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Mrs. Thatcher’s Revenge

Barnes is appalled by Mrs. Thatcher’s bad manners. He writes: “She imagines that her obstructive, nagging, bullying attitude to Europe was taken as a sign that Britain was walking tall once more. She thinks that if you insult people you gain their respect.” It is interesting that François Mitterrand observed in 1990 that she “was an adversary, but at least she had a vision. In the end I got on very well with her.”9 Still, I agree with Barnes: her style was destructive. It was the cause of her downfall. The combination of Kulturkampf, World War II prejudices, and her sentimental nostalgia for the “spirit and unity of the English-speaking world” made her sound shrill and irrational about issues on which she was often right. Intransigent unions were destroying the British economy. The European Union is fraught with political problems. But like her insistence on Victorian values at home, even as her policies were often undermining them, Mrs. Thatcher’s anti-European diatribes grew louder the deeper she took Britain inside the Union, as though the shouting had to compensate for what she was actually doing.

She ended up seeing herself as a Churchillian leader fighting for Anglo-Saxon liberties against a dark, authoritarian Franco-German Continent. This was absurd. But it is true that more and more irksome laws and regulations are issued by the European Union, without proper scrutiny from elected parliaments. She saw herself as the protector of the common British people against overweight Europoliticians running the show in Brussels. Her battle against socialists and patricians at home had shifted overseas. This, too, was a caricature based on truth: the EU is indeed governed by ministers, diplomats, and highly paid bureaucrats making secret deals in smoky backrooms. When the same Tory columnist who compared Thatcherism to Judaism announces that he would rather be ruled by cultivated European officials, who know a fine claret when they see one, than by boorish British politicians, you know Mrs. Thatcher was onto something. But instead of democratizing European institutions, Mrs. Thatcher simply cried “no no no,” while signing her name to European acts and treaties with the worst possible grace. As a result, Britain was taken less and less seriously and the lady had to go.

The first thing John Major did, as her successor, was to claim Britain’s place “in the heart of Europe.” In Julian Barnes’s dispatches from London you can almost hear the sigh of relief. He welcomes Major’s dullness, his bumbling, gray-flannel-suited middle-of-the-roadness. He writes: “Mr. Major’s ‘vision’ of ‘freedom and opportunity’ sounds—even if it does not quite mean—the same as everybody else’s; it is as flat as a pavement, and this is its appeal.” That was quite true then. But as I write Major’s Conservatives are trailing well behind Tony Blair’s so-called New Labour Party (29 percent to 55 percent), and one of Blair’s rhetorical tricks is to project himself as the “conviction politician” best equipped to build on Mrs. Thatcher’s legacy. “Received wisdom,” says Barnes, “states that those who occupy the middle of the road in politics risk getting run down from both directions.” And for once the received wisdom appears to be right: nice, gray John Major is being winged both by the Thatcherites and by the Labour opposition.

Major is by all accounts a genuinely decent man. And although he is seen more often on cricket grounds than in opera houses, he shows some endearing touches of Schlegelism: his wife loves the opera, and one of his first guests at 10 Downing Street was Sir Ian McKellen, the actor and gay activist. But he presides over a Conservative Party that is splitting apart over Europe, while members are also defecting because they cannot tolerate the party’s “lurch to the right.” The Conservatives’ parliamentary majority is now reduced to five seats. Corruption scandals crawl from this wreck of a party like maggots from a corpse. Major says he wants to remain in the middle of the road, and claims to be in favor of One Nation Toryism, and tries to be sensible about Europe, but by his policies are continuously undercut by his Thatcherite right wing, some of whose members sit in his cabinet. Then along came Mrs. Thatcher on January 11 to deliver the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture. She praised the right wing, told Major to get off the middle of the road, and said that One Nation Toryism is No Nation Toryism. Her speech made headlines. His response was not much noticed.

The crisis in the Tory party is mirrored by the crisis in the royal family. The latest turn in the seedy but fascinating royal soap opera was Princess Diana’s declaration of war on the royal household. A week before she did so, she had dinner with Ruby Wax, an American comedian, Michael Howard, the hard-right home secretary, Dominic Lawson, the editor of the right-wing Sunday Telegraph, and his wife, Rosa, a friend of the Princess. The novelist A.N. Wilson, commenting in The New York Times, believes that the monarchy is being threatened, not by the left but by the hard right. Mrs. Thatcher, after all, never got along with the Windsors. And here was this bunch of right-wingers using Princess Diana to undermine the institution.

It is hard to see a senior cabinet minister and the editor of a national newspaper (and son of Mrs. Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer) as members of a “counter-establishment.” But they do, perhaps, share a Thatcherite sympathy for any challenge to an institution whose authority is based only on birth. And who should pop up in the television studio to defend Prince Charles and the royal establishment after the Princess’s onslaught? The Hon. Nicholas Soames, squire of all squires, grandson of Winston Churchill and descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, shooting partner of Prince Charles—in short, a rolypoly aristo, of the truest, bluest blood. Spluttering on TV, his jowls all aquiver, Soames looked as outdated as the Princess—whose blood is at least as blue as his—looks modern, in her jogging gear and her distressing fondness for psycho-babble. But, once again, the anti-establishment of the right differs from that of the left. Left-wing rebels kick at the establishment doors to bring the house down, while the right-wingers kick to be allowed in. And Britain being what it is, the latter are more likely to succeed.

Britain is seeing the demise of the well-born as a ruling force. There is now less deference to class. And the Thatcherite right wing contributed to this change. The upper-class establishment was weakened already when Mrs. Thatcher came along, but her brand of hard-nosed, neo-liberal, go-for-it politics gave it a mighty push. The result has been especially dramatic for the Conservative Party, since it had always relied on the well-born, as well as the well-heeled, to lead the rank and file. No longer. Many leading Tory politicians are self-made men. Some still believe in the old-fashioned Tory virtues of muddling though, compromise, common sense, and so on. Some still argue for the corporatist policies that Thatcherism demolished. Most of Major’s cabinet ministers are in favor of British integration into the European Union. But they are beginning to look isolated, for the tide is pulling the other way. The younger MPs grew up on Thatcherism; they hate Britain’s involvement with Europe, and they are crowding the back-benches.

John Major was a product of Thatcherism, and may turn out to be its political victim. Lacking any higher education, he came from nowhere to become Mrs. Thatcher’s junior minister, then chief secretary, then foreign secretary, and finally chancellor of the exchequer. At their first meeting, he struck Mrs. Thatcher as promising but unsound—that is to say, he was not sufficiently right-wing. Whether he has become more so since is a matter of conjecture. Nobody quite knows. It depends on the time of day. But his instincts do not seem to be radical. His misfortune is that he has to lead an increasingly radical party. He will probably lose the next election, not because he is mediocre, as many people think, but because voters don’t like a party at war with itself.

One man who hopes to lead a new Tory party, is the forty-two-year-old defense minister, Michael Portillo, son of a Spanish immigrant who fought for the Republicans during the civil war. Portillo is a Euro-skeptic Thatcherite, arrogant in public, courteous in private. Like Mrs. Thatcher, he likes to wrap himself in the British flag, eliciting much sotto—and sometimes not so sotto—voce comment on his foreign name. In Thatcherite fashion, he is more like an American Republican in the Gingrich mold than a traditional British Tory. His anti-European rhetoric is uncouth, but as long as the pro-Europeans cannot begin to make European institutions more democratic, the mood for xenophobic isolation will grow. I watched him make his notorious speech last fall at the Tory Party Conference in Blackpool, braying about the British Army, and how British soldiers would never be European soldiers. There he was, looking very Spanish, his obstinate coif of black hair standing almost on end, bellowing, “Who Dares Wins!” as though it were his own motto instead of that of the legendary Special Air Service. And there, standing next to him, was a beaming John Major. And the Tory troops in the hall, young, rough, frenzied, were yelling their approval. Would such a party win elections? Not if the voters are not frightened into it. Mrs. Thatcher was a rather frightening figure. For many that was part of her appeal. But her enemies—high taxes, big unions—frightened people even more. These have been brought down. Under normal circumstances, received wisdom states that the British people prefer decent muddling to hard dogma.

If so, where would they turn for that nice old English cup of milky tea? To Tony Blair’s New Labour Party, perhaps. Mrs. Thatcher’s effect on the Labour Party has been as deep as it has been on the Tories. Julian Barnes remarks that British postwar politics was a matter of little pendulum swings to the left and right, but now, “post-Thatcher, the pendulum continues to swing, but inside a clock that has been rehung on the wall at a completely different angle.” He is talking specifically about the Tories. But Labour has swung too. Blair has effectively discarded socialism. What he is offering instead … well, here is how Barnes, a sympathetic observer, paraphrased Blair’s acceptance speech in 1994:

Responsibility/trust/trust/service/dedication / dignity / pride / trust / mission / renewal / mission / hope / change / responsibility / mission / spirit / community / community / pride / pride / socialism / change / wrong / right / wrong / right / wrong / right / communities / passion / reason / change / change / change / solidarity / community / anew / afresh / inspire / crusade / change / progress / faith / serve / serve / serve.

Give and take a few “changes” and “missions,” you will find underneath the sound bites something pretty close to the politics of those decent old squires, who served the One Nation by trying to keep most people happy. Of course, Blair wants better education for all, but so did they. He wants better training for workers, and so did they. Bargains will have to be struck with the unions, but that is what they did too. Among the few things old One Nation Tories would not have agreed with are plans to abolish the House of Lords, and to set up a Scottish parliament, but these are goals Blair will find hard to achieve himself.

The radical revolution in Mrs. Thatcher’s party, then, has made Labour leaders—if not yet many among the backbench ranks—less socialist and more like European social democrats with a dose of religious idealism. They have decided that the way to beat the Tories is to go for Tory voters: the middle class, or those who aspire to be middle-class. Blair is a middle-class candidate, a One Nation man to the backbone. But he carries his ideals with great conviction, the conviction of an evangelist, which makes him look impressively resolute, compared to the vacillating Major. Former boosters of Mrs. Thatcher’s evangelism—Paul Johnson, to name one—have expressed their admiration for Blair’s spirited leadership. Not only does Blair want a kinder, gentler Britain, where people care and share, but his voice rings out on Sundays in the Church of England, and what is more, he might well be the first ex-public-school boy to become prime minister since Alec Douglas-Home was elected in 1963. Then again, the Tories might just be saved in the future by the current foreign secretary, a One Nation Tory called Michael Rifkind. If so, he would be the first Jewish prime minister since Disraeli. There will always be an England, I think Karl Marx said that.


Mrs. Thatcher’s Ghost May 23, 1996

  1. 9

    Quoted in The Observer, January 14, from Jacques Attali’s conversations with Mitterrand, entitled Verbatim (Paris: Fayard, 1993-1995).

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