2000s >> 2002 >> no-1173-may-2002

Greasy Pole: Thatcher – the Voice is Stilled

The nation did not mourn at the news that Margaret Thatcher had been forbidden by her doctors to make any more public speeches. There was no sense that something we all valued will now be missing from our lives. Of course the nation might have marvelled at the bravery of those doctors, doing something her political colleagues never managed – stopping her making those drawn out, haranguing monologues for which she was once so notorious. Thatcher herself probably mourned; she was never averse to the sound of her own voice and then there is the effect of her silence on her income. All those after dinner speeches and so-called lecture tours (she was due to embark on one in America when the doctors intervened) yielded staggeringly generous fees for the regurgitation of some assorted delusions and prejudices.

When she won power in 1979 Thatcher promised a revolution – a word often misused by politicians when what they intend is to re-arrange some of capitalism’s shortcomings. Outside Number Ten, glowing with her triumph, she quoted St Francis of Assisi:

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope”.

That just about covered everything, except that Thatcher had already indicated how she saw things as far as harmony, truth and faith were concerned. “As Prime Minister,” she had said a little before she got the job, “I could not waste time having any internal arguments”.

Like most new governments, the Tories had encouraged the assumption that their “revolution” would succeed because it was based on principles which had somehow eluded all those in the past. In fact things went on much as before and Thatcher’s ministers quickly found that they were as tightly in the python-like grip of events as their predecessors. British capitalism was in economic crisis; the chairman of the Confederation of British Industry economy committee revealed the flavour of a current survey of business optimism – or rather the absence of it: “As gloomy a picture as it is possible for anyone to paint and I fear things will get worse before they get better”. But Thatcher had to insist that her policies were effective and needed only time and patience. At the 1981 Tory conference that year she made her famous “The lady’s not for turning” speech, which had the grassroot Tories convulsed with obsequious laughter – and Ted Heath, who accepted it as a sneer at his government’s embarrassing change of tack when under pressure, reacting grumpily: “it was an absurd caricature to describe the limited policy changes which had to be introduced between 1970 and 1974 as a ‘U-turn”.

The revolution was not, so far, working. Unemployment was rising and expected to reach three million in the near future. In February 1981 Thatcher received a memo from Ian Gow, her Parliamentary Private Secretary and most devoted acolyte, telling her that there was “a noticeable deterioration in the morale of our back benchers” due partly to “increasing concern about the extent of the recession and unemployment”. He said nothing about the effect of unemployment on the morale of the people who were actually experiencing it, floundering in the deeper poverty it imposed on them. To some extent they had their say later, in the riots that year in Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side. The Tory leadership was anything but united; on 23 July 1981 the Cabinet had what Thatcher later described as “one of the bitterest arguments on the economy, or any subject, that I can ever recall taking place at Cabinet during my premiership”.

Ministers like Heseltine, Walker, Pym, Gilmour, Hailsham and Soames made a formidable opposition. Hailsham, to show that he was a Fellow of All Souls, took an historical stance, reminding everyone that in the 1930s unemployment had been effectively exploited by the Nazis and had severely damaged the Republican Party in America. Soames, Leader of the House of Lords, was a particularly grand landed aristocrat who lived by the principle that everyone had their place and should learn to keep it – it was just a matter of chance that his place was somewhere near the top. He had emerged from Thatcher’s first Cabinet meeting in a state of shock: “I would not” he confided to another minister “even treat my gamekeeper like that”. He was angry, in a grand kind of way, when Thatcher sacked him; her impression was that “he felt the natural order of things was being violated and that he was, in effect, being dismissed by his housemaid”.

It was fortunate for Thatcher that early in 1982 the Argentinian scrap dealers should choose to start their work on South Georgia, which provided justification for a good, old fashioned colonial war. The upsurge in hysterical patriotism was a convenient diversion from the damaging fact of unemployment. At the time the war was hailed as a triumph of British professional militarism. Now, twenty years after, there has been a more sober assessment, a recognition that it was a close run thing and that many of the more romantic accounts of the campaign were myths. For Thatcher it was crucial; if the British Task Force had failed to re-take the islands she would probably have gone down as well.

Having seen off General Galtieri and the Belgrano and some hundreds of soldiers and sailors Thatcher could turn her attention to her other enemies. First there was the 1983 general election, when the so-called Falklands factor was so favourable to the government. She seemed unstoppable, invincible and the voters agreed. An election majority of 144 wiped out anachronistic Michael Foot, not just as hopeful Prime Minister but as Labour leader as well. Then it was time to take on the coal miners, who had forced her into a strategic retreat in 1981 over the issue of pit closures. The intervening years had been well used by the government, to build up coal stocks at the power stations and to organise a more effective strike-breaking force in the police, who had been outflanked in previous disputes by the flying pickets. There was also the fact that demand for coal was down by a third since 1973/74 and that a breakaway union, the UDM, kept some pits working during the strike. The NUM under Scargill held on grimly until they were forced back to work; their struggle went some way to make the name of one Kim Howells, who is now an ardent Blairite minister and, even for New Labour, a notable traitor to what he once called his principles.

It was after the 1987 general election, when Neil Kinnock was added to the list of miserably beaten Labour leaders and Thatcher gave the impression that she intended to live, and be Prime Minister, for ever, that the Tories began to have doubts again. The poll tax was widely unpopular, the stimulant to serious public disorder short of riots. There were some spectacular by-election defeats and damaging resignations – like Lawson (who told the queen that his 1988 Budget would have to be his last because Thatcher “was making the conduct of policy impossible”) and Howe (who had once told a Tory MP that “I would draw my sword for” Thatcher).

Turfed Out
Some of this dissent was to do with the fact that she was too preoccupied with her concept of her own invulnerability to notice that she was autocratic and out of touch with her Cabinet. Much of it was to do with the growing realisation that she had become an election liability. Nothing concentrates an MP’s mind so much as the fear of losing their seat. Late in 1990 it was time for her to go and the men in grey suits lined up to tell her so. She never got over the fact that after winning three elections she was turfed out of office by her own party. She applied her talents to sniping at her successors—Major (who, she said, was “grey” and had “no principles”) and Hague, who she derided for his juvenility. Now, after the intervention of her doctors, if she wants to let us know what she thinks of Iain Duncan Smith it will have to be in writing.

With her going there was something like a sigh of relief in the parliamentary Conservative Party. No longer would ministers be physically sick before seeing her for what promised to be one of her handbaggings. No longer would they be so overshadowed by her that the very name “Maggie” was synonymous with their party. We had eleven years of her premiership and then another seven of her party in power. So we had her revolution and the end effect was no different from the experience of all the other capitalist parties. In 1997 millions of people were so dispirited with the Tories that they turned to the alternative capitalist party of Blair’s New Labour. When Thatcher was at the height of her power there were psychiatrists who assessed their patients’ contact with reality by asking them who was prime minister. If they named someone other than Thatcher the psychiatrist knew they were a difficult case for treatment. It says something about Thatcher’s brand of capitalism, that her very name was used as a measure of insanity.

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