Stormy and prolonged applause transforming itself into standing ovation

Ross McKibbin

  • Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcherism by Ian Gilmour
    Simon and Schuster, 328 pp, £16.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 671 71176 8

Ian Gilmour could scarcely have timed the publication of this book better. The last few weeks really have been a Marxist ‘conjuncture’: a heightened moment when social realities can no longer be contained by dominant ideologies; or, in the idiom of an un-Marxist age, the moment when the sky is darkened by chickens returning to roost. Within the same few days the true nature of the recession – that it is now largely out of control – has been generally admitted, even by those who throughout the last election campaign stoutly declined to say anything sensible; the precarious position of British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce cars which, like Jaguar and Rolls-Royce aeroengines, had been so unwisely privatised, became all too public; Black Wednesday itself, when delusion and false pride were punished with a speed uncommon even in Classical tragedy. One minute the Prime Minister sees the pound as Europe’s hardest currency; the next it is chased out of the ERM, softer than the peseta. And finally, the astonishing decision to obliterate half the country’s coal industry – a decision itself a direct consequence of the way gas and electricity were privatised by the Thatcher Government. In the midst of all this Lord Gilmour has published his account of Thatcherism, Dancing with Dogma, a felicitous title to a book which comes wrapped in the fine photo of the author dancing with Dogma which readers of the London Review saw last July – he slightly uneasy, she unnaturally coy. She had just dismissed him from her Cabinet.

Ian Gilmour is unusual among modern politicians. He approaches politics in a markedly intellectual way and with a powerful historical sense – as his recent Riot, Risings and Revolution demonstrates. He also follows the scholarly conventions, which makes him even more unusual. This book is thus substantially a product of research and any reader who has an old-fashioned desire to find out what ‘actually happened’ can do so. It breaks one scholarly convention, however – it is gracefully and wittily written. It also differs from most scholarly books in that the author was both observer and actor. From 1979 to 1981 he was a member of the Thatcher Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal and deputy Foreign Secretary. Thereafter he was an active backbencher – in touch but unquestionably on the outer circle. The result is that Dancing with Dogma has two different tones: one autobiographical, the other detached and historical. The two tones are nevertheless not discordant; partly because of Lord Gilmour’s ease of style, partly because the overall argument is afforced by personal observation. Thus at one point he describes Lady Thatcher as ‘mistress of the irrelevant detail’ and notes how in meetings she would cling to one unimportant fact from which she could not be prised. This was widely known before she became prime minister and many examples (some of them very funny) circulated privately during her premiership. After 1979, however, it was not publicly mentioned; I do not know how many times I read of her customary ‘mastery of detail’, noted even by some who were not otherwise her admirers. Such are the rewards of power.

Dancing with Dogma is a wide-ranging book. The Thatcher Government’s policies on the economy, the poor, trade unions, local government, Scotland, on health, education and on defence and foreign affairs are all here. The judgment, as those who are familiar with Lord Gilmour’s views can expect, is usually damning and sometimes contemptuous. He argues that the economy grew less fast than under Lady Thatcher’s predecessors, that insofar as people did unusually well in the period (and few did), this was a result of redistribution of wealth from the poor to the not-poor, that her policies were directly responsible for the devastation of much of our manufacturing industry, that the Constitution has suffered severe damage from her authoritarianism, that her foreign and defence policies were based largely on illusion. Despite this judgment, he gives credit where he believes it due – more than I would. He generally approves of the Government’s industrial relations legislation, since the Seventies showed beyond doubt that the unions needed curbing – and this is certainly arguable. He also defends privatisation. Labour’s nationalisation was both unpopular and economically deleterious; privatisation is both popular and economically advantageous. This, again, is arguable in principle. The fact is, however, that the motives behind the privatisations rarely had anything to do with economic efficiency and in consequence most of them were appallingly executed. Furthermore, Lord Gilmour’s conclusions here do not always follow from his own argument, since he shows himself fully aware of these motives.

As to the overall record, I think his judgment indisputable. He admits that some might query his calculation of average annual growth rates under the Thatcher Governments, but it would be a bold Thatcherite who could now do more than quibble. His book is more than just an account of the Thatcher ministry, however: it raises wider and more problematic issues, and in these lie its real importance. The first concerns the role of the Wets. This chapter, ‘Why the Moderates Lost’, involves some painful self-examination. Lord Gilmour, who admits to ‘grave dereliction of duty’, asks himself whether the Wets could have done anything else. He concludes that he himself should have resigned at the time of the 1981 Budget, and not awaited dismissal at the end of the year. That aside, he suggests that there was not much else they could do. He rightly points out that unless a cabinet is absolutely determined to be rid of its prime minister (as the Cabinet obviously was in 1990 but not in 1981), ejecting one is not easy, particularly one, like the then Mrs Thatcher, who avoided the Cabinet and governed by ‘clique and committee’. Furthermore, he suggests that the Wet majority was a nominal one, divided by departmental interests, its members anxious to protect what they could. In any case, he argues, Mrs Thatcher’s Wets were less silent than she and Sir Keith Joseph had been in the Heath Cabinet, and far noisier than the prudent men who staffed her later Cabinets. It is an honourable account but it leaves out what I thought at the time (perhaps wrongly) was the Wets’ real weakness: they had no political base in the Conservative Party, nowhere to resign to. They were (like Wilson and Callaghan) associated with the apparently failed doctrines of the Seventies in a party, and indeed in a country, where TINA now had many admirers.

The second of these issues concerns dogma itself. The working assumption of the book, as its title suggests, is that the policies of the Thatcher Government were driven by a dogma, an ideology against which the Party could ‘test itself’. Lord Gilmour concedes that Thatcherism was not always self-consistent, but argues that ideologies do not have to be internally consistent to be ideologies nonetheless: ‘if inconsistent belief-systems cannot be classed as ideologies, and if an “ism” is prevented from being an ideology by its being adapted to serve the personal ends of its founder or leading exponent, then virtually nothing can be deemed an ideology’.That is a fair point, but he himself gives two definitions of Lady Thatcher’s ideology which are themselves not entirely consistent. ‘Thatcherism,’ he writes, ‘can be viewed as an ideology, style, mood, “I must have my own way”, monarchism, 19th-century Liberalism, millenarian revivalism, right-wingery, a method of controversy, a set of moral values, statecraft, or as a combination of all of them’. Elsewhere he says that ‘her devotion to Manchester Liberalism is not in doubt’ but that can be true only if Manchester Liberalism is given a very narrow or very wide definition: in the 19th century Manchester Liberals were, among other things, understood to believe in the international free movement of labour, something Lady Thatcher very much does not. Furthermore, I think it is possible to exaggerate the importance of the think-tanks. They gave the Government a certain technical language, but that never amounted to much more than intellectual play-acting; they filled vacuums, of which it is true there were many, rather than providing a ‘dogma’. This is not to deny the importance of a loosely-defined ideology. On the contrary, I agree with Lord Gilmour that Thatcherism was propelled by powerful ideological impulses; the outcome, however, I think to have been often more casual and contingent than he suggests. The privatisation programmes, for example, central to any definition (or self-definition) of Thatcherism, were clearly rather haphazard in their origins. Rather than emerging from a grand project they appear to have developed in the first instance as a way of raising money at a bad moment for the Government and in the second as a manifestation of popular capitalism, a way of attaching voters to the Conservative Party. Privatisation became central only when it appeared that both of those aims had succeeded. The same is true of the sale of council houses. The objective here was to divorce Labour voters from their old allegiance; far from having any ‘economic’ objective, the divorce has been achieved at terrible economic cost.

The third issue he calls ‘ways and means’.He asks himself, as anyone must who shares his views, how an ideology whose result has been so palpably malign has, nevertheless, been electorally so successful. One of the strengths of Dancing with Dogma is Lord Gilmour’s readiness to see Thatcherism as a system of persuasion as well as an ideology and his willingness to say plain things at a time when others have not been so willing. He gives particular attention to the Government’s attitude to the media because the Government itself gave particular attention to the media. All British governments, of course, do this; all of them see media conspiracies where others see nothing – Lord Gilmour, indeed, reproaches himself for ‘apparently’ making an ‘utterly moronic’ speech about the BBC in 1970. Where this government differed from others was in its readiness to go beyond the conventions in ensuring that the electorate heard and saw only its view of things.

With the exception of the Mirror, the tabloids have, in a sense, always been Thatcherite. Before her, no Conservative leader was ever right-wing enough for the Tory press, and the style of no-nonsense, anti-bureaucratic get-the-state-off-people’s-backs Philistinism and contempt for knowledge was as powerful a generation ago as it is now. It is hard to believe that such a partisan press, scarcely even newspapers as Lord Gilmour comments, has no influence on political allegiances. Even if people discount much of what they read in it, the fact is they read nothing else. In any case, politicians believe the tabloid press conditions opinion; thus, whether they are correct or not, their behaviour is still tailored to secure its favour. Lady Thatcher was very sensitive to the inclinations of the tabloid editors, and the presentation of government policy under her was done very much in combination with them, as it is also said to be under her successor. Furthermore, the semi-paralysis in which the Labour Party now operates is primarily a result of its fear of how the tabloids will treat anything other than silence. Lord Gilmour describes the tabloids as effectively state-controlled, with the lavishly knighted and ennobled editors and owners treating Lady Thatcher with a fawning servility. None of this can be denied; but it wasn’t only the press that was servile. It is clear that a number of editors and proprietors were powerful figures in the Conservative Patty in their own right and had got used to being deferred to. In addition, the figure of battling Maggie was largely shaped by them: increasingly she acted a role written by others, and which in the end ruined her. The unreal world in which she lived in the last phase of her premiership was a result of believing what she read about herself in the press. Moreover, as recent events have confirmed, when the tabloids speak they expect to be obeyed. (I do not, as Lord Gilmour usually does, exempt the quality press. With one or two exceptions they did not show the critical spirit they should have shown and are, in my view, almost equally culpable.) The relationship between the press and the Government was in effect one of mutual abasement.

Finally, Dancing with Dogma raises what is for Lord Gilmour the most problematic of all issues – the nature of the Conservative Party and the political culture which nourishes it. The events of the last few weeks, precisely because of their ‘conjunctural’ quality, have been a debacle for the modern Conservative Party; not electorally, since, despite recent events, it is now largely shielded against electoral retribution, but in the sense of its nominal purposes and historic repute. In attempting to explain this I think Lord Gilmour has not gone far enough. He has many hard things to say both about the Parliamentary Conservative Party and Lady Thatcher’s later Cabinets, of which adjectives like ‘supine’ are representative. He has an amusing description of Conservative backbenchers during one free vote in the House desperate to see which lobby Lady Thatcher was going into. As to what he says about her ministers, they should be allowed to read it and blush in private. The performance of both Cabinet and backbenchers was unquestionably abject. That not one minister of any rank resigned in protest against the Poll Tax is probably the most shocking thing that can be said against a British political party. We should not, however, be too surprised: ten careerists always ride on the coattails of any one ideologue and Lady Thatcher had seemingly inexhaustible reserves of careerism to exploit.

How did this depressing situation come about? Throughout Dancing with Dogma Lord Gilmour refers to the Thatcherites as though they were something apart from the Party which on his own evidence gave them such slavish support. At one point he explicitly opposes the Thatcher view of ‘harmony’ to that ‘normally held by Conservatives and most other people’. But, apart from Sir Edward Heath and himself, who are the normal Conservatives? Not those, it seems, at the Party Conference; at least judging by the lamentable speeches some ministers felt obliged to make. Nor in the Cabinet (and that includes Michael Heseltine, looking dangerously like a busted flush); nor, except for a handful, in the House of Commons. Lord Gilmour admits that Thatcherism with a human face (John Major) is still Thatcherism. He is more reluctant to admit that the reason the Government is still Thatcherite is that the Conservative Party is largely Thatcherite. If he accepted that he might be able to explain the failure of the Wets more satisfactorily. But to do that involves some further, perhaps unhappy reflection on the way in which the old élites dominated the Conservative Party before they were despatched.

The aim of the Conservative Party is to preserve inequalities, though not, until recently, actually to increase them. The manner in which this was traditionally done was via a mass party whose membership was discouraged from participating in the making of policy. Such abnegation was, in turn, legitimated by convincing this membership (and much of the electorate) that the leadership was uniquely fitted to govern, but that the electorate was not. The Party structure was not exactly authoritarian, since the membership would not always obey these rules, but it was at best only quasi-democratic and usually pseudo-democratic. Lord Gilmour himself says that the Conservative Party has a sheeplike quality, which can be a source of strength in war, for example, but a disastrous source of weakness in other circumstances. The other circumstances occur when his kind of élite is displaced. As the Party’s leadership was ‘democratised’ the Party itself became not democratic – since it had no democratic traditions or forms – but demagogic. Under Lady Thatcher it was debased into an organisation whose only function was to adulate the leader. Listening to her annual harangues at Party Conference and the well-orchestrated enthusiasm of her listeners I was always reminded of the note that appeared in the protocols of a Congress of the old Soviet Communist Party at the end of Stalin’s speeches: ‘stormy and prolonged applause transforming itself into standing ovation’. Lady Thatcher did not invent these instruments of control; she inherited them. She merely plied the steel more ruthlessly.

Lord Gilmour’s Toryism is a generous and humane philosophy, and had he, rather than Dogma, been in charge of our affairs we would have escaped much distress and humiliation. But I think he exaggerates its centrality to the history of the Conservative Party. It is true that the Party has never in the past been as hostile to collectivist social policies as it is now. Yet it has never been particularly partial to them either. Lord Gilmour, adducing evidence for the strength of Tory collectivism, says that in 1939 Britain had the most complete social security system in the world. In fact, however, Britain did not have the most complete system, and the system it did have was largely the achievement of the Conservative Party’s opponents. Perhaps it should be admitted that Lady Thatcher spoke the language of the Conservative Associations, spoke to their heart in a way that former élites never quite did.

Lord Gilmour argues that the Conservative Party must now choose. But its area of choice is severely circumscribed: at present the choice is between a Twenties deflationism, without tariff reform to give it bite, and a slightly crazed ‘pure’ Thatcherism which is scarcely different in practice. An alternative programme, the kind Lord Gilmour advocates, would only be possible if Britain and the Conservative Party were genuinely democratic polities. But this is precisely what the Conservative Party’s former élites never permitted either of them to be. Still, it would be defeatist to end on too faltering a note. The first item of Lord Gilmour’s programme – the long-over-due devaluation of the pound – has been effected. And mat such a thoughtful and rebellious book can be written from within the Conservative Party is a cause for hope. Those back-bench Conservative MPs whose own modest rebellion over the coal closures so surprised their leaders might even read it to discover why they were driven to such uncharacteristic behaviour.