R.W. Johnson

  • The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher
    HarperCollins, 914 pp, £25.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 00 255049 0

‘What Tory MPs really wanted,’ Margaret Thatcher writes of the Westland affair, ‘was leadership, frankness and a touch of humility, all of which I tried to provide.’ A great deal of indignant energy has fired the reviews of this book, many of them by Mrs Thatcher’s former Cabinet colleagues, largely because of the sheer outrageousness of those claims to frankness and humility. And there has, of course, been no difficulty in showing that, in these memoirs as in her career, Thatcher has been neither frank nor humble.

Mrs Thatcher appears to suffer from a quite advanced form of egomania, or megalomania, or both; and it is genuinely difficult for her not to see everyone else as either her opponent or an instrument of her will. The former are immediately translated into enemies whom she will war to the knife. The latter are pushed forward as so many pawns on the board – in a strictly psychological sense she has never had such a thing as a ‘colleague’; and they are always dispensable. If her former ministers showed independent judgment they would be hectored and bullied into line. And when the situation required it they were ruthlessly pushed into advanced positions to catch flak intended for Thatcher herself. If they got wounded in the operation – as Leon Brittan did over Westland – they would be discarded with a cutting remark about their being clumsy or accident-prone. The important thing at every point was that Mrs Thatcher herself should never be seen to have been wrong about anything. Indeed, she sincerely believes she never has been – there can therefore be no such thing is an admission of error, let alone a guilty conscience. She is as natural an autocrat as any tsar.

All this we know: Thatcher herself gave it away with such tell-tale slips as using the royal ‘we’, referring to herself as ‘head of state’ and talking of ‘I, as a government’. Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson may have fulminated against her, in the course of reviewing this book, but they helped launch the good ship Thatcher and sailed in her fatly for many a year, long sustaining and defending her against those who objected from the outset to government by egomania. Having at length fallen foul of that ego themselves, they now want to go on at length about Madam’s appalling personality, like so many schoolboys still smarting at a clip from matron. For the rest of us the ‘personality question’ is of less interest than what Thatcher and Thatcherism have done to Britain.

Lawson and Howe aren’t alone in this fault. Much of the public reaction to the book has centred too narrowly on its slighting references to ex-colleagues. Robert Harris’s furious depiction of it (in the Independent on Sunday) as spluttering with ‘rage, malice, contempt and hatred’ is probably the extreme case. The memoirs of other premiers, Harris notes, have shown saintly restraint towards erstwhile opponents: Churchill, for example, writes of Neville Chamberlain as having exhibited ‘the highest degree of moral courage’, while Callaghan, even as he sacks Barbara Castle, speaks of her ‘courage and great intelligence’. Harris finds this sort of bogus generosity deeply noble, as if some of us actually take it for real. ‘Where such generosity was, in all conscience, impossible,’ adds Squire Harris, ‘there was, if not magnanimity, then at least a dignified silence.’ He then excoriates Thatcher at length for her lack of magnanimity and inability to keep silent and suggests that her frequent and tart comments on colleagues and opponents make the book a landmark in hatred comparable only to Mein Kampf, ‘to which it bears more than a passing resemblance’.

This sort of thing is silly. The book bears about as much resemblance to Mein Kampf as it does to Robert Harris’s big toe. The fact that earlier prime ministers, in their evident hunger for the warm glow of posterity, have managed to sound nicer than they really were, should not cloud the issue. Thatcher’s frequently abrasive remarks about her opponents and ex-colleagues not only enliven this book – they are essentially true. We know perfectly well that Maggie felt and feels this way. It is difficult to see how the book would have been improved had she opted instead for the dishonest homilies critics such as Harris would evidently prefer. As it is, Thatcher’s memoirs are a good ad for ghost-writing: she is, after all, the sort of person who has to have jokes explained to her, while the book is positively witty.

The Downing Street Years is a formidable work, as one would have expected of a woman who was nothing if not formidable. It is professional in every sense: a team product, with Mrs Thatcher directing a crew of ghostwriters, researchers, typists, archivists and advisers. Mrs Thatcher in government was never one for limpid and lofty understatement – and she isn’t here either. Where a Butler or Macmillan would have had a few sparse sentences about local government reform, for example, Thatcher sails in with voluminous figures and a mastery that extends to every last detail of rate-capping, resource equalisation and competitive tendering.

The most impressive thing about her has always been her prodigious work-rate and it is doubtful whether any other British politician could be so entirely at ease discussing the intricacies of such an enormous array of issues, from local government finance to the logistics of the Gulf War. Accorded the rare honour of an address to the Joint Houses of Congress in 1985, she characteristically decided that since Congress was used to Reagan’s faultlessly autocued speeches, she had best master the same technology. So she flew in, borrowed Reagan’s autocue, practised through the night, ignoring jet lag and taking no sleep, then began a round of TV interviews at 6.45 a.m. and worked through until her speech had been triumphantly delivered. If is impossible to imagine a Kinnock, Smith or Major having the energy, determination and professional confidence to carry this sort of thing off. Similarly, she has now produced a book which, whatever its bias and dishonesties, is far, far beyond the normal politician’s memoirs in its thoroughness and detail. It is without any doubt a central historical document of the period it covers.

That said, the apparently exhaustive accounts of issues and events are often crucially distorted by omissions and silences. Her rendition of the Westland affair makes almost no mention of the leaking of the Solicitor-General’s letter and the bogus ‘inquiry’ into it which followed. The duplicity of that leak, its role in destroying Leon Brittan and the virtual certainty that Thatcher lied like a trooper about the responsibility of her own office in the matter, were so central to the affair that her account is not very coherent without them. Similarly, her discussion of the miners’ strike makes no mention of the famous Ridley Plan, which the Government followed in detail and which left little doubt that Thatcher was lying in wait for an opportunity to get Scargill.

What she says about the Falklands War is not only interesting but exciting. In practical terms, it was her finest hour, but even so she should have made some mention of her own crass error in removing HMS Endurance from the scene, the mistake that caused the war in the first place. Other, similar omissions abound. In the normal, allusive memoir style favoured by Tory patricians this would not matter so much. Even the much-praised memoirs of Rab Butler, though they include a great deal of the bogus generosity and pregnant silence that keep a Robert Harris happy, scarcely pretend to tell one even half the story. But Thatcher has set out to provide the definitive record of her own premiership – an ambition which makes dishonesty by omission a more serious matter.

Leo Abse, in his psychobiography of Thatcher, argued persuasively that her particular set of neuroses causes her to advance through conflict. Rest, let alone retreat, he suggests, is impossible for her: she actively seeks confrontation and without this continuous marching forwards into battle she would simply collapse. Her combative behaviour since her ‘retirement’ confirms this, and it is doubtless no accident that the most enjoyable parts of the book concern her fights with various unworthy opponents. At the 1981 Cancún North-South Summit she was infuriated by Third World demands that the IMF and World Bank be placed under the control of the UN – where they would have a majority. ‘In the end,’ she writes, she ‘put the point more bluntly: I said that there was no way in which I was going to put British deposits into a bank which was totally run by those on overdraft.’ Similarly, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the US Ambassador to the UN, whose national interests led her to hob-nob with the Argentinians on the eve of the Falklands war, gets roundly ticked off: how would she have liked it if the British Ambassador had dined at the Iranian Embassy while Iran was holding American hostages?

At a popular level this is the sort of thing that is still much enjoyed about Thatcher. Nobody much cares whether she was unfair to Cabinet wets like Gilmour, Soames or Prior or whether she had the right of it against Lawson, Pym or Howe. But even now there is a genuine popular relishing of the way she trounced Galtieri, Scargill, the print unions and municipal scallywags like Derek Hatton. Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll are all very well for the young, but the real pleasure of middle age is schadenfreude.

Sometimes, when one looks back at the long line of Thatcher’s villains, one has to concede that, however much one disliked Thatcher’s triumphalism at the time, one could hardly wish the battle to have gone the other way. Maggie was, as they say, a good battler, a sort of ugly but appreciated prizefighter. If, for example, you had fully understood what a vain and over-reaching man Jacques Delors was, you would have found it difficult not to cheer Maggie on as she squared up to him. One’s sympathy evaporates, however, when one scans the (short) list of soul-mates and clients whom Thatcher still likes or admires. The soul-mates are virtually all conservative odd-balls: Enoch Powell, whose ‘greatest regret was that [he] wasn’t killed in the war’, the batty Keith Joseph, the transparently pretentious Laurens van der Post, the relentlessly downmarket Norman Tebbit and Alfred Sherman who, though Jewish himself, risked his career to invite the notorious anti-semite Jean-Marie Le Pen to the Tory Conference. The clients include other Conservative ideologues such as Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley and a strange breed of suburban Brylcreem boys – John Moore, Kenneth Baker, Jeffrey Archer and, pre-eminently, Cecil Parkinson. What they have in common is a dreadful smarminess, a smoothly blatant insincerity which apparently nothing can puncture – Baker’s own recent memoirs are one long purr of bland self-satisfaction.[*] It is startling to read that Parkinson – a man singled out by the Economist as an outstandingly bad minister – was her ideal Foreign Secretary. Parkinson was, after all, a not especially well educated small businessman, with no particular knowledge of international affairs or experience of diplomacy: one wonders what she thought the qualifications were.

The answer lies, tediously, in that monstrous Thatcher ego. These men flattered her and that was enough. It was, doubtless, the same with poor little John Major who, because he had neither the wit nor the guts to offend her with displays of independence, ended up suffering the cruel fate of the boy sent on a man’s errand. One notes the same tendency to underestimate what is needed in her repeated and ludicrous vaunting of her own scientific expertise. She talks of how

I kept tight personal control over decisions relating to SDI ... This was one of those areas in which only a firm grasp of the scientific concepts involved allows the right policy decisions to be made. Laid back generalists from the Foreign Office – let alone the ministerial muddlers in charge of them – could not he relied upon. By contrast, I was in my element.

The mundane reality is that the young Margaret took a Second in Chemistry, briefly worked in a company where she made the filling for jam rolls, then married a millionaire and never worked as a ‘scientist’ again. This, apparently, enabled her to achieve an immediate grasp of the high-energy physics of SDI sufficient to overrule those who believed, with some considerable grounds, that the whole programme drove a coach and horses through the SALT and ABM treaties, Once again her luck held. SDI might have launched a terrible and frenzied new phase in the arms-race. Instead it turned out to be the straw which broke the Soviet camel’s back, something that Thatcher could not possibly have known at the time but which has had the effect of making what was at the time a highly irresponsible attitude look quite sagacious. Inevitably, she lacks the self-reflective depth to realise what an exceptionally lucky politician she was.

For all that, Thatcher was a resounding failure. One of the oddities of her memoirs is her insistence at the very beginning that when in power she ‘returned again and again’ to the point that ‘everything we wished to do had to fit into the overall strategy of reversing Britain’s economic decline, for without an end to that decline there was no hope of success for our other objectives.’ Given this, one waits with bated breath for the conclusion, where she will presumably tell us the actual outcome – but one waits in vain. There is simply no attempt to grapple with the fact that over her period in office economic growth was slower than under any other post-war administration, that inflation was higher when she left office than when she entered it or even that she left office amid a deep (and still deepening) recession for which her government had, inevitably, to take the major responsibility. During the agonies of the first (1980-81) Thatcher recession we were endlessly told that all the suffering would be worth it because this time the economy was being fixed for good and all. A second Thatcher recession was never supposed to be part of the script and yet she fails to explain it.

Worse still, Thatcher makes no attempt to face up to all the vainglorious boasting she went in for in 1986-9 when we were told there was, at last, a ‘British economic miracle’, that we were growing faster than the West Germans and might one day overtake them, that we were going to wipe out the national debt and inflation entirely, and that it was simply no concern of the Government’s if we ran a trade deficit for this was entirely the affair of the private sector. Thatcher doesn’t mention any of this, nor does she explain how such braggadocio came to be so rapidly controverted by the economic facts. More peculiar still, she goes on selectively boasting as if the collapse of her central economic project never happened. Thus, for example, she writes that she ‘took the greatest personal pleasure in the removal of exchange controls ... [which] encouraged foreign investment in Britain and British investment abroad, which has subsequently provided a valuable stream of income likely to continue long after North Sea oil runs out’. There is no mention of the fact that these foreign assets have already been more than offset by foreign liabilities, thanks to the accumulated trade and budget deficits which her administration bequeathed to its successor.

What went wrong was not a mere accident de parcours. At the heart of Thatcherism lay a series of postulates about the way the economy and society worked which were simply boneheaded. Blithely unaware, it seems, of the many cases where high growth and high inflation have gone hand in hand, Thatcher repeatedly asserts that reducing inflation is the necessary and sufficient condition for economic growth. Similarly, she asserts that, as night follows day, a large budget deficit produces high interest rates – although in the previous decade interest rates were often far higher at times when the budget deficit was low or non-existent than they are now with the present £50 billion deficit. Or again: ‘I never ceased to believe that, other things being equal, the level of unemployment was related to the extent of trade-union power.’ If that is the case, then her own administration must have brought trade-union power to its apogee, for unemployment advanced to entirely new levels during her time in office.

Remarks of this kind are evidence, not just of intellectual mediocrity, but of wilful stupidity, as when she depicts Edward Heath as having proposed ‘the most radical form of socialism ever contemplated by an elected British government’ or asserts that ‘welfare benefits, distributed with little or no consideration of their effects on behaviour, encouraged illegitimacy [and] facilitated the breakdown of families.’ No one can be that stupid without trying. Worst of all is the ignorant triumphalism with which Thatcher flourishes her own prejudices – for example, dismissing those who cautioned against budget cuts in the midst of a steep recession as ‘those who had not heard that Keynes was dead’. The aplomb with which Maggie thus dispatches Keynes is reminiscent of fundamentalist preachers dismissing Darwin: one is intellectually embarrassed on their behalf, the more so since one suspects they have never actually read the works they denounce.

The significance of this irrationality goes beyond the merely personal. It should be seen, rather, as a symptomatic reaction on the part of the middle and upper classes of the South of England, who form the core of the Tory bloc. Through the Sixties and Seventies, they had experienced mounting frustration at relative economic decline, the antics of trade-union barons and the general shrinkage of British power. The problem was that the comprehensive modernisation required to reverse these downward trends would have to proceed via the completion of the democratic revolution – and that would be bound to hit hard at the interests of this privileged group itself. To transform Britain into a competitive meritocracy would mean making life very uncomfortable for the aristocracy, the monarchy, the private schools, and such major sacred cows as mortgage tax relief. The Tory core was trapped in this contradiction: it yearned for the end but was unable to embrace the logic necessary means.

The result was anger, unreason – and the ambiguity that lay at the heart of Thatcherism. Some of those democratising imperatives had a life of their own and could not be denied. They fed through into a series of open assaults on major establishment institutions that would have been quite unthinkable under previous Tory administrations. And yet these assaults were confused; they were not informed by any spirit of democracy and were often without issue. Most of the important sacred cows were spared altogether. The thing the Tore bloc was most clear-eyed about was those whom it didn’t like. So, unsurprisingly, Thatcherism’s most successful and coherent project was its bashing of its enemies, avenging the miners’ strikes of the Seventies, avenging even the 1945 Labour Government, and giving some well-placed kicks to the Third World upstarts who had dared call Britain ‘a toothless bulldog’. All of which was deeply satisfying but not enough. Where, however, a positive programme had to be followed, intellectual confusion was followed by theological sloganising. When these ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ absurdities were taken as serious guides to policy the results were, inevitably, catastrophic.

The self-defeating idiocy of such impulses can be seen in the way these policies rebounded on the Tory heartland of the South. Since all subsidies were by definition bad, regional development aid had to be scrapped, thus accelerating the southward flow of labour migrants. Since public transport was by definition bad and private transport good, the buses and railways had to be starved of cash while money was poured into the M25 monstrosity. The combination of increased population and transport privatisation quickly turned the South of England into a vast, semi-permanent traffic jam. Since welfare payments and public housing projects were both by definition bad they had to be cut, producing an ever greater flow of homeless labour migrants sleeping rough on London pavements. Since the injection of public money into the Chunnel scheme was by definition wrong, the Chunnel will have to disgorge its vast new flow of visitors into a rail network wholly unequipped to handle it. Because private redevelopment is by definition good and public spending bad, the reconversion of the Docklands had to depend on speculative commercial development, producing a vast surplus of unwanted office space sufficient to overhang the property market well into the next century. And so on and on. De Gaulle had a word for this: le chienlit, ‘making a mess in one’s own bed’.

The reason for this was simply that Thatcherism was really a set of moral precepts about what people ought to do – had to be made to do – and not an economic theory at all. Maggie would adopt monetarism, say, because it seemed likely to help those she liked and ‘get’ those she didn’t. Much as she inveighs about economic decline, the nearest she comes to explaining it is in a few fleeting references to Keith Joseph’s meanderings about a ‘culture of decline’ – and that, on examination, is not a theory at all but a further set of homilies about Victorian values. Yet any serious attempt to understand slow growth in Britain will quickly alight on the low rate of investment, the propensity to overspend on housing and defence, to underspend on education, and so on. If one wants to do something about slow growth in Britain, these are the things one needs to deal with; subjecting the nation to doses of moral castor-oil is a wholly different enterprise.

The gap between these two notions was seen over the Poll Tax. Thatcher is unwilling, even now, to admit that the Poll Tax was a mistake – how could she, given that her basic rationale for it was moralistic, not pragmatic? What she felt, and still feels, is the property-holder’s fury against the poor who don’t or cannot pay their way. Repeatedly warned that the attempt to shift the local tax burden onto the poor was bound to fail because of their simple inability to pay, her response was, essentially, that the poor were to be given a sharp moral lesson, for the resulting pain would teach them not to tolerate spendthrift councils in future. She was, in effect, keener to deliver a good spanking to those she saw as parasites than she was to arrive at a workable system of local taxation. In the end this cost her her premiership – she got the spanking. It was a rare case of just deserts in politics but one which she clearly feels was contrary to natural moral law.

Maggie, thank heaven, is gone from power, but despite her colossal blunders, her populist mixture of bashing your enemies and government by slogan holds key sections of the Tory Party in its thrall, rather as Stalin’s shadow fell long upon his successors, regardless of his crimes. John Major is her Malenkov, trying to sidle away from her inheritance while desperately claiming to perpetuate it. This, inevitably, will fail. The Tory Party, and indeed the country, awaits its Khrushchev, someone who, from within the same political tradition, can denounce Thatcherism for what it really was. Given that Thatcher, unlike Stalin, is all too visibly still with us, and given that the central contradiction at the heart of the modernisation project remains, we may have a long wait. We can, meanwhile, look forward to the next Thatcher volume, covering her first fifty years. In power she promised that she would ‘go on and on and on’. Now, out of power, it seems clear, she intends to do just the same.

[*] The Turbulent Years (Faber, 498 pp., £20, 13 September, 0 571 17077 3).