Nostalgia for the Vestry

James Buchan

  • Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins
    Allen Lane, 375 pp, £20.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 7139 9595 5

Of the monuments of the Thatcher era, one of the most intriguing is a small file card, on which are written four pairs of words: Discord-Harmony, Error-Truth, Doubt-Faith, Dispair [sic]-Hope. These are the bones of the prayer attributed (not very plausibly) to St Francis of Assisi that Margaret Thatcher quoted on the steps of 10 Downing Street on her first day as prime minister, 4 May 1979: ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.’ Thatcher had just called on the queen and no doubt wrote the words as an aide-memoire on the short drive back through St James Park from Buckingham Palace. It is as if on 18 June 1940 Churchill had had before him in the House of Commons a note saying Battle – France – Over – Battle – Britain – Begin.

In her 11 years in power, Thatcher duly gave the public all the contradictions she had jotted down: discord, harmony, error, truth, despair and hope, often at the same time. In doing so, Simon Jenkins argues in his new book, she set in train a pair of revolutions which continue to do whatever revolutions do – revolve? – today. The first revolution is the one everybody knows about and, with few exceptions, accepts as a precondition for the material prosperity of this country in the past quarter-century. This is the one of which Thatcher boasts in her memoirs: the privatisation of state enterprises, the cutting-down-to-size of the trade unions, the revival of profit as a category of pecuniary return and the creation of a competitive market for capital in the City of London.

This revolution was imitated in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Russia and the former Comecon countries and became the orthodoxy of such agencies as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in their lending to the Third World. As Jenkins says, in Britain it did for Butskellism, the mixture of planning and social welfare and nationalised industry that was accepted by both main political parties until the 1970s. In the process, Thatcherism dismantled the imperial and wartime economy that had passed more or less unreformed into the welfare state of Attlee, Bevan and Beveridge. A bureaucratic ideology devised for dominion over palm and pine, or at least for making more fighting aircraft than the Germans, was directed into managing hospitals, railways, shipyards, power stations, car factories, schools, prisons, ports, coalmines, airlines and airports. At its peak, in the final paroxysms of the Labour administrations before Thatcher, the government in some form or other was a party to half the commercial and industrial activity in the UK, and the country was heading for the poorhouse.

The second revolution, which Jenkins holds in a formal contradiction to the first, did not roll back the state but rather accumulated power for central government and in London. Local government was humiliated and civil institutions such as universities subjected to financial and ideological control from the capital. This British Gleichschaltung, which Jenkins sums up under the motto ‘Privatise what you can, control what you can’t,’ has proved congenial for different reasons to John Major and Tony Blair, and to Blair’s heir apparent, Gordon Brown. These men are to Jenkins Thatcher’s political ‘sons’, with David Cameron trotting along behind as a ‘grandson’. (The book was completed before Cameron’s Conservatives abandoned any formal adherence to the Thatcherite slogan of reducing the role of central government.) In the process, Jenkins says, Thatcherism lost its shrill, partisan, feminine, belligerent, eccentric, almost clownish character, and faded into a parade of dark blue suits and red ties.

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