Caught in the Act: Goodbye To All That
Tory hopefuls will have felt their pulse quicken at the news that many of the parliamentary storm troopers of the Thatcher revolution will not be storming after the next general election. The list of ex-ministers who will not be standing again reads like a Thatcher cabinet – Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Norman Tebbit, Cecil Parkinson, John Moore, Nicholas Ridley. It is even rumoured that Thatcher herself will soon announce her retreat from the battle for the triumph of market forces over soggy concepts such as social welfare. A tot of plum seats, with fat Tory majorities, will be looking for candidates.
This situation is given extra piquancy by the fact that many of the retiring ex-ministers were themselves once considered as future prime ministers. Howe’s claim to fame was that he spear-headed the drive to cut back government spending and establish the policy that any business which couldn’t make a profit was thereby not worth saving with state money. Lawson was the yuppies’ favourite Chancellor and in his heyday encouraged the illusion that through his budgets the British people were reaping the harvest of prosperity from the seed sown by the unglamourous, dogged Howe. Sadly for Lawson, he did not time his resignation so that his reputation remained intact. The chaos of capitalism was too much for even a smarty like him, reducing him to taking a few part time jobs in the City bringing in the odd £30,000 or so a year.
As recently as last November Tebbit was threatening to contest the premiership (and it would have taken some very brave men in grey suits to deter him) but in the end he deferred to Major. Perhaps he was hoping for a return to prime ministerial favour; in the event he showed what he thought of Major’s declared intention to fashion a more “caring” government by deciding that he needed to spend more time with his wife.
Cecil Parkinson paid the penalty for being one of Thatcher’s blue-eyed – at one time, indeed, the bluest of eyed-boys. Tory aspirants to the leadership must have watched, in impotent despair, Parkinson’s apparent inability to do anything wrong in Thatcher’s eyes. He had, however, done wrong in the eyes of Sara Keays and no patronage could save him from the repercussions of this exposure of how Tory gentlemen behave when it suits them. After all, Tory moralists like to tell us that morals are, like Major’s Britain, classless; they did not thank Parkinson for showing that they are supposed to apply only to the working class. When he eventually came back to office Parkinson seemed to have lost his touch; the past master of deception made a series of public relations blunders which were intended as shrewd, voter-attractive ruses – which did not amuse his anxious colleagues.
Another Thatcher favourite to plummet to obscurity was John Moore, who was once the subject of an enormous publicity exercise to convince us that he was an unusually capable administrator of capitalism’s affairs. Moore basked happily in this praise and in Thatcher’s admiration for his talents for assaulting working class living standards. It did not seem to occur to him, that so blatant a campaign carried its own menace. When events exposed him as a very ordinary sort of political blunderer there were no men in grey suits to save him from an especially humiliating demotion. He did make one last effort to claw his way back into favour by issuing what was supposed to be a serious analysis of the deeper levels of poverty in such a way as to suggest that it was all a product of over-excited imaginations. This latest blunder met with the contempt and derision it deserved and to no one’s regret – certainly not that of the very poor – Moore disappeared from the ministerial scene.
Nicholas Ridley for prime minister was a prospect supported by only a few of the stranger fanatics. Ridley has always conducted himself with all the arrogance and contempt of someone who has inherited a lot of money. As much of the wealth of this old Etonian’s family came from the exploitation of coal miners he was well qualified to help formulate the government’s strategy against the miners during the early 1980s, which reached its ultimate triumph in the defeat of the 1984/5 strike and the subsequent run-down of the industry. On all this Ridley looked with a pitiless eye; this is, after all, capitalism under which wealth is produced, not so that people can hold jobs but for sale at a profit. He had a similar attitude to anyone who objected to what are politely called developments – factories, motorways, runways and the like which threaten to blight their living conditions – sneering at them as NIMBYS – one of those fashionable acronyms, for Not In My Back Yard.
It is not clear whether Ridley regarded himself as a NIMBY when he used his influence to obstruct the building of some houses which would have affected the view from his elegant, costly country home. The incident confirmed what was already known – that Ridley has an uncomplicated view of the world: capitalism is a class divided society in which he is in the right – the superior – class and he will take good care to assert his privileges and to defend them at whatever cost to others. It was a typical indiscretion about European unity which forced his reluctant resignation from the government; events had overtaken someone who did his best to live in the past.
So now we have a new set of politicians in charge, who claim they are inspired by fresh principles, new priorities and more humane ambitions. This change is personified by the greyer, lower-key manner of John Major. Perhaps there will be some minor and insignificant changes: Thatcher’s stridency and obstinacy, and the sycophnacy of her cronies, were becoming so laughable that they were losing votes. And that is what it was – and is – all about.