Greasy Pole: Not Another Maggie Thatcher?
As the Iron Lady dissolved into ashes, something similar began to happen to her reputation, so lovingly nurtured, for strength, courage, honesty and humanity in her promotion of Britishness against any threats from without and within. First there were the biographies, in particular Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography by ex-Sunday Telegraph editor Charles Moore, the publication of which was always intended to be delayed until after her death. This was as she had ordered: the co-operation Moore received was unusually generous on condition that her wishes in this were obeyed (in fact he was – still is – too ardent an admirer of hers to even dream of going against her wishes).
Then there was the TV programme Young Margaret: Love, Life And Letters, to which Moore was an important contributor, if an apparently embarrassed one. This revealed a rather different character with a talent for cynical manipulation when it came to human relationships. For example among a succession of unsuspecting man friends she at first cultivated a relationship with one she described as displaying ‘…the kind of naivety only a Scotsman can have’ but who owned a fair bit of land and profitable shares in industry. When Margaret had more promising prospects in sight, the farmer was briskly passed on to her sister Muriel who was thus made (we believe) happy ever after.
Such discriminatory skills were also applied in the matter of some other holidaymakers in Madeira who are derided as ‘…rather tatty tourists, Jews and novo rich.’ And rich among the examples of cold, calculating tactics is her view of her father, Alf Roberts the grocer from Grantham, once credited, as she worked her way up to the top of the Greasy Pole, as an enduring, invaluable example of parental guidance for a supremely ambitious daughter. After her mother died Thatcher had Alf move in with her but this did not yield the kind of advantages she had planned: ‘He is eating the most enormous meals and doing absolutely nothing except reading’ she complained to Muriel, telling her she intended to ‘shunt Pop off … will this be all right with you? Otherwise he will just hang on and on and not take any hints.’ A month or so afterwards Alf was writing to Muriel that he never heard anything from Margaret: ‘in fact I don’t think I know their new phone number.’ And then, unremarked, he died.
A spin-off of the post mortem reverence for Thatcher was the requirement that any aspirant successor would have to be, apart from female, as scabrous as the Lady herself. It seemed a promising time for the emergence of Liz Truss, MP for South West Norfolk and recently promoted Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education. Although new to the game of Westminster politics – she was first elected in 2010 – she quickly attracted some notice, for example the assessment of her boss David Gove that she was ‘a minister to watch,’ and then the calculated flattery of Labour MP Sharon Hodgson that she had the ‘common touch of the Iron Lady about her …she may take it as a compliment.’ Truss could describe her parents as ‘to the left of Labour.’ As a child she was taken by her mother to CND demonstrations and one of her school essays was an anticipatory piece on the fall of Margaret Thatcher. At Oxford she joined the LibDems, making something of a name for herself with an anti-monarchist speech at their 1994 conference. It was a couple of years later that she found her true place in the Conservative Party and, after the usual couple of abortive efforts, as the party’s parliamentary candidate for South West Norfolk, where at her first election in 2010 she had a solid majority of over 13,000.
She had been a Deputy Director of Reform, a ‘think tank’ which calls itself independent and non-political but which was founded by a Tory MP and a former head of the political section of the Conservative Research Department. Its declared aim is to promote what it calls a ‘better way’ for public services and economic success through private industry and market de-regulation. It also works for the abolition of ‘pensioner gimmicks’ such as free TV licensing and the winter fuel payment. So when Truss was promoted to Gove’s team she was well placed to implement Reform’s ideas on ’higher standards’ in schools. For anyone with any doubts on the issue there was her paper Britannia Unchained which denounced British workers as ‘…among the worst idlers in the world’ with too many of them who ‘…prefer a lie-in to hard work’. A ’key plank’ in her intentions for nurseries is to work the staff harder by increasing their allocation of two-year-olds from four to six. At the same time she has been free with strictures on those workers because when she had inspected nurseries here ‘I have seen too many chaotic settings where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose’.. Among the response to these comments, from parents as well as experienced child-care practitioners, the arguments against stricter discipline for children were flavoured with reminders that the level of morale in nurseries would be associated with low wages, poor working conditions and a lack of expectations for the future.
And it must be said that Truss has not always been so strict in applying sound principles to her own behaviour. After her adoption as the candidate for South West Norfolk there was a move to reverse the decision when it became known that some years before she had had an affair with Mark Field, the Tory MP for Westminster. Some of the local Tories, dubbed The Turnip Taliban, led by former High Sheriff of Norfolk, Sir Jeremy Bagge, argued that Truss was unsuitable as their candidate because she had chosen to conceal the matter, leaving them to find out through a Sunday newspaper article. In the event, the rebellion failed and Truss continued on her way to emerge as a hopeful to be the new Iron Lady – who might in fact have taught her of the necessity in politics to be ready always to suppress the truth while energetically promoting falsehoods.