identity between the Heath programme in 1970 and the Thatcher programme in 1979, the only differences being that she stuck to the course which he had deserted. At the centre of this proposition is that fearsome creature, so-called Selsdon Man, who epitomised the privatising, de-unionising, market-driven, entrepreneurial anti-government regime which Heath promised but only Mrs Thatcher brought to pass.

There were, it is true, resemblances. Heath placed great emphasis on the need to curb union power, and was supported in this from left to right across the Party. He anticipated Thatcherism in his desire to reshape the welfare state, confining hand-outs to people in genuine need: this was the period, two decades before special-needs allowances, when Joseph propounded, vainly, the concept of ‘selectivity’ in social provision. Heath also wanted to give top priority to business and the interests of businessmen, and had as many of them around him as Mrs Thatcher. But there were also significant differences. Neither Heath nor the Selsdon manifesto were anything like as fervent as the Thatcherites in their hatred of the economic and political power of the state. The Heath Cabinet all saw the state as an active partner in the achievement of economic growth. Selsdon Man, in addition, had no reservations about the need for British membership of the European Economic Community. Europe was not the problem – it was the solution. On all this, which amounted to a corporatist analysis long before the incomes-policy U-turn, all important Conservatives in 1970 were apparently agreed.

There is something seriously wrong, therefore, with the analysis of the betrayal-theorists. Few would contest the claim that the Thatcher Government came to take a unique place in modern Conservative history. And the relative performances of the Heath Government and the Thatcher Government are a matter of legitimate dispute. But the true mark of the second was not that it took up the unfulfilled agenda of the first. Although peopled by many of the same ministers, they were separate administrations, and expressed different brands of Conservative philosophy. The unresolved question alter John Major’s first year is how far, behind obeisances to the new, he is able openly to revert to the old.

The value of Peter Walker’s memoirs is that they remind us what the old world, the world of Ted Heath, was like. Not yet 60, Walker has some claim to be the Grand Old Man of Conservative politics. An active Tory for 46 years, a Member of Parliament for 30, a frontbencher for 26 and a cabinet minister for 15, in length of service he outdoes some contemporaries by decades. Before many people had heard of either Michael Heseltine or Geoffrey Howe, they were juniors to Cabinet mogul Walker, first at Environment and then at Trade and Industry. Walker still insists that Heath never deserved to lose, and believes Heath’s style of politics, a Toryism he represents as both paternalistic and dynamic, was part of the natural order only temporarily interrupted. Now normal service, he suggests, is being resumed.

His book is no more elegant or detached than the other shapeless effusions that have made a fast buck for ministers recently retired. But it tells the story of a remarkable man. From childhood on, Walker was demonically energetic in pursuit of two purposes: making money and advancing in politics. Seldom did he miss an opportunity, whether through the chance patronage of Leo Amery or an unexploited gap in the insurance market. He stood for Parliament at 23, ran the Young Conservatives at 26, was beginning to be seriously rich before he was 30.

He has a chapter on his money-making, which was shadowed by vicarious controversy after the collapse of Slater-Walker, the conglomerate put together by his former partner, Jim Slater. This chapter is told in the stilted prose of the wary businessman aware of both his lawyer and his broker looking over his shoulder – in contrast with the breezy vanities displayed elsewhere. I could have done with more, and with more candour, about Walker’s brilliant business life, which gave him a first-hand understanding of capitalism that exceeded even that of Denis Thatcher. John Ranelagh likewise sadly neglects the politico-business complex without attention to which – I speak as a fellow failure – any account of Mrs Thatcher’s people is incomplete.

In Walker’s memoirs, however, the most striking contrast is between the governmental world to which we have grown accustomed, where ministers prefer to stress how little they can do and how widely they are unaccountable, with the world of government under Heath, where this minister was hyperactive. The list of triumphs he claims is wearisome, but revealing. Single-handed, he was responsible for local government reform, for abolishing many counties and creating metropolitan authorities: and even though the reform is now being undone, it was his proud personal creation, in which he would still ‘make only a few changes’. He created British Airways, got BP into China, and buzzed incessantly around Britain’s shipyards and motor plants. He was an environmentalist before the word was invented, mobilising a massive press campaign against pollution in the early Seventies. Abroad, he thumped the table with Ceausescu and sat at the feet of the Shah.

This is, of course, a self-serving account, its tone little alleviated by the author’s mock horror at his own precocity. It continues into the Thatcher era. Here we find our hero authorising the Sizewell nuclear power station: he had been a pro-nuclear activist in the Heath years, but frustrated by a ‘terrible mistake’ on the part of colleagues. He also saves 15 Tory MPs from going Social Democrat, is ‘the best-informed agriculture minister for a long time’, and produces, while minister for gas, ‘the best paper to be presented on privatisation’. Without visible assistance, he saves both the apple industry and the sheep industry from foreign decimation.

Peter Walker, in short, is above all else a governing man. He believes that governments should choose and that ministers should act. He has no difficulty with that, is not fastidious about the problem of their choosing and acting badly. Not for him the agonising of a Joseph. When, as his last job, he was sent to Wales with a brief to resuscitate Tory political fortunes in the Principality, he contends that he accepted only on the condition that he could do his own interventionist thing, and that the leader happily acquiesced in his demand. It was as if, finally, she had been forced to submit to his logic rather than Hayek’s or Joseph’s or her own, and concede that there were some problems to which the free market had no solution. He had, he believes, won. Just as he thought much earlier that he had won when Joseph failed to shut down Rover. Even in the darkest hours, he felt that a partial continuity of common sense, which might otherwise be known as Heathism, was somehow prevailing.

He is sensitive to charges that he remained in office under Mrs Thatcher against what might be called his principles. But he is unrepentant. Anyone is right, he says, to try and keep in favour. ‘The politician who keeps in favour is not being unprincipled.’ He is simply maintaining good relations without changing his views, a necessary and honourable expedient in the interests of exerting influence. To stay, he argues, is ‘the much more courageous and difficult action’, because to go, however attention-getting, ‘will destroy the unity of the Party’.

For Walker, the arrival of Mr Major in Downing Street doubtless marks a vindication of that policy which would only have been exceeded if he himself had made it to the top. He inhabits a different world from the world of Thatcher’s people. The greatest single component of the difference noticeable in these books is his refusal to acknowledge that in 1979 Britain might have faced an economic crisis demanding drastic action. He doesn’t so much as allude to the possibility, whereas among the people who talked to John Ranelagh it was so obvious that it hardly needed to be described. Walker thought the Heathite mix was enough, and still thought so when he was obliged in the interests of unity to act differently. The revolutionaries, by contrast, thought it fatal. And now the Party has decided that the revolutionary hour is done.

What consequences this will have for British politics is now in the hands of the electorate. Maybe the voters will not be convinced. But if the Conservatives do win, more guidance to the world Major will make is likely to be found in the book of the veteran minister than in the chronicle of those who wanted to overturn what he stood for. They did overturn it, but not for ever. Whichever party is returned, it will be in the hands of men who believe in government, and want to remain there at any cost.