On Thatcher

Karl Miller

Margaret Thatcher is the third most written about person in the ‘LRB’ archive, after Shakespeare and Freud. Here Karl Miller’s memories of the paper in her day are accompanied by extracts from some of the pieces published at the time.

On the morning Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced, the lesser lights of television who were minding the shop did her proud. A river of bittersweet hyperbole flowed by, as the BBC declared its love. Westminster sympathisers were heard to say that the warrior queen was the country’s greatest peacetime prime minister, if not the best of all. She was to receive a funeral of the sort that buried the Queen Mother, and had wished for no grander ceremonial display. Night then fell, and with the screening of Channel 4 News and Newsnight a sense of proportion was restored, and it was once again possible to believe that, like many successful politicians, she was bad as well as good. Soon afterwards Northern cities were ‘rejoicing’ at her departure. Chalked up on a wall in Derry is the possibly ambivalent ‘Iron Lady, rust in peace.’

This paper was born at the time, 1979, when she became prime minister, having won her election as Tory leader, a post she’d gained over the dead bodies of many of the party’s wise heads. It did not take very long to see that papers of the left had acquired a formidable opponent. And to feel that this one had crawled into the cradle with a ticking bomb. But it was several years before she came to dominate the paper’s political discussions, and before we could be thought to have got onto her radar. In February 1989 the shadow chancellor, Gordon Brown, reviewed a collection of essays entitled Thatcherism in a manner that suggested he did not expect her, or her philosophy, to last the pace: ‘When Thatcherism becomes a “wasm”, everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. Abroad, the term means nothing, although there are probably one or two European politicians who think it has something to do with being rude to foreigners at conferences.’ This is not the Gordon Brown who was eager to shake her hand after her relinquishing of power, and before his own. He was not to know, in 1989, that she has yet to become a wasm in 2013. In August of the same year, Christopher Hitchens argued that Brown had underrated her in his recent book about her. Credibility ‘operates to the benefit of the people who really mean what they say, which is why the facts of life have been Tory for so long.’ The electorate was presently to agree with the wily Hitchens about the sincerity of Margaret Thatcher.

W.G. Runciman had written, in 1981, that he foresaw the emergence, ‘for the first time in British political history’, of ‘a new left which is to the right of the old’. One reason for Thatcher’s eluding wasmification is that the Labour ministers who eventually took over after her fall were in awe of her and keen to do her will. Her Tory successors have been regarded as cruder Thatcherites than Thatcher, but have possibly been more successful than her in dishing the welfare state. Less shrill than their mentor, they did by stealth what they have so far done in their joint attempt to bring welfare down. It will be a fairly long time before the stealth of deniability is abandoned: ‘the welfare state is safe in our hands.’ And in the long run, when we are all dead, the project is more than likely to be found to have failed. The boast last Monday that Mrs Thatcher had seen off socialism seems no less premature than the assertion that welfare is done for, and neither dissolution is served by the present discontents. It has been given out that she is not to blame for these, but she surely did her bit. Out of all this looms an alibi: it was the economic crisis that destroyed the welfare state, whose destruction had long been desired and denied by members of the Conservative Party.

It is accepted that the Falklands victory did much to seal her success, and that she lost her touch over the years that preceded the poll tax fiasco. Douglas Hurd mentioned on television that she should have gone two years before she did, but that he’d stuck by her as a minister till the bitter end, for her own sake and for the country’s. I’ve been talking here about contributors who wrote about her in the paper when she was in her prime, when there were plenty of people to stand by their woman. Those who wrote about her included Ian Gilmour, W.G. Runciman, Neal Ascherson, Christopher Hitchens, R.W. Johnson, Ross McKibbin, E.P. Thompson, Tam Dalyell and Peter Clarke. What they wrote seemed excellent to me, with Runciman bearing the palm for aphoristic conciseness.

In embarking on a review, also in 1989, of Hugo Young’s biography of her, R.W. Johnson was also concise: ‘personally, she is neither nice nor interesting. She has immense energy, remarkable tenacity and stamina, and a good brain. But she has a shallow mind, little imagination and an immense, bullying ego.’ He has no trouble in concurring with those who found her, in all her immensities, vulgar – among them, Lord Carrington. ‘Jonathan Miller talks of her “catering to the worst elements of commuter idiocy”,’ Johnson continues, ‘and one can see what he means.’ Far be it from me to differ from my brother-in-law, but I can’t share in the choice of terms. Like ‘common’, ‘vulgar’ is a word that tends to prove invidious for the user, and I don’t feel it applies to Thatcher, any more than ‘uninteresting’ does. The BBC turned, for balance presumably, to old enemies, fastening on a rant from the ex-firebrand Derek Hatton. Liverpool hates her, ran the message, for doing bad things to Liverpool. Perhaps the day will dawn when Liverpool is said to hate someone for doing bad things to Aberystwyth or Krasnoyarsk. But then again it’s almost certain that she did do bad things to Liverpool.

Another LRB writer, Peter Pulzer, delivered a still resented cut at her reputation when he led the successful opposition to the honorary degree proposed for her by Oxford University. In a piece in the paper he gave a strong account of his role and reasons. I feel now that it would have been better to hand her the degree, which she had done more than most honorands to deserve.

The ambivalence which affects her reputation could well go on for ever, and continues to depend, very much, on the politics, if any, of respondents to inquiries. She has been widely blamed for wrecking industries and communities, and the housing provision, and for building an apartheid of rich and poor; and I think, as many do, that of the things in her that are hard to like or condone her treatment of Nelson Mandela as a wicked terrorist who deserved to spend the rest of his life in jail is very important. What did she do to make up for making an enemy of Mandela and of welfare? Well, she made a friend, and a working partner, of Gorbachev, and her bark was worse than her bite when it came to getting on with foreigners. In that way among others, she did something to shore up the country’s standing, though it hadn’t fallen nearly as low as handout-handling, statement-making politicians have been alleging. An aide of hers has recently been explaining that she was against South African apartheid and in favour of the release of Mandela: he might have done something earlier to make these long-invisible compunctions accessible to the public.

Right-wing 19th-century journalists were sometimes heard to claim that all that was expected of a government was that it did nothing to stop the state: otherwise it could relax. Margaret Thatcher did not stop the state she pretended to disapprove of. She did not stop that society she pretended to disbelieve in while persisting in the use of the word.

What has become of monetarism – which is likely to have formed part of what an eloquent Conservative dissenter described, around 1997, as his government’s ‘cruel and shallow sophistries’? Having shrunk in recent years to the meagre dimensions of ‘quantitative easing’, the word went undropped in the recent tributes, as did the name of the wizard Milton Friedman. And yet it was once the holy grail of expositions of Thatcherism, receiving ample treatment in Ian Gilmour’s critique Dancing with Dogma. What is admirable in her has, in fact, little to do with dogma. She came to the point and did what she said, unlike most leaders, and she was courageous. Her behaviour after the Brighton bombing was politics as well as guts. But it was both. She was entitled to have tears in her eyes after her dismissal, which journalists tended to stress in the intervals of debating whether or not she was a man, or derived unfair advantage from casting flirtatious glances.

Watching the tributes, I found myself liking her a shade more than I wanted to – sheepishly liking her, as she would no doubt have put it. In full flight, she was a wonderful aerodynamic specimen; and she had gained a lot from being disliked by the old gentlemen who wanted her out. Her candour was greater than theirs, and was a good thing on occasion, for all its turns and denials. Calling her ‘the leaderene’, as Norman St John-Stevas did, wasn’t candid, or apt, or funny. The old fellows were bound to wish to hit back from time to time at the Handbag, and they did manage to get rid of it, none too soon, in the end.

12 April 2013

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Servicemen are starting to wonder more and more precisely what the reason was for which Britain spent so much treasure, and for which they and their friends were asked to risk their lives. It is now dawning on many of them that if Mrs Thatcher really cared about the Falklands or the Falkland Islanders she would have come to some arrangement with a country that will always be only 18 minutes away by Super-Etendard. Servicemen are tumbling to it that the Falklands War was not about Queen and Country or the British national interest, that from a very early stage the sending of the battle fleet had far more to do with domestic politics and the political reputation of the occupant of 10 Downing Street.

Tam Dalyell, 5 April 1984

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The brutality of the riot police drafted in from southern counties has left deep scars on the minds of the people of this village, and an inheritance of hatred and mistrust of the local police. This hatred will take until long after this strike is over to heal – not months, but generations. The contempt which the government and the upper echelons of NCB management have for the miners has never been so blatant as during this trouble. Many miners remember the bad old days – private ownership, low wages and the absence of safety precautions – and we will never accept these conditions again. Meanwhile the only weapon we hold is the withdrawal of our labour and the determination to secure a just and lasting victory.

Harold Hancock, 15 November 1984

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A propos the safety measures now required of soccer clubs it is pointed out to Mrs Thatcher that many of them are too poor to afford such outlays. She then expresses surprise that clubs of this kind have survived at all. The same argument could of course be applied to churches. It’s a good job Mrs T isn’t archbishop of Canterbury, or we would just be left with the cathedrals and a few other ‘viable places of worship’.

Alan Bennett, 5 December 1985

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What makes things even worse for radical, progressive spirits is that the ultra-right appears to be even more in control of the Conservative Party this year than it has been previously. Mrs Thatcher clearly regards herself as a dea ex machina, sent down from on high to ‘knock Britain into shape’. She will wield her power over the next few years dictatorially and without compunction. On the other hand, there is a tremendous danger – to which Dr Owen has succumbed – in believing that ‘Thatcherism’ is somehow now invincible, that it has established a new consensus and that all the rest of us can do is debate alternatives within its framework. It is essential to demythologise ‘Thatcherism’.

Tony Blair, 29 October 1987

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With Mrs Thatcher safely in the lead, that voice and the little scuttling walk threatening to lead us into the next century, Conservative commentators like P. Worsthorne feel it now safe to admit that perhaps there is just a little truth in the general distaste for Thatcherism, the decay of manufacture, the throttling of the health service etc, and in the last few days of the campaign it might be as well to look at these details. The well-being of half the country and all it is now is an election garnish.

Alan Bennett, 10 December 1987

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When Thatcherism becomes a ‘wasm’, everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. Abroad, the term means nothing, although there are probably one or two European politicians who think it has something to do with being rude to foreigners at conferences. True, in some other countries, but not in Germany or Japan, or not for long, new right ideology has been translated into policy: but no one calls it Thatcherism.

Gordon Brown, 2 February 1989

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I realise it’s too much to expect a sense of our common lot from this government (‘you common lot’ more often the note), but since Mrs Thatcher has schooled half the nation to put its foot in the face of the other half it’s not so surprising if ‘youths’ put the boot in after office hours. No amount of moralistic afterthoughts by the home secretary is going to alter that. Meanwhile he should look round the table.

Alan Bennett, 31 March 1988

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Personally, she is neither nice nor interesting. She has immense energy, remarkable tenacity and stamina, and a good brain. But she has a shallow mind, little imagination and an immense, bullying ego. As she goes ramping on and on and on through these pages, just as she has gone ramping on and on and on through the last decade of British life, it’s hard not to feel a sort of appalled boredom. There is, moreover, no end to her presumption: to the already notorious quotes one can add another culled by Hugo Young, who finds her measuring ‘my performance against that of other countries in the real world’.

R.W. Johnson, 20 April 1989

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If you want to see the cutting edge of Thatcherism, go to Basingstoke. There, as we learn in Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher, the local council (careful, no doubt, with its ratepayers’ money) has allowed an insurance company to take over and manage a large part of the town’s shopping centre. In the interests of ‘safety’, this company now patrols the area with security guards, whose job it is to exclude the more ‘undesirable’ elements of the local population. How these ‘undesirables’ in prosperous Hampshire are to be recognised is not entirely clear. But bouncers in Basingstoke probably operate much the same way as bouncers anywhere and pick on the usual targets: dirty clothes, ghetto-blasters, cans of lager peeping out of the pockets and all the other outward signs of nuisance or just nonconformity. If your face doesn’t fit, no entry – and, in this case, no shopping.

This slightly bizarre example of ‘fortress shopping’, unthinkable ten years ago, is one clear indication of how the whole fabric of civic life has changed since Margaret Thatcher came to power. The traditional boundaries between the private and the public spheres have moved. Private or sectional interests increasingly encroach on amenities once held in common. What is now at stake is the citizens’ right to civic space.

Mary Beard, 26 October 1989

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Mrs Thatcher’s arrival at the top, a decade and a half ago, instituted a more scorching erasure. Discrediting, and if possible disavowing, the prime ministership of Edward Heath was one of the earliest tasks of the Thatcherite project. It was what gave coherence to an otherwise confused and erratic new leadership. The leader knew what she detested long before she knew what she liked, and her own part in the Heathite reign of error only magnified her disgust. As John Ranelagh, who once worked for her at the Conservative Research Department, says, she was no intellectual. His book purports to be about the people who did her intellectual work for her, and what they undoubtedly had in common was the conviction that the Heath years were a disaster. This is what first bound together Ranelagh’s galère, ranging from Keith Joseph to Alan Walters, from Alfred Sherman to Denis Thatcher: the Institute of Economic Affairs competing the while with Enoch Powell for the role of the enduring spiritual godfather whose time had come.

Hugo Young, 5 December 1991

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Phoned by the Guardian in a round-up of what people think of the departure of Mrs T. I say that I’m hopeless at this kind of thing and am simply relieved I shan’t have to think about politics quite so much. They print this fairly uninspired comment but preface it with ‘’oo ’eck’ and systematically drop all my aitches. I suppose I should he grateful they didn’t report me as saying: ‘’Ee ba gum I’m reet glad t’prime minister’s tekken her ’ook.’ Actually now that she’s gone what it does feel like is the week after Christmas.

Alan Bennett, 24 January 1991

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It is perhaps worth making it clear that Class War came into being as a loose federation of urban counter-terrorists, exegetes of riot, at about the time when the class whose anguish they unilaterally exploited was busy voting Margaret Thatcher, madonna of bother, into everlasting power.

Iain Sinclair, 27 February 1992

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The picture which Nigel Lawson draws of Thatcher herself is a remarkable testimony to the manner in which her government’s grand strategy was determined. Increasingly, ideas were translated into policy via will, whim and pique. The advice of responsible ministers was superseded by that of courtiers, among whom Professor Walters was more notable for his eminence than his greyness. In 1989 the Thatcher government had long been formally committed to achieving membership of the ERM, yet Lawson’s plea for the belated implementation of this commitment met with the retort: ‘I do not want you to raise the subject ever again: I must prevail.’ The British position at the Madrid Summit that year was apparently improvised single-handed by the prime minister behind the back of her chancellor. Not surprisingly, within months he had handed her a letter of resignation. ‘At first she refused to take it,’ he recalls, ‘but then she took it and popped it into her handbag unopened, saying that she did not wish to read it.’

Peter Clarke, 28 January 1993

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She pierced me with a glance. ‘Bow lower,’ she commanded. With what I thought was an insouciant look, I bowed a little lower. ‘No, no – much lower!’ A silence had fallen over our group. I stooped lower, with an odd sense of having lost all independent volition. Having arranged matters to her entire satisfaction, she produced from behind her back a rolled-up parliamentary order-paper and struck – no, she thwacked – me on the behind. I reattained the perpendicular with some difficulty. ‘Naughty boy,’ she sang out over her shoulder as she flounced away.

Christopher Hitchens, 20 October 1994

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The army of rats has now been joined by Lord McAlpine of West Green, Thatcher’s ‘jolly bagman’, as he calls himself. Margaret Thatcher’s affection for the British construction industry was legendary. She loved the world of quick profits from government contracts, and for all her much-hyped commitment to hard work and Methodism, she revelled in the company of the idle rich. Almost as soon as she became Tory Party leader in 1975, she appointed the chubby heir to the McAlpine millions as party treasurer. Who could have been better suited to collect money for the Tory Party than a jolly right-winger who was born in the Dorchester Hotel and had spent most of his life collecting art treasures with and for his wealthy friends?

Paul Foot, 3 April 1997

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How much difference being female made to her success in other respects is difficult to estimate, in part because she herself has always been understandably reticent on the issue. If we are to believe former male cabinet ministers in their memoirs and in their cups, at the apex of her power, she exploited her sex ruthlessly, drawing on while subverting the dynamics of the harem. She would straighten a supplicant minister’s tie, pat his shoulder, button (not unbutton) his jacket. Her lips would be carmine, her eyes clear, and all the while she would move so as to exhibit elegant legs in invariably high-heeled shoes. She acted in her prime – if this version is to be believed – like a sultan’s favourite, displaying her allure before those unable to sample it and thereby reduced them effectively to eunuchs. Yet, lethally, she was not the sultan’s favourite. She was the sultan. Too many wrong moves on the part of a Tory minister or MP, and she could summon the mutes – or in her case the Whips – and destroy him in an instant.

Linda Colley, 7 September 2000

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Westminster, in Alan Clark’s diary portrayal, was peopled almost wholly by buffoons and crooks. The Laird of Saltwood, it was evident, had no need to spend his days doing what they did: sucking up to Thatcher, plotting the downfall of mediocre rivals, pretending to take an interest in the squalid misfortunes of constituents. Clark was a volunteer, an amateur who on the tiniest of whims could instantly repair to Kent in order to repair his moat, or to swap a few more of his daddy’s paintings for a few more vintage cars. And as to the politics, here too he was above the dreary fray. He had no real political principles but he did have quite a few well-rooted prejudices and was not afraid to voice them. Upper-class gut instincts, if presented with sufficient vehemence, could easily be passed off as ideals. He was an old-style patriot, he liked to say. He wanted to cut down on welfare handouts, immigration quotas and so on. Although Thatcher was his social inferior, he saw her as a spiritual kinsperson. Indeed, his rare moments of bewilderment were usually to do with her fluctuating attitude to him: why didn’t she recognise their kinship, why didn’t she turn to him for help? Maybe she didn’t fancy him, or was it that she fancied him too much? Puzzles of this sort did not keep Clark awake at night, but they did leave one or two small puncture marks on his disdain.

Ian Hamilton, 14 December 2000

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Apropos the transport shutdown due to the volcanic cloud there have been the inevitable outbreaks of Dunkirk spirit, with the ‘little ships’ going out from the Channel ports to ferry home the stranded ‘Brits’. It’s a reminder of how irritating the Second War must have been, providing as it did almost unlimited opportunities for bossy individuals to cast themselves in would-be heroic roles when everybody else was just trying to get by. ‘Brits’ – so much of what is hateful about the world since Mrs Thatcher in that gritty hard little word.

Alan Bennett, 16 December 2010