1990s >> 1991 >> no-1037-january-1991

Caught in the Act: Two Of A Kind

Two of a Kind

John Major had to move swiftly to correct any impression that he meant, or even intended, what he had said when he announced that he would spearhead a drive to a classless society. He did this in a way which was intended to please as many people as possible – which is perhaps how he will try to do the job of prime minister. Denis Thatcher was elevated from one of the common herd to a baronet which, for those who are unfamiliar with the ridiculous mummery and protocol of class society, is a hereditary title created in 1611 by James I. At that time the royal idea was to raise some money to pay for the upkeep of an army in Ulster, almost anyone whose income from land ownership was large enough and who could prove that his family had been warring for the past two generations could offer to buy one of the titles. Then they could put the word “Sir” before their name and the word “Bart” after it. Which was nice for them; Denis is said to be very pleased that he is now allowed to do this and so are all the snobs and toadies who don’t object to being social doormats as long as the shoes which are wiped on them contain aristocratic feet.

Bone Headed

Although Denis has not actually paid for any troops to be sent to Northern Ireland he has in many other ways rendered faithful service to British capitalism. This is only natural because he is a very rich member of the ruling class; his patient support and reassurance for his wife when she was under criticism for the way her government was operating was not entirely selfless. There is no reason to believe that he had to be economical with any personal principles to do this because, to the delight of Private Eye, he personifies a mass of the crasser prejudices of capitalism. Perhaps that is why he never made – or should that be he was never allowed to make – public statements and confined himself to shadowing his wife a step or two behind her. One typically bone-headed utterance of his which was leaked into the news some years ago was made in private, at the annual dinner of the London Society of Rugby Union Referees. At the time there was a strong campaign in protest at a proposed English rugby tour to South Africa – a country much admired by Denis – who informed his audience, to enthusiastic after-dinner applause, that rugby players should be free to play anywhere and against anyone they chose. He did not actually mean that – the protests were in favour of freedom in sport and against racist restrictions imposed on it by the South African government. What Denis did mean was that a while English rugby team (no one thought that any black players, however good, would be selected) should be free to support apartheid by going to South Africa and ignoring what the racism there did to the Africans and the Coloureds.

This blind tolerance of the intolerable is typical of what Denis represented – the plain, no nonsense regular in the saloon bar of some Home Counties pub who knows that the British people devoted centuries to a selfless mission to civilise an ungrateful world (which is why James I thought up the idea of selling baronetcies) and nothing has been the same since a bunch of subversive do-gooders began to dismantle the British Empire. This sort of theory can be kindly described as innocence; certainly there is no evidence to support it – just as there is none in favour of the idea that to give someone a high-flown title makes them superior – but Denis was never one to be confused by facts if he didn’t want to be.

In any case capitalism has been good to him. He inherited some substantial property which blossomed in a succession of takeovers so that his wife could study for the Bar and then go full time into politics without worrying about the children, who were cared for by a nanny and later at boarding school (their son at Harrow). Denis’s view on trade unions and the motives for production can be gauged by his reputation for being clever at reading a balance sheet – a talent which would not be much use if he were cast up on a desert island but which impresses the shareholders. When his wife was ejected from Number Ten they could offer to pay £6.5 million for a house in Chelsea with a further large sum for the contents. Contrast this with just one souvenir of his wife’s government – the tragic increase in the homeless, in beggars on the city streets and in people sleeping rough. One of her parting comments was that she had ” . . . done pretty well out of being Mrs Thatcher”.

Well, yes.

An Unstable Baronet

A baronet of rather different stamp was Richard Acland, who died last month after a life time of political activity which was barren of any apparent insight into its futility.

Acland’s title was rather older than Thatcher’s; it orginated in the Civil War. his family were well accustomed to their ruling class status and by the lime he came into the title in 1935 he was a Liberal MP. Like a lot of others with a deficient understanding of capitalism he was converted to Keynesianism and later joined the Popular Front. He decided that the war would signal the end of private capitalism and to prepare for this he founded the Common Wealth Party, which won three parliamentary by-elections during the wartime truce between the Labour. Conservative and Liberal parties but was wiped out in the 1945 general election.

Although Common Wealth staggered on. Acland knew that it was yet another movement which had failed to change history and he joined the Labour Party. In 1947 he won a famous victory at Gravesend but then, having fought to become a Labour MP after the party had supported the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities and then set up the British atomic bomb programme, Acland objected to the proposal to make a British H bomb. In 1955 he resigned from parliament with the intention of fighting a dramatic, denunciatory by-election on the issue. But again his ambitions were swamped in a general election – on this occasion the big issue was to confirm Anthony Eden as Churchill’s successor and not the malformed confusions of a fringe idealist.

After that Acland sank into his home on the family estate, living off the memories of a voyage around politics which ended nowhere. In 1983, when what was left of Common Wealth wanted to celebrate its 40th anniversary he refused to have anything to do with the party on the grounds that he had no sympathy for their aspirations. It did not seem to occur to him that an apology might be in order, for the turmoil he had stimulated by his empty promises that capitalism could be reformed out of its character and that he had formed a movement which could be trusted to do it.

Two Different Types?

Capitalism’s politics seethes with organisations like Common Wealth, who trade on working class dissatisfaction with the system. Politics has plenty of people like Acland, who attract brief attention with their baseless theories, write a book or two, pour out their anguished consciences in compelling speeches. Then reality strikes, they disintegrate into a historical footnote and the workers who were misled by them are left to still endure capitalism.

Acland and Thatcher are superficially two different types of baronet. The one gaunt, angular and agonised, the other well fleshed and heartily smug. They would regard each other as mortal enemies but in their work to persuade the working class to keep capitalism in being they were in close alliance.

As for the classless society . . .