‘Spurious’ is the word we want

Ian Gilmour

  • Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher by George Urban
    Tauris, 206 pp, £19.95, September 1996, ISBN 1 86064 084 2

This book tells how the author fell in and out of love with Margaret Thatcher. Although George Urban found her ‘an attractive lady’, with ‘the movements, the legs and walk of a young woman’, his love affair was wholly ideological. Urban, who is or was on the extreme right, was attracted by ‘the great spirit that animated her policies in many areas’; and he greatly admired her ‘galvanisation of the British people at a time of accelerating decline’; yet it was her attitude to foreign policy which chiefly excited his passion. Urban was an ardent Cold Warrior. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, in his case fear of the Soviet Union seems to have deranged his judgment.

In 1981, he tells us, ‘the question on all Western lips was about the collapse not of the Soviet system but of our own. Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish caught the mood of the period to perfection. Liberal democracy was widely thought to be doomed – Marxism of sorts and the advance of Soviet influence the wave of the future.’ Admittedly, I am at the disadvantage of not having read that book, indeed of not having heard of it, but in 1981 that question, so far as I know, was not on the lips of any member of the British Government or of the Foreign Office. Nobody thought the Western system was about to collapse, and not even many members of the Labour Party thought Marxism was the wave of the future.

The author’s first personal contact with the Prime Minister was in January 1981, at a working lunch at Chequers. The purpose of the lunch, which was attended by some distinguished academics, was to prepare Mrs Thatcher for her meetings with the newly elected President Reagan in Washington. After what appears from Urban’s account to have been a lengthy and banal discussion, he was deputed to write a note on ‘information policy’. The principal recommendation of this note was ‘as a short-term emergency measure, a series of television fireside chats – somewhat on the FDR pattern – probably by the Prime Minister herself’. Mrs Thatcher is a lady of many talents, but few people have ever imagined that fireside chatting was among them. Mr Urban, however, was sufficiently starry-eyed to think she could do virtually anything. ‘She was a universal symbol of hope,’ and after her ‘triumphant re-election in 1983’ he thought ‘her honeymoon with the British people [was] unclouded.’ The fact that there never was such a honeymoon, clouded or unclouded, and that Mrs Thatcher was, with one exception, the least well-regarded of all post-war prime ministers escaped him.

Most of the book consists of extracts from Urban’s diary, which tell of the help he and other academics gave to the Prime Minister in the writing of her speeches and the formation of her attitudes. Few political speeches merit rereading in later years. Winston Churchill’s are an obvious exception. He spent nine or ten hours preparing his Parliamentary speeches, and the time was well spent; they can still be read with enjoyment. Mrs Thatcher once made a speech in the spirit, she claimed, of Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ address at Fulton, Missouri, a claim which even Urban thinks was ‘less than modest’; even so her orations were nowhere near the Churchillian category. Like nearly everybody else’s speeches, they are dead and should not be resurrected. Moreover, if there is one thing more tedious than reading old political speeches, it is reading long accounts of how those speeches were composed and discussed.

Mr Urban treats these speech-writing sessions as though he were disclosing how Milton composed Paradise Lost or Lincoln found the right rhythms and phrases for his Gettysburg Address. As, unfortunately, neither Mrs Thatcher nor her speech or ghost-writers were ever prose stylists, the process is not even of academic interest. Confronted with this passage, for instance – ‘We then debated what adjective to use to describe the character of the Soviet package of ideological arguments. “These are false arguments,” she said, “but that is not quite the word I need” ’ – there is little to do but yawn, and, when further told after some discussion that ‘spurious’ is ‘the word we want’, to yawn again. Nor are the reader’s spirits much raised by being given two pages of the ‘bare bones’ of a speech of staggeringly trite Cold War rhetoric, containing such gems as ‘Soviet ideology holds that we in the West are like rotten apples ready to fall at the first shake of the tree – some apple, some tree,’ and ‘advocates in our midst of the “better red than dead” type of thinking might find themselves ending up both red and dead.’ The groggy reader then gets the knockout punch: two pages of press reviews of the speech.

Even a Boswell would have had difficulty turning such intractable material into a compelling narrative, and Urban is almost as far from being Boswell as Mrs Thatcher is from being Dr Johnson. He is not a good diarist. He does not think that statesmen or stateswomen should have a sense of humour, only a sense of irony. (So much for Churchill, Palmerston, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Lloyd George and many others.) He himself appears to have neither. ‘I have always found the presence of wives, husbands and other relatives an obstacle to any serious talk, and my abhorrence of parties is well known.’ In addition, Urban tells us, he has ‘an unworldly way of not wanting to know about the family connections or personal lives of my friends – an intellectual aloofness of sorts which tends to cause me from time to time quite a bit of embarrassment’ – and which tends to be a drawback for a diarist who ventures into print.

Urban’s diary does not sound like one. ‘This is Mrs Thatcher’s third term,’ he writes, ‘and she is under formidable attack, especially on account of the community charge (poll tax). Conservative defeat at the Mid-Staffordshire by-election does not help.’ Such heavy scene-setting is not the only problem. When Reagan invaded Grenada, a Common wealth country, Mrs Thatcher for once did not follow his lead; she quite rightly objected. As Urban records, she was ‘profoundly upset by the violation (as she sees it) of Common wealth sovereignty’ – how she could have seen it as anything else he does not explain. Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, who was Urban’s patron at the Court of Queen Margaret, disagreed with this regal dissent and invited Urban to listen to a debate in the House of Lords on Grenada, in which he was going to speak. In this debate, ‘Wayland Young (Lord Kennet) and Roy Jenkins (Lord Jenkins) were on particularly good form.’ According to Urban, Roy Jenkins announced that Reagan’s ‘grasp of his marbles sometimes seems to be precarious’, and Urban then quotes another long sentence at the same level of wit. He found all this ‘scintillating and huge fun’. Perhaps it was. The only trouble is that the debate was in November 1984, and Roy Jenkins did not go to the House of Lords until 1987.

Not only is Urban an unreliable diarist, his history is similarly awry. Reagan attacked Grenada largely because, shortly before, the United States had had 241 servicemen killed in Lebanon. The American Government could not exact revenge in the Middle East, so it diverted the attention of public opinion by bombing and invading a small island in the West Indies. Yet Urban does not even mention Beirut or the killing of the marines.

His love affair with the Prime Minister blossomed so long as the trysts took place over the Cold War. Urban’s adulation was then un-bounded. ‘Sitting there with her and Hugh Thomas, I reflected what a great daughter of the English nation this woman is. Even those who curse her must recognise that she out-thinks, outshines and outdoes all her political rivals and (more dangerously) her political supporters too.’ Urban considered that ‘Marx and Lenin had proved poor guides to the nerve of the Prime Minister’. They did not prove good guides to anything else, but to blame them for that seems a trifle unfair. Urban was full of admiration, too, for her willingness, ‘indeed her compulsive desire to be among intellectually sharp people’ like himself. In this, he felt, she was a strong contrast to previous prime ministers, like Baldwin, Macmillan, Wilson, Callaghan, Douglas-Home and Heath, who did not hold ‘seminars to broaden their minds and take advice from unorthodox quarters’. Urban attributes this sorry failure of Mrs Thatcher’s predecessors to their being too grand or complacent or both. Yet if his account of these gatherings is at all accurate, they seem to have made a wise decision, saving themselves from acres of jejune advice and many long hours of boredom. Perhaps, furthermore, their minds did not need broadening.

In any case, these seminars involved a more serious penalty than ennui. When, in 1990, the love affair had gone sour because the trysts now concerned Europe, and admiration had turned to spleen, Urban decided that ‘MT’s status in her own eyes as the repository of truth and rectitude had grown enormously’ since he first met her. ‘She has become a lady of over-whelming self-confidence and self-importance,’ he told his diary. Yet, if that verdict is just, the mind-broadening seminars and the contacts with the intellectually sharp Mr Urban and others probably had quite a lot to do with the alleged change. Even though, on his own showing, Urban was fulsome in his praise of and to Margaret Thatcher he did not regard himself as a ‘courtier’. There were others, however, whom he did put in that class. Clearly sycophancy was rife at court. And that, of course, is the danger of such gatherings. Academics and others from outside Whitehall are flattered to be invited to Downing Street or Chequers to advise the Prime Minister, and they in turn flatter and pay court to their hostess. Civil servants are (or used to be) much less obsequious. One of the probable reasons for Margaret Thatcher’s dislike of the Foreign Office was that it is thrifty with its flattery.

No doubt a decade of power took some toll, yet the evidence of any great change in her is slight. Urban thought in 1990 that there was a 19th-century ‘Prussian sergeant-major ... lurking in the PM’s soul’. If so, he was lurking there from the start; he did not suddenly arrive on parade when Urban and Mrs Thatcher began to differ. At the end of the Eighties, Urban deplored her ‘all-encompassing obeisance’ to Reagan and the United States. But that, too, was always there; and when she did oppose Reagan over Grenada, Urban thought she was mistaken. It was Germany and Europe which destroyed the affair. Urban could not stand the Prime Minister’s ‘Alf Garnett’ version of history and was shaken by her narrow-mindedness and xenophobia. Yet Margaret Thatcher was anti-European at the beginning of her premiership: Urban himself records some of the foolish remarks she made about Germany and France in 1981.

He convincingly exposes the shallowness and ignorance lying behind her hostility to Germany and the European Community, and satisfactorily demolishes so-called Euroscepticism. Mrs Thatcher’s speech at Bruges was, Urban rightly says, ‘strident’. All the same, her diatribe on that occasion was no more strident than the Cold War speeches which Urban helped to compose. It was he rather than his erstwhile heroine who changed. Whereas earlier he was prepared to overlook any differences of opinion, because he was so gratified to be admitted to her circle of admiring advisers, later he was no longer prepared to excuse ‘her poor comprehension of and lack of sympathy with the spirit of the whole postwar architecture of Western Europe’.

He could surely have left it at that. But, although they had a creditable meeting of minds in attacking the West’s cowardice and weakness over Bosnia, he heaps reproaches on her like a spurned lover, claiming that no other head of government left office, ‘with so little grace’ or continued to show themselves ‘on the stage of the world with so little modesty’. Worst of all, he decided to publish this ‘kiss-and-tell’ book. In so doing he has harmed Margaret Thatcher’s reputation, but he has inflicted much heavier damage on his own.