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How Britain Was Granthamized

ISSUE:  Spring 1990
The Iron Lady: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher. By Hugo Young. Macmillan. $25.00.

Last spring, the British noted with varying degrees of rapture the tenth milestone of their journey through the late 20th century with the bossy lady with the handbag, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, prime minister extraordinaire. To mark the event in a manner worthy of the most ruthless manipulator of public relations and the media ever to occupy Number Ten Downing Street, press, TV, and publishers all contributed their mite. The result was a deluge of assessment and speculation that ended up by producing what one commentator termed “Thatcher-fatigue.”

It isn’t as if the Thatcher industry had not been busy beforehand. So far about 40 books have been devoted to her: Thatcher: The First Ten Years; The Thatcher Phenomenon; Thatcher: The Woman Within; The Thatcherite Revolution, and The Thatcher Voice: The Grooming of a Superstar. Specific aspects of her time in office have been written up from Thatcher and the Jews to Thatcher and the Church. But the book which has caused the greatest impact is called The Iron Lady, and it is by the political commentator for the left-of-centre Guardian, Hugo Young.

Young is the Maggie-watchers’ Maggie-watcher. He is genuinely fascinated by the way the lady ticks, and his book, a rather fat one, is a sort of “history from below” chronicle of how a girl from a provincial town and without any important connections took over the feudal and misogynist Conservative Party and then became prime minister of a profoundly conservative country. Young traces her evolution as a political thinker and officeholder and shows by a whole range of small detail how she politicized everything and slowly but surely turned cabinet government into a one-woman show.

Although Mrs. Thatcher thinks highly of Young (she told one interviewer, “Hugo Young is good, you know. Very good.” Try to read Hugo Young.), he is no sycophant; and his book is crisscrossed by the sniper’s bullets of dethroned civil servants, sacked ministers, and other victims of the Thatcher years. She used to ask her advisors whether “we should withdraw our love” from public figures not obviously “one of us.” The “deloved” speak from beyond the political graveyard, and Young, who has not had access to official documents or ministerial diaries, specifically invites witnesses to “fill the gaps and correct the errors.” This book, like some standard medical texts, could well be revised every year or so. This is a book for students of government.

Like others before him, Young believes Thatcher was born to be a politician: her father, a local bigwig, “laid out the path of duty just as clearly as a grandee who placed his sons on the road to Parliament.” Her father, Alfred Roberts, has entered the Thatcher mythology as “The Alderman.” He was the son of a shoemaker in Lincolnshire. His corner shop prospered, and he married Beatrice, the daughter of the man who ran the cloakroom at Grantham station. They had two daughters, Muriel and Margaret Hilda (who was born in 1925).

Alfred Roberts was interested in local politics and became a member of Grantham town council. In time he was elected alderman and mayor—for one year, in the British style—and a magistrate. In many ways he seems to have been like a character in a novel by Arnold Bennett: passionately opinionated, penny-pinching, a British patriot, deeply religious, and devoted to the public good. He was never a member of the Conservative Party and might well have been a Liberal.

On the whole, The Alderman has not had a sympathetic press. His kind of virtues are out of fashion, and the home life of his family appears cramped and cheerless. Weekdays were devoted to work and scrimping; Sunday to the Methodist Chapel. There were few pleasures, and the Roberts family took its baths in the warehouse using what Young calls “unplumbed” equipment. This was because The Alderman despised unnecessary frills, not because he couldn’t afford to install “all mod. con.”

The life of relentless scrimp and save seems to have taken its toll on the mother, who stands in posed family portraits looking strained and careworn. Young says she was practical and downtrodden. Evidence suggests that her younger daughter ignored her and called her “a bit of a Martha.” When the daughter was famous and wrote her entry for Who’s Who, she ignored her mother altogether and merely listed her father. In later life, Mrs. Thatcher said she owed everything to her father, and there is no doubt that his vision for Margaret, when she was still a schoolgirl, became the scenario for her life. The Alderman’s spirit is there in Number Ten, and in inheriting his values Mrs. Thatcher might be said to have Granthamized her country.

The Alderman saw that Margaret sat the entrance examination to Oxford University. Her headmistress said the school Could not pay the exam fees, so the Alderman paid them himself There is something deeply unpleasant in this incident, and it may have contributed to Mrs. Thatcher’s detached view of Grantham later in life. At all events, Margaret Roberts took her place at Somerville College and studied chemistry.

She arrived there in the middle of the last war at a time when most of the students were anti-Conservative in feeling. Not Margaret Roberts. She joined the university Conservatives and never flirted with any other groupings. She was often invited to college functions as the token Conservative. Her social charms appear to have been limited, and she struck most of her peers as colorless. Oxford educated her and completed another process: it turned her into a more socially acceptable person. She adopted what Young calls the “classless, unplaceable, homogenized mind and manners of suburban southern England.” Before Oxford, even, her father had sent her to elocution lessons to remove the Lincolnshire accent. Nowadays, of course, when the process is complete, Mrs. Thatcher speaks with the accent of the lady of the manor and even permits herself the royal “We.”

After Oxford: a job. She worked as an industrial chemist, first in plastics and then in mass food manufacture. In the second post she tested the artificial cream used in Lyons’ cakes. Her fellow-workers called her The Duchess because of her humorlessness and over-precise manners and voice. During this period, politics remained her real interest, and by 1949 she was on the Conservative Party’s list of potential candidates. She was eventually adopted by the Thameside constituency of Dartford, then a Labour stronghold. She sought this seat unsuccessfully in 1950 and 1951, gaining two things: political confidence and a husband.

Margaret Roberts met Denis Thatcher the evening she was adopted, and he drove her back to London. They married in December 1951 at the Westminster Abbey of British Methodism: Wesley’s Chapel in London. Denis Thatcher had been married before, and Young says there was some family sniffing that Margaret was to marry a divorced man. This appears to have counted for more than the fact that Thatcher was rich and socially above the Roberts family. The Thatcher money came from the manufacture of sheep-dip and weed-killer. Later the company expanded into paints and chemicals. In some respects the marriage was a company affair. Thatcher’s chairman met Miss Roberts at a social gathering and said, “That’s it, Denis—that’s the one.”

Denis Thatcher has since become something of a satirist’s dream: a golf club philosopher, strong on right-wing phobias, a bit short on imagination, forever associated in the public’s mind with a rather asinine grin and a fondness for what “Private Eye” calls “a snorto de luxe” (a very stiff gin and tonic). All this may be true, but in one thing Thatcher has been incomparable: he believed in his wife’s political future, and he encouraged her to continue her work for the party and to study law. His backing has been constant and ungrudging. After the marriage, the Thatchers set up home in Chelsea and gradually Grantham faded away along with Methodism. Margaret became a member of the Church of England—like her husband—a rather more upmarket way to Jerusalem than Wesley’s. Twins, a boy and a girl, were born, and a nanny took care of them while their mother pursued her legal career.

At this point the Arnold Bennett script fades away, and C. P. Snow takes over. The donnée for this next episode of the Great Career is a young provincial girl, self-assured, good-looking, a perfect clone of a well-bred county set “gel,” married to a businessman whose money enables her to compete from a position of equality, if not from privilege, for a safe Tory seat not too far from home.

In time, and after some rebuffs, the seat was found. It was Finchley, which includes a part of North London’s Jewish belt. Margaret Thatcher won the seat in 1959 and thus began her long connection with Jewish politicians and ideological whiz kids.

She was soon singled out for minor office in the department responsible for social security. Here, her training as a tax lawyer was useful, and her unusual command of detail was noticed. It was during this period that she acquired her contempt for the British Civil Service; it was incorruptible but uncreative. She seems not to have changed her opinion. Young says that during this period Mrs. Thatcher “did nothing memorable,” but she had established a foothold on the political ladder.

When the Heath government was elected in 1970, Mrs. Thatcher became minister of education, and Young points out that while in office she broke all records for the spending of public money and reorganized out of existence more grammar schools than any other education minister. She also became a figure of fun as the woman who cut free milk to schools. “Mrs. Thatcher: Milk-Snatcher,” the children chanted. Later, Mrs. Thatcher was to regret her days at the ministry, and it became part of the past she repudiated after her experience as a born-again conservative.

Young makes it clear that while she served in the Heath government Mrs. Thatcher was apparently undisturbed by its policies, and there is no evidence, either, that in the 20 odd years from her adoption as a candidate to her becoming a minister Mrs. Thatcher ever went against the party current or, indeed, against the consensus or bipartisan policies both Labour and Conservatives had followed. In the late sixties and early seventies every politician was in pursuit of economic growth, and the Heath Government took office with “a clear program designed to regenerate the British economy.” It was also determined to cut government subsidies for inefficient and out-of-date industries. Ironically, this policy collapsed within a couple of years because the government, in its search for growth, could not resist the pressures to take control of investment, prices, and incomes.

This was Margaret Thatcher’s moment of truth, and the Heath Government’s abandonment of its first intentions, the notorious U-turn, became a seminal event in the saga of late 20th-century conservatism. Heath was never allowed to forget how he had given up his beliefs for short-term expediency. Heath became the scapegoat; but, as Young points out, the U-turn was a cabinet decision, and Young can find no evidence of a Thatcherite protest at this point. Mrs. Thatcher’s apologists have sought to play down this period, but it was the fact that she had gone along with a collective decision that later made Heath feel personally betrayed when Mrs. Thatcher defeated him in the ballot for the leadership of the Tory party.

The Heath Government was defeated in 1974, and almost at once a process of recrimination and rethinking started. At this point, Mrs. Thatcher came under the guidance of another Conservative MP, Keith Joseph, later known as The Mad Monk. Keith Joseph, who was Jewish, had been having doubts about the way things were going for some time and had arrived at the simple conclusion that for 30 years the private sector in Britain had been obliged to work with its hands tied behind its back by government and trade unions. For 30 years, too, state spending had been too high, and moribund industries were being kept alive to buy social peace—with a consequent loss in economic efficiency.

Keith Joseph began to spread the word and handed out reading lists. This was an innovation in the Conservative Party, which, in the past, might have had tradition and style but was essentially mindless and distrusted intellectuals. Joseph persevered and was determined that if the left had a list of gurus, the Right would do likewise and prove that Hayek, Popper, and Milton Friedman, the scourge of Israel and Chile, could do better. The Conservative Party’s taking ideas seriously was a new phenomenon, and Mrs. Thatcher was one of the first to be converted, echoing Joseph’s phrase that he had only become a Conservative in 1974.

The first victim of this new intellectual approach was Edward Heath, the master of the U-turn. After a skillfully conducted campaign, Mrs. Thatcher ousted him in 1975 and for the next four years was the leader of the opposition in the House of Commons. She proved to be an effective critic of the Labour Government, already in terminal decline. She also set about wresting her own party from consensus politicians and began the ruthless pruning away of those known as “wets” from positions of influence.

When she won the election in 1979, she had a popular mandate to curb the power of the unions after the disasters of the Winter of Discontent. The public had already been prepared for cuts in state spending by the outgoing government, which had slashed its budgets in deference to demands from world financial bodies. After inflation approaching 30 per cent, the new Tory administration had a popular backing for measures to bring all forms of financial excess under control. Given this immense public backing, it is astounding to look back, as Young does, at the curiously uncertain manner in which Britain was governed by the first Thatcher government. Mrs. Thatcher’s personal popularity slumped as unemployment rose to unparalleled heights and manufacturing industry was wiped out by high lending rates.

Young makes it clear that Mrs. Thatcher was saved by two things: the formation of the Social Democratic Party, which split the opposition to her, and the Falklands War—what now seems no more than a military misadventure over an archipelago in the South Atlantic with a population of 1800, nearly half of them expatriates on short-term contract.

By this time, of course, the C. P. Snow script has been thrown away. To cope with the ironies and absurdities of the Falklands War, we probably need to bring in George Meredith. In the first place, as Young points out, the war was the result of incompetence on the part of the Thatcher government: “The war to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentinian occupation was the result of a great failure in the conduct of government: arguably the most disastrous lapse by any British Government since 1945. . . . Britain’s indifference, indecision and lack of foresight were accessories before the fact of Argentinian aggression.”

The dithering by the British had already been well-documented. There had been a plan to transfer sovereignty of the islands to Argentina with an immediate long-term leaseback to the British in order to protect the islanders. This plan was rejected by the cabinet, which also approved a cutback in the islands’ defense. A survey ship was withdrawn despite warnings that this would give the Argentinians the impression that Britain’s interest in the Falklands was weakening.

All this political infighting and boring diplomacy passed over the heads of the British so that when the Argentinians struck there was general doubt as to where the islands were. Some said off Scotland, some off Australia—almost as though it depended which way up one held the atlas—but it soon became clear that Britain’s honor had been touched and the crowds turned out in Portsmouth to cheer off the expeditionary force. The Argentinians became The Argies; the hastily assembled task force Our Boys.

The British won the war. More than 900 lives were lost, 360 of them when the General Belgrano was sunk at Mrs. Thatcher’s order. During the war Mrs. Thatcher behaved with a resolution that even her political enemies admired. They might despise the triumphalism. “Rejoice. Just rejoice!” she said at one stage of the victory parade through the City of London which the Royal Family did not attend. But they knew she had, in the old phrase, “had a good war.” Mrs. Thatcher’s advisors knew this, too, and they began that work of transfiguration which converted the girl from Grantham into Britannia, the very soul of British invincibility! High concept, as they say in Hollywood, and just the stuff for winning elections. Young comments: “In the political history of Margaret Thatcher the war played the part of an unqualified triumph. Because it ended in a great victory. . .it made her position unassailable, both in the party and the country. It guaranteed what had not been previously assured, a second term of office.”

Young does not say so, but to anyone reading his text carefully it would seem that it was during the postwar euphoria that Margaret Thatcher began to believe the hype her manipulative press officers were putting out. The lady began to live up to her myth, and, because the world is often shallow in its judgments, the great public out there accepted it. Young says overseas leaders began to take Britain more seriously because of her, and at home fervent supporters said she had made them once again proud to be British. In the way of all myths, the uncertainties and chameleon qualities were overlooked, and from this time on any biographer is dealing with a living legend, with all that this entails.

The Falklands War consummated politically the close relationship between Mrs. Thatcher and President Reagan. Young quotes the British ambassador in Washington at the time: “It is difficult to exaggerate the difference that America’s support made to the military outcome.”

Young writes of the Thatcher-Reagan love-in: “To an important extent, Mrs. Thatcher was a kind of Baptist to Reagan’s Messiah. . . . There was almost nothing that divided the Thatcher from the Reagan view of the world.”

When Mrs. Thatcher received an honorary degree at Georgetown University, she gave an address on British economics that, many noted, “could have been painlessly inserted into any one of Reagan’s campaign speeches promising to set the economy free and insisting that a combination of deregulation and sound money, together with an expansion of “individual freedom” were the springs of our prosperity as well as the foundations of our moral order.”

Naturally, as Young’s text makes clear, this reads rather sadly now in the light of developments in both the United States and Britain; but it was firmly believed at the time.

The Falklands War and the friendship with President Reagan, the special relationship for all to see, might well have been the highest point of Mrs. Thatcher’s career if we follow the C.P. Snow script. Thereafter Bennett, Snow, and Meredith can be forgotten, and we have to think of Ibsen—a study in self-willed megalomania, perhaps, or Pirandello: a character living in an aura of fantasy which is so powerfully imagined that a large section of the public can share the dream. Young does not say that Mrs. Thatcher was corrupted by power, but he gives instance after instance of her inability to listen to other people; to believe everything she says and does is right and that the Deity has a special destiny for her.

From this time on, the history of Britain is the history of a party and a government driven by one person’s will rather than by reason. Mrs. Thatcher’s domination of her all-male cabinet might be fine for seeing off the Argies or backing the Americans over the bombing of Tripoli or pulling everything together after the horror of the Brighton IRA assassination attempt, but it is a blunt instrument when used on a day-to-day basis.

Mrs. Thatcher’s limited culture and shallow grasp of the history of her own country—in her simple-minded view it is all Churchillian “finest hours”—has caused her and her government to violate many of the unwritten rules which enable a country such as Britain to operate; and she has shown herself, despite the Georgetown speech, to be dangerously authoritarian.

Young comments: “Such expansion of business freedom, however, was not matched by a growth of political freedom— of the individual or anyone below the level of central government itself. Despite its protestations, the Thatcher Government was no more immune than any other from the tendency to amass all the power it could. . . . Far from reducing the role of government, Mrs. Thatcher made it felt wherever she regarded its superior wisdom as a blessing of which no one should be deprived.”

She made local government a key target, and thus education and housing programs and bodies that might rival the central state were emasculated or dismantled. The absence of an effective opposition bred the habit of disrespect for opposition. Alongside acts by which power was centralized went an informal attitude which narrowed the limits of liberty. The government placed no high value on the freedom of the press; it destabilized the BBC and made an ass of itself for all the world to see in prosecuting the book written by a former British secret agent. The Spycatcher case showed how the whole panoply of the law was brought into disrepute because of Mrs. Thatcher’s insistence on pursuing the affair when the book was on sale in every airport in the world.

The rebuff is still resented although, perhaps, not as much as Oxford University’s refusal, by a big majority, to grant her an honorary doctorate because of the “deep and systematic damage to the whole public education system in Britain” which her government had caused. The dons’ outrage was shared by the majority of members in what might be called the intellectual elite from bishops, shocked by the widening divide between rich and poor, to writers and the arts establishment. Their verdict on Mrs. Thatcher was that she was a philistine and a better friend of Mammon than God.

Young does not share this view, since he feels that from the beginning Mrs. Thatcher has felt the need to link politics to a broad, articulated philosophy of life, The most important single book she ever read, she told Young, was A Time For Greatness by Herbert Agar; and this despite Agar’s fondness for quoting Tawney. Sentences such as “Power follows property” rang a chord in the young Margaret Thatcher’s mind. It satisfied, Young surmises, her craving for fundamentalist texts.

At the end of his long book Young makes a tentative assessment of Mrs. Thacher’s years in office, and he attempts to balance the rhetoric with the reality. But, in a way, events in the real world overtook the publication of the work and offer a commentary on the Thatcher years that suggest that there has been success in the ideological field but something akin to failure in the economic one and in the winning of the British people’s hearts.

By ideological success: the latest thinking of the main opposition party shows that in the economic sector a future Labour Government would not seek to take back into public ownership those industries recently privatized, a popular essay in spreading ownership of shares. In fact, the Labour Party now seems to regard the postwar nationalization program as rescue operations; and there is truth in this. Rundown British industry needed the sort of capital investment that only the government could command. Nowadays, North Sea oil revenues have made most people richer. In a way, it’s almost as simple as that. Then many people really believe that the Thatcher years have liberated them by unfreezing British management and giving ordinary men and women a sense of their own entrepreneurial worth. This cosy vision implies that Britain had never had any business sense until Mrs. Thatcher arrived on the scene and conveniently forgets that in the 17th century the African slave trade gave Britain the capital which made the even greater expansion of the 19th century possible. The slave trade was hardly in the hands of the upper crust.

The two great failures have been in the economic field and in British skepticism about a society dominated by the dog-eat-dog ethos. This past summer it has, perhaps, been the economic failure that has given Young’s book a poignant dimension. The fight against inflation was Mrs. Thatcher’s main plank, and it stands at 8 percent and may yet rise. Bank rate is unacceptably high; the pound is under pressure; Britain has a huge hire-purchase debt; unemployment is still high (despite elaborate measures to massage the official figures), and manufacturing has still not recovered from the battering—an accidental one, according to government spokesman—it took in the first years of Mrs. Thatcher’s time in office. In a phrase: Thatcherism has become bogged down in the very problems it set out to cure 11 years ago. And we have built up the greatest trade deficit of all time: expected to be close to 18 billion pounds sterling for 1989.

Young’s book has, in the economic field, some strange blind spots. Thus Friedman, the guru of the early years, is mentioned only three times; and North Sea oil, the once-and-for-all-time bonanza that has allowed the Thatcher government to play its political games, also gets only three entries in the index. Maybe at a later date we’ll be able to get the fly-on-the-wall history and a true evaluation of just how far Mrs. Thatcher’s craving for fundamentalist texts really altered anything.

Since so many pressing problems remain much the same as when Mrs. Thatcher took office—Northern Ireland, the future of Hong Kong, the destruction of the environment—the notion that Mrs. Thatcher is radical needs some counterweight. In essence, she emerges, after the purposefulness of the first government, as an opportunist, always ready to bang the chauvinist drum for popular appeal. On Europe this opportunistic policy may well result in Britain losing what influence it has in the community; unless the pro-Europeans in her own party can bring her to see reason.

This is doubtful because Mrs. Thatcher is now the great diva of the Western world. At first the chorus was allowed a few bars and one or other of the singers got a chance to move on the action, but increasingly after the apotheosis of Maggie-Britannia these occasions became more rare. The Warrior Queen now takes on every role and is Lady Macbeth, Norma, and Lucia di Lammermoor in one. At first she sang of renewing “Brittun,” this mythological island where the Maggie-Britannia lives; then of freeing Britain from the toils of the state; and now of holding on in office until someone with her vision and dedication can carry on the torch. These are more or less Mrs. Thatcher’s own words and not a grain of humor or self-doubt modifies the sense of self a jot.

While la Thatcher, diva assoluta, sings her endless cantilenas, the British people hold their hats and tell pollsters by a convincing majority that it would be better to pay higher taxes and have better public services; or, more recently, about the time the Young book came out, made it clear that they considered the lady had remained in office too long. Sixty percent of those questioned thought she should go; and of these 40 percent thought she should go at once.

What makes these findings strange is that abroad Mrs. Thatcher is admired as a strong leader and as the woman who has improved Britain’s image in the world and its economic performance. Young comments, “It is a universal law of international politics that foreigners prefer to deal with strong governments than with weak ones.” Furthermore, he writes, “With less debt and more growth, and with the curse of trade union power apparently exorcised, Britain was no longer a supplicant for the world’s attention. It was seen to have entered the concert of modern nations.”

Then Young poses the important question: “Did Britain deploy its new and burgeoning assets to best advantage? Here the record was flawed by the narrowness of vision at the top, and the tendency, not diminished as time passed, to apply to all international questions an overriding test of the British national interest—and almost always in the short term.”

Young concludes, “Into the changing scenery of the later eighties, in short, Britain did not easily fit.” The rest of this third term can still be used to rectify this impression, but on the evidence of Young’s scrupulously fair book this is rather unlikely.


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