When he was a Labour MP Leo Abse was one of the more —how shall we put it — colourful legislators in the — how do they put it — Most Exclusive Club in The World. He was recently shown that he can still make the news by writing a book which purports to give a psycho-analytical explanation for the style in which Margaret Thatcher runs the government of British capitalism.
According to Abse, if we are to understand Thatcher’s abrasive, overbearing and unyielding personality we must refer to her attitude towards her parents. She has fond memories of her father, a dourly religious grocer and council alderman in Grantham, which is reputed to be among the most boring towns in England. The late Alderman Roberts stood for the small shopkeeper’s morality of Value for Money, Hard Work and Thrift, and Know Your Place and Keep To It. He had no ambitions to excite anyone; no Leo Abse was he. However he made a deep impression on Thatcher, who is liable to claim that she runs Britain like a corner shop where, if all goes well, we shall eventually be enjoying the finest English cheese, best butter and broken biscuits. In the meantime she has had a tendency to treat her ministers — Francis Pym, Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd, Nigel Lawson — rather like indolent shop assistants or errand boys in a H.G. Wells novel.
But Thatcher shows a different estimation of her mother, who is so pale a shadow in her life that it is almost as if she never existed. Amateur mind benders and shrinks — not to mention those humiliated ministers — may find some amusement in raking over Thatcher’s hangups about her ancestry and, such is the situation today, they may like to consider another explanation. It has been obvious for some time that Thatcher thinks herself as a sort of queen. In the aftermath of Lawson’s resignation she defended herself with a defiant quote from the Bible: “I am what I am”, which could mean that she has risen above royalty into a deity. At this time of year we hear a lot about a child who was supposed to have been born a long time ago and who had a mother but no biological father; his mother was a virgin. The offspring of that unusual and inexplicable event was — so runs the myth — destined to save the world, although from what, how or when have never been made clear. Thatcher likes to behave as if she too is a saviour, at present of Britain and much of Europe but perhaps soon of the entire world. Perhaps the attempted elimination of her mother from her life springs from a desire to be the outcome of a twentieth-century immaculate conception, biologically even more difficult than the one in the Bible, as a prelude to her saving the world from her version of socialism, Neil Kinnock, state controlled industry and the European Monetary System.
That does not seem so far-fetched when we bear in mind other aspects of Thatcher’s behaviour. She is known to detest holidays, to need hardly any sleep and recently dismissed the engineering workers’ claim for a 35-hour week with the sneer that she often works that many hours over a two day period and then, if need be, does it again over the next two days. Her relaxation seems to be in harassing her ministers and intruding in the details of the work she has delegated to them; she needs to be prime minister, foreign secretary, chancellor of the exchequer and home secretary, as well as queen and god, combined in one frenzied, immaculately conceived person. So there is some restlessness now among the Tory faithful. Some questions about what was once unthinkable — is it the most promising way of assuring the Conservative Party of victory at the next election — which, in the view of all good Tories, amounts to the same thing?
The prime minister’s standing has not been improved by the news that she is kept going by taking electrified baths, a therapy administered by a woman in, of all places, Shepherds Bush. Her sycophants, so long buoyed up in arrogant strength, must be wondering what will be revealed next. Will it be furtive visits to a fortune teller, to map out the course of the economy over the next couple of years by spinning out playing cards? On reflection that may not be such a bad idea, for the fact that a “brilliant, brilliant” chancellor like Lawson is unable to prevent economic crises shows how chaotic capitalism is and how unwise it is to rely on the economists and the “experts”, in the Treasury or elsewhere.
And that may be an explanation for what a growing number of people are beginning to see as mental imbalance in the prime minister. Perhaps she really did convince herself that with a mixture of stubbornness. belligerence and browbeating she could personally reshape capitalism on some misconceived principles learned from a blinkered small shopkeeper. The frustration of failing against the inexorable chaos of this social system may have unhinged her, for failure does not become success by pouring ever more energy into the frustration.
Any anxiety about the nation’s affairs being in the hands of an overwrought leader whose judgement becomes increasingly warped through a masochism of effort should be tempered by the fact that Thatcher is not the first politician to show symptoms of instability. There are many, many other examples but for the moment let us consider the late Lord George Brown, who was also famous for his energy and his unmanageable personality. As consolation for his defeat by Harold Wilson in the contest for the Labour leadership, Brown was later put in charge of the Department of Economic Affairs. He would have preferred to be prime minister but his new job was very important because it involved snatching the British economy from the stagnating grip of the Treasury soothsayers and placing it with the DEA, where the crystal balls were specially designed to block off all images other than those of expansion, growth and prosperity. With manic power Brown laboured to set up the new ministry which was to change the face of British capitalism. But the prophets of the DEA could no more do the impossible than could those at the Treasury and the whole idea was quietly abandoned soon after Brown had been reshuffled into Foreign Secretary.
Brown found some release from the frustrations of his job in an industrious consumption of alcohol (what fun Abse would have, musing on the possibilities of an oral fixation and the quest for a mother substitute in the bottle) and when in his cups he was liable to be, well, indiscreet. Apart from his persistent offences against the niceties of protocol at many a ruling class gala event, he was liable to surges of temper and sulks in which he would resign from office on the assumption that nobody would take any notice. But the day came (actually it was at night, when Labour ministers were in panic session, grappling with yet another financial crisis) when, as Wilson had foretold, one of these resignations stuck and Brown awoke to find himself not only hung over but a back bencher again. At which point he forgot his reputation as a right wing defender of all that is normal to capitalism’s property motivated operation and declared that the left had at fast found a leader. Apart from the embarrassment this caused to left wingers, nobody took him seriously and Brown set into decline, ending his days as a less-than-rapturously-welcomed recruit to the SDP.
Any discussion of the apparent madness of some politicians, whatever form it takes, is useful only in so far as it exposes the fact that the “sane” ones are no more effective. If the Labour Party succeed in their efforts to persuade large numbers of workers that the present crises of British capitalism are largely caused by Thatcher’s rampant character a valuable lesson will be missed. The two men who would probably be in charge of the Treasury and economic affairs if there is another Labour government — John Smith and Gordon Brown — have made it quite clear that they offer no policies which are in any significant way alternative to those of Lawson and Major. Another way of saying this is that Smith and Brown are admitting, even before they are in power over British capitalism, that they will fail to control this social system, just as the Tories have failed and as all governments must fail. As these are two “sane” leaders, it is abundantly clear that the only way out of the mess is to summon the electoral equivalent of the men in the white coats.