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.

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