Monday, April 08, 2013

IRON in the SOUL

On a Wednesday in November 1990, I was sitting in my office at Greenford. We were on location shooting the Euston Films series Minder, of which I was then script editor. The phone rang, I picked up the receiver and a voice said two words. I needed no explanation of who the caller was, his voice being so familiar as the senior writer on the series, David Yallop. Nor did I need any more explanation than his two words: “She’s gone”.

Now she’s finally, definitively gone. She’s never coming back, though god knows she’s going to go on in legend. No national leader since World War II has cut quite so divisive a figure, not Francisco Franco nor Hugo Chavez nor Hendrik Verwoerd nor Mao Zedong nor Fidel Castro nor Alexander Dubcek nor Robert Mugabe nor Radovan Karadzic nor Charles de Gaulle nor Richard Nixon nor Idi Amin nor even her great chum Agusto Pinochet. Perhaps the only credible suggestion to trump her is Stalin.

That she should have contrived to become and remain so divisive sits amusingly with the famous quote she had readied for her first walk up Downing Street as newly elected Prime Minister in 1979: “I would just like to remember some words of St Francis of Assisi which I think are really just particularly apt at the moment. ‘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’. And to all the British people – howsoever they voted –may I say this. Now that the election is over, may we get together and strive to serve and strengthen the country of which we're so proud to be a part. And finally, one last thing: in the words of Airey Neave whom we had hoped to bring here with us, ‘There is now work to be done’.” (Note the use of 'we' throughout. She was imperious and monarchical long before her bizarre announcement "we are a grandmother").


The quote was found and rewritten for her by her favourite speechwriter, Ronald Millar, whom she later knighted. Millar was a jobbing playwright and former actor, the products of whose day job have not stood the test of time. (His best-known works, the play Abelard and Heloise and the musical Robert and Elizabeth, both draw upon the inspirations of others). It’s intriguing that David Cameron also depends for speech material on an old-fashioned dramatist and former actor whose work is unlikely to last – Julian Fellowes.

Millar also came up with one of Thatcher’s most quoted lines: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning”. This is a gloss on the title of Christopher Fry’s verse play of 1948, The Lady’s Not for Burning, which was already forgotten by the time of Thatcher’s reference in 1980. Indeed, the PM herself had no more heard of it than she knew of the St Francis quote. And she delivered the line with no suggestion that she expected anyone to find it witty or smart; but then nobody claims that any sort of sense of humour was part of her make-up. That she didn’t have the smarts to see the bear-trap that she was digging for herself when she declared of her dependable deputy William Whitelaw “every Prime Minister needs a Willie” speaks volumes.

Thatcher’s unparalleled divisiveness derived from her uniquely uncompromising approach to government. She is routinely accounted, by enemy and ally alike, “a conviction politician”. An alternative gloss would be to call her blinkered. At any rate, she was the antithesis of the politician embodied by RA Butler in his summary of government as being “the art of the possible”. Thatcher never talked in those terms. She preferred such nostrums as “there is no alternative”. She judged Tories more severely than those of rival parties – “is he one of us?” – and she dismissed consensus-seeking Tories as ‘wets’. When Chris Patten, then Chairman of the Party under John Major’s leadership, lost his Bath seat at the 1992 general election, Thatcher did nothing to refute the widely circulated claim that the gathering for the results at the Thatcher home had cheered.

But though all other leaders of major British political parties in the modern era have consciously sought to build consensus and to appeal to the supposed centre ground of the electorate, Thatcher’s own triple electoral success evidently commends itself to subsequent party leaders. Thatcher was the first former leader of any party to be invited to take tea at Downing Street with, in succession, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. You might think that Blair would first welcome Jim Callaghan, that (after the latter’s death) he or Brown would invite Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot, but doubtless the fact that none of the three won a general election counted against them.

By the same token, Cameron might have first welcomed John Major, but I suppose by 2010 he was completely out of favour. Or he might have invited Michael Howard, the only one of his predecessors as opposition leader not to join the cabinet (and it was Howard who brought both Cameron and George Osborne onto the front bench). In fact, following the logic of Blair and Brown’s respective embrace of Thatcher, the obvious first guest for Cameron would have been Blair himself, in whose mould Cameron has consciously moulded himself and to whose pragmatic politics Cameron is rather closer than to Thatcherism.

Margaret Thatcher came to the leadership of the Conservative Party by means of a daring coup. She was part of a loose grouping in the party in the early 1970s that was disenchanted with Edward Heath who was seen as being ideologically weak, managerially inept and lamentably Europhiliac. Heath had lost both the general elections of 1974, conducted initially to answer the question “who governs Britain?” and to invite the response “the government, not the unions”. Not many – certainly not Heath himself – saw a decisive challenge coming from the far right of the party and especially not one to promote the candidature of Heath’s widely disparaged education secretary (“Margaret Thatcher, milk-snatcher”).

But Thatcher was seen to have the legs for it by a faction whose membership ebbed and flowed but who came to be dubbed by the press ‘the gang of four’, after the cabal that surrounded the widow of Chairman Mao. Its staunchest members were Airey Neave, Norman Tebbit, George Gardiner and Nigel Lawson. Thatcher’s own particular ideological guru was the Jewish intellectual baronet, Keith Joseph.

Some time in 1974 – I cannot recall when exactly but it might have been between the February and October elections – my mother visited me in London and took me to lunch at a splendid restaurant, L’épicure, which sadly no longer exists. Margaret Thatcher was at the adjoining table, dining à deux with a man whom we later were able to identify as Airey Neave. I wish now that we had eavesdropped more diligently. They must certainly have been plotting.

During Thatcher’s term as leader of the opposition, Neave was killed while driving out of the House of Commons car park – an IRA bomb had been planted on his car. The Thatcher circle was targeted more than any other establishment political grouping: the 1984 bomb at the Brighton Grand Hotel was intended to get her and might well have done; her old ally Ian Gow was killed in his own driveway. No British politician was more hated by Irish Republicans than Thatcher.

Trade unionists hated her too, none more than the miners, whose livelihood as well as power Thatcher intended to destroy. The British coal industry never recovered from the long-drawn-out and fiercely contested strike of 1984 and those parts of the country that formerly depended on mining are now among the most deprived.

Thatcher’s ogre-like reputation among mining communities gave rise to a song lyric that is more venomously disposed towards a politician than any other I know. It was written by Lee Hall (to music by Elton John) for the stage musical version of Billy Elliott and the chorus goes: “So merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher./
May God's love be with you.
/We all sing together in one breath:
/Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher./
We all celebrate today,/
'Cause it's one day closer to your death”. American tourists who flock to the show in London must be astounded to hear such a sentiment about a woman who they think of as an English heroine.

It’s clear that Thatcher never gave two hoots for any idea of rapprochement with miners or any other kind of blue-collar worker. Despite her Franciscan sentiment of 1979, she never sought or expected to be supported by the votes of people whose lives were alien to hers. Making an early television appearance as pensions minister, Thatcher was told by her interviewer that “it has been said that Britain is a fine place to live if you are neither very poor nor black”, to which she responded “well, what has that to do with me?” There is no evidence that she ever sought the vote of anyone very poor or non-white.

Another remark attributed to Thatcher is to the effect that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”. The reliability of this quote is contested but it says a good deal about Thatcher that anyone would believe her capable of saying it.

Her absence of empathy with people who lacked the drive and ruthlessness that she herself embraced made her the most unpopular Prime Minister in history in the course of her third year in power, as unemployment rates reached unimagined heights. But the invasion of the Falklands changed all that. Thatcher was unbelievably fortunate to have such a cause fall into her lap and, despite such unforgiveable decisions as the gratuitous sinking of the Argentinian cruiser the General Belgrano with the loss of more than 300 lives, she reaped a colossal electoral advantage that sustained her until the second, post-Poll Tax collapse of support, this time fatally, in 1990 when, on Wednesday November 22nd, she bowed to the inevitable and announced that she would stand down. The lamentable legacy of the Falklands War was that leaders across the planet began to believe that waging war was the best means of reversing domestic unpopularity, a theory that Blair went on to test on five separate occasions. No doubt he still doesn’t understand why Iraq was not his own Port Stanley.

The most far-reaching and destructive effect of the Thatcher governments was the transformation of the nature of the British economy, with state assets sold off, financial regulation abolished and the “loads-a-money” mentality fostered. It’s hard now not to think of the 1980s rather than the 1930s as being the “low, dishonest decade” of Auden’s description.

Tragically, it seems unlikely that Labour will ever seek to reverse this transformation. However greedy the privatized utilities become, Labour is not about to take them back into state control, nor is it likely to find the gumption to bring the banks and the so-called financial services industry to heel. Ed Miliband’s party is as post-Thatcherite as Cameron’s is.

Indeed, there remains more residual resentment of Thatcherism in the not-entirely-moribund tradition of shire Tories than survives in any other part of the political forest. I cannot resist the feeling that Peter Carrington, Jim Prior and Michael Heseltine will all take some grim satisfaction in having seen her out. But I bet not even Denis Healey took pleasure from the demise of Michael Foot, the nearest Labour has ever come (and it’s not very near) to a conviction-politician leader comparable to Thatcher.