Let them cut grass

Linda Colley

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

It was an extraordinarily long premiership – indeed the longest of the century by a considerable margin. In part, this was because the Opposition was divided, its members seemingly incapable of suppressing their personal disagreements and policy differences so as to co-ordinate and concentrate their attack. But the premier’s longevity was also due to a high degree of political professionalism and ruthless single-mindedness. Critics were shut out of the Cabinet and state patronage was exploited in an unprecedentedly partisan way. Favours were distributed to those sections of the press which supported the regime. Direct taxes on wealth were reduced in favour of indirect taxation, hurting the middle and lower classes, but beguiling the wealthy. The resulting dissatisfaction, in Scotland, the big cities and among intellectuals, was neutralised by the vagaries of the electoral system.

Naturally, some claimed that the Premier was interested only in power and profit. But this was a woefully inadequate verdict. The Premier genuinely believed that the Opposition threatened Britain’s prosperity and stability, even perhaps its very survival. And many ordinary Britons fervently believed this too. So, in the end, the Premier was not toppled by mass revulsion, nor even by Parliamentary opponents. It was bitter men from the Premier’s own party who were in at the kill, the impatient young, together with those no longer young whose ambitions had been too long frustrated. But even the loss of power had its compensations. There was a peerage and a fortune. The Premier’s children, too, had been enriched by one means or another. Despite the many who hated him, he died in bed.

For I refer, of course, to Sir Robert Walpole, prime minister from 1722 to 1742, architect of the Whig supremacy, hammer of the Tories. His long tenure of power reminds us that Britain’s much-vaunted two-party system has in the past often given way in practice to something approximating to a one-party state. For the past century or so, especially, the pendulum of power has not so much swung from one side to another in a regular fashion as remained fixed for long periods of time in the Conservative camp. Conservative or Conservative-dominated administrations were in power for all or most of the time between 1874 and 1905, between 1916 and 1945, between 1951 and 1964, and again after 1979. It is worth pondering the fact that this marked supremacy of the Conservative Party for more than a century has coincided in Britain with two other momentous developments: the achievement of mass democracy with the Reform Acts of 1884, 1918 and 1928, and irreversible economic and imperial decline.

Nor is this last remark merely waspish. The history of 20th-century Europe as a whole shows that a sense of decline, and in particular of economic disarray, has often been conducive to the success of right-wing regimes, not least in the inter-war period. And there were not wanting in Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinets perceptive souls who detected in her style of government glimmers of far less savoury right-wing popularists from the recent past. It was Alan Clark (he of the dog called Eva Braun) who drooled over her ‘personality compulsion, something of the Führer Kontakt’. And it George Younger, then Secretary of State for Scotland, who remarked of her post-Falklands address to the Scottish Conservative Party in 1982, that it reminded him of ‘the Nuremberg rally’. Countries which believe themselves to be in a mess are easily attracted to authoritarian leaders, especially those who tell them that their decline is not irreversible, but is rather caused by malign elements in their midst.

Putting Thatcherism in its British and European historical context is important if we are to assess it in a measured and accurate fashion. It is all too easy – because she is a woman – to treat her premiership between 1979 and 1990 as sui generis, as something altogether extraordinary, as distinct from a remarkable but, in political terms, by no means unprecedented achievement. This misperception has informed both the appearance of and reactions to this volume of her memoirs. On the one hand, Thatcher secured a uniquely generous advance from her publishers, far more money than a male politician from any Western slate would be likely to command. On the other hand, the initial reviews tended to be sour, not just because the book is over-long and often turgid, but also because reviewers had, erroneously, allowed themselves to anticipate something utterly special. Yet the real historical value of this book is that it helps us to understand the construction and success of a certain kind of right-wing popularism in a century when the Right and popularism have more often than not gone together. Thatcher’s gender certainly mattered. But it was chiefly important because it became, interestingly, part of what made her brand of Tory popularism work.

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