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Mrs. Thatcher’s Revenge

Letters from London

by Julian Barnes
Vintage, 320 pp., $13.00 (paper)

The Disenchanted Isle: Mrs. Thatcher’s Capitalist Revolution

by Charles Dellheim
Norton, 416 pp., $25.00

1.

There is a mansion near Columbus, Ohio. It is very grand indeed. Horses in the fields, wrought-iron gates, a neo-Georgian style of architecture, a ballroom inside, and a hall as big as a movie theater. In that hall, on the occasion I had to see it, was an elegant side table, and on that table, picked out by a hidden spotlight, was a book, heavy as a Bible: the first volume of Lady Thatcher’s memoirs, The Downing Street Years. The Baroness of Finchley, I was told, had dined at the house only a week before. Snobbish thoughts came instantly to mind (as they are wont to do when reflecting on the baroness). She had come a long way, I thought, from a corner shop in Grantham, Lincolnshire, to the baronial splendor of a mansion in Columbus. Then again, I thought, no less snobbishly, the lord of the manor was probably just her kind of guy, her ideal baron, so to speak: very rich, very selfmade, American, and Jewish.

Margaret Thatcher’s often-professed philo-Semitism must be approached with some caution, to be sure. I’m not certain what Harold Macmillan was implying when he observed that Mrs. Thatcher’s first cabinet contained “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians,” but I have a feeling I don’t like it. When a right-wing columnist for the conservative Daily Telegraph comments that Judaism was the creed of Thatcherite Britain, I’m sure I don’t like it.1 And when a left-wing columnist in the Guardian called Mrs. Thatcher an “honorary Jew,” British Jews did not like it either.2 Nonetheless, Mrs. Thatcher has often made a point of admiring what she sees as Jewish virtues: self-reliance and get-up-and-go. Indeed, she writes reassuringly in the second volume of her memoirs that she “was … to find some of [her] closest political friends and associates among Jews.” As for the US, she continues to refer to it as her “second home.”

What should we make of these professed affinities? Was the feeling mutual? In some ways, yes. Mrs. Thatcher was popular in her old constituency, the north London suburb of Finchley. I would not describe the place as particularly charming. But Finchley and Mrs. Thatcher suited each other. There is an air about it of hard work, self-improvement, and close-knit family life. It has a large middle-class Jewish population (and Chinese and Japanese too, but they don’t vote). Finchley is tidy rather than elegant, with narrow streets of Victorian terraced houses, as well as pockets of Edwardian mock Tudor, and a cluster of “olde English” cottages built around the turn of the century. Small rather than big business is the norm. There are good delicatessens, stores, Chinese restaurants, and there is a place to buy Doric arches and marble fireplaces to touch up the home. In religion and politics Finchley is solidly conservative.

Grantham, Lincolnshire, was never noted for any Jewish connections. Mrs. Thatcher mentions only one. Her sister Muriel had an Austrian pen friend called Edith, who came to Grantham after the Anschluss, and spent some time there en route to South America. Edith’s stay in Grantham had been organized by the local Rotary club. Mrs. Thatcher’s father, Alfred Roberts, was a Conservative councillor, an alderman to be precise, and a keen Rotarian. Reading Mrs. Thatcher’s prose (produced by a committee of ghosts) is a bit like being force-fed cold porridge; the tedium is enough to make you cry. But there is the occasional passage that suddenly makes you sit up. Mrs. Thatcher’s remark that her family realized Hitler was up to no good because he crushed the Rotary clubs is one such nugget. Not that this is wrong per se. A leader who crushes Rotary clubs clearly is no good. But the remark tells us a great deal more about the author’s background and perspective than it does about Hitler.

The other institution that shaped Mrs. Thatcher’s perspective, apart from the Rotary, her father’s grocery store, and the Conservative Party, was the Methodist church. Religion in the Roberts household was a serious business. Alderman Roberts was an active lay preacher. Mrs. Thatcher remembers:

Our lives revolved around Methodism. The family went to Sunday Morning Service at 11 o’clock, but before that I would have gone to morning Sunday School. There was Sunday School again in the afternoon; later, from about the age of twelve, I played the piano for the smaller children to sing the hymns. Then my parents would usually go out again to Sunday Evening Service.

No wonder the young Margaret longed on occasion for a less stringent routine, but, as she recalls, her father’s “sense of duty” swiftly put a stop to such foolish thoughts.

Duty, thrift, self-reliance, these are the key words of her childhood memories. Methodism has changed since it was first preached in the eighteenth century by John Wesley. Mrs. Thatcher recalls her father’s “sermon voice,” but I doubt that Alderman Roberts spoke in tongues or provoked sobbing hysteria in the chapels of Grantham. Still, certain aspects of Wesley’s original creed left their mark on Mrs. Thatcher. Methodism was originally a religion for provincial have-nots, who hated the free-thinking, foppish ways of “Frenchified” metropolitans and aristocrats. France was the home of Satan. J.H. Plumb, the British historian, wrote that everywhere in early Methodism “one meets the prejudices of the uneducated, which always seem to be hardened by success. There was an anti-intellectual, philistine quality which attracted the dispossessed but was dangerous for society.”3 I think even defenders of Mrs. Thatcher’s politics would recognize something of the Iron Lady in this description.

Not that the Roberts home had no books in it or was disengaged from the outside world. Apart from reading the Daily Telegraph, The Methodist Recorder, and “occasionally” The Times, Margaret has fond memories of Kipling’s works, as well as Barbara Cartland’s biography of her brother, Ronald Cartland, “a young idealistic Conservative MP,” whose thinking, before he died at Dunkirk, was “all of a piece.” So, by her own account, was Margaret’s, even as a teen-ager. She had friends who “suffered from attacks of doubt” but not, it seems, Margaret; she “always knew [her] mind.”

Even during her student days, a time after all when most people experience some doubts, Margaret Roberts never wavered. Others, she admits, did lose their faith by “coming into contact with skepticism and partly for less wholesome reasons,” but not her, for Methodism gave her “an anchor.” She can recall seeing Kenneth Tynan, the critic, acting in a college garden. The idea of Tynan and Thatcher as students together tickles the imagination. For they represented the opposite poles of a Kulturkampf that Mrs. Thatcher went on to wage ever more stridently. On one side Tynan, the dandy, the sophisticated man of less than wholesome tastes, the metropolitan lover of luxury, the foppish dabbler in revolutionary fads, the aesthetic Europhile, and the mocker of tradition, religion, Rotary clubs, Tory politics, indeed anything and everything that Alderman Roberts and his daughter held dear. And there, on the other side, was Margaret, who, even as Tynan was camping around the college lawns, attended the Wesley Memorial Church on Sundays, where she found a “sober but cheerful social life.” After the service “there was usually a large gathering over coffee in the minister’s house, where there would be stimulating discussion of religious and other matters.”

This being England, it is tempting to divide the two sides along the lines of social class. In fact, however, Kenneth Tynan’s background was no more elevated than Mrs. Thatcher’s. Charles Dellheim, in his shrewd and informative book, hits on a better metaphor to illustrate the cultural divisions in Britain’s middle class: E. M. Forster’s Howards End. Who will inherit the “old and little, and altogether delightful” house in Hertfordshire? The Wilcoxes, sober, industrious, conservative, philistine? Or the Schlegels, who love music and books and good conversation? Enter Leonard Bast, the poor clerk who seeks to improve his station. Henry Wilcox, the stern businessman, sees no point in helping him: every man for himself, he always says, the poor will always be with us, “one sound man of business does more good to the world than a dozen of your social reformers.” Margaret and Helen Schlegel want to help Bast, educate him, guide him. They are social reformers, or want to be. The end is bittersweet. Bast dies, buried under a fallen bookcase, which was pushed over by Wilcox’s loutish son. (Forster was never one to skimp on symbols.) Margaret Schlegel inherits Howards End.

Mrs. Thatcher is a Wilcox to the core. But the Conservative Party she joined in the 1940s was, by her own account, still dominated by civilized squires and languid Old Etonians, who abhorred zeal and ideology, and wished for nothing more than to govern in the tradition of One Nation Toryism, where everyone was happy to know his place. Many Tory patricians basked in the afterglow of wartime solidarity, when all classes supposedly pulled together for the sake of King and Country. Consensus was the thing. (Or, as Forster put it: “Only connect.”) Many Tories, no less than Labour Party leaders, believed in a big paternalistic state that would plan the economy for everyone’s benefit. The aim was to avoid at all costs another Depression, which could stir up dangerous unrest. This shared vision was known as Butskellism, after Rab Butler, the Tory chancellor in the 1950s, and Hugh Gaitskell, the moderate Labour party leader. There would be music and the BBC and jobs for all, and squires, union leaders, factory workers, farmers, bankers, and clerks would all connect in the green, soggy fields of, well, let us say Hertfordshire.

Exactly when Mrs. Thatcher turned against this view is not clear from her book. Already as a student she read The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek’s attack on collectivism and economic planning. She mentions that “Hayek had none of the inhibitions which characterized the agonized social conscience of the English upper classes….” But she also writes that she only fully took in Hayek’s ideas when they were drawn to her attention in the 1970s by her mentor, the politician and conservative ideologue Sir Keith Joseph.

Still, long before she fully developed her Hayekian, Josephian dogma of neoliberalism, Mrs. Thatcher’s instincts were set against the paternalistic planning favored by most party grandees. She thought it was all very well for a rich patrician like Macmillan to think that high spending for collective welfare was more important than thrift and financial soundness, but he never had to earn his living: “Things looked different from the perspective of Grantham….” At the Robertses’ corner shop you didn’t spend what you didn’t earn, and you learned to stand on your own two feet, thank you very much. (Not that Margaret Roberts herself had to rely on her own feet for very long; she married Denis Thatcher, a rich businessman.) On social matters, her instincts were Wilcoxian from the start. She hated everything that swung in “the Sixties,” even if certain distasteful items of British pop culture were “good export earners.” She is still proud of having voted against her party only once, in 1961, when she elected to bring back birching or caning as a punishment for young offenders.

Although a taste for the birch tends to be associated more with upper-class habits, the view from Grantham must have had something to do with Mrs. Thatcher’s growing antipathy toward the postwar consensus of social permissiveness and statist government. Her loathing for such “wet” toffs as Sir Ian Gilmour and Christopher Soames, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, probably came from the heart. She removed them both from her cabinet. Both took it badly. In the case of Soames, she “got the distinct impression that he felt the natural order of things was being violated and that he was, in effect, being dismissed by his housemaid.”4 But class analysis only goes so far. Some toffs remained on her side, and her main enemy in the Tory party, the man who stood for everything she hated, that is, collectivism, Europhilia, and soft One Nation Toryism, was Edward Heath. Heath, her predecessor as prime minister, had strong Schlegelian tendencies, including a love of music. But his plummy accent was as carefully cultivated as Mrs. Thatcher’s honking delivery. Heath and Thatcher came from the same shopkeeper class. “Grocer” Heath was a favorite phrase used by some of those who wished him ill.

So far as the Kulturkampf goes, it is of course easier to like the Schlegels than the Wilcoxes. Many readers of this magazine will have shaken their heads in sympathy with Sir John Pope-Hennessy when he described Mrs. Thatcher’s utter indifference to the treasures of the Victoria and Albert Museum.5 Dinner with Kenneth Tynan would certainly have been more fun than with Mrs. Thatcher’s even if he did go on a bit about bullfighting or Fidel Castro. But even philistines can sometimes be right. The postwar consensus was no longer working under Heath, or indeed under socialist prime ministers, such as Callaghan. The planned economy was a disaster. The pound sterling had to be bailed out by the IMF. Strikes were making life impossible. Trade unions, some of which were ruled by Stalinist pashas, had accumulated enough power to make or break governments. They broke Heath’s government in 1974, and they made and broke Callaghan’s Labour government four years later. The time was ripe for someone who had no doubts, who knew her mind, who had radical ideas and was tough enough to challenge the vested interests of union barons, as well as the patrician, not to say patriarchal, hierarchy of her own party.

Mrs. Thatcher’s brand of nineteenth-century liberalism was not new. Enoch Powell and other right-wing tories had been arguing a similar case for decades. What was new was the moral zeal (“conviction,” as she preferred) that Mrs. Thatcher brought to her campaign to trim the state and unleash private enterprise. Zealous talkers and thinkers, such as Keith Joseph and Alfred Sherman, fed her a churning brew of Hayek, Popper, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman. Businessmen, such as David Wolfson of Great Universal Stores, and Norman Strauss of Unilever, rallied round as well. Some of her most prominent recruits had an American background. The man who helped her crush the National Union of Mineworkers was a Scot named Ian MacGregor, who had spent most of his life in America. “John Wayne with a Scottish brogue and a pinstripe suit” is Charles Dellheim’s description. The minister responsible for privatizing state industries was John Moore, who saw the neo-liberal light while in business in Chicago. “Possession means power,” he wrote in 1986, “the kind of power that matters to ordinary people….”

In The Disenchanted Isle Dellheim calls them a “counter-establishment.” He is right. The fact that many of them—though not Hayek—were Jewish is not entirely incidental, but has nothing to do with Judaism as such. Macmillan blamed the supranational tendencies of the European Commission, the very scourge of Thatcherism, on Jews, which just goes to show that Jews can be blamed for anything.6 And who, after all, is credited as the founder of One Nation Toryism but Benjamin Disraeli? In fact, the ideas of Popper, Friedman, and Hayek originated in Vienna, but they could easily be read as an Anglophile homage to J.S. Mill, Adam Smith, Richard Cobden, and Victorian liberalism. Hayek believed that National Socialism was the inevitable outcome of the chaos created by German socialism. Only a return to solid Anglo-Saxon liberalism would protect democracy against future Nazis.

Here something fundamental clicked inside Mrs. Thatcher’s mind. A fusion took place between the Austro-German fugitives from Nazism and the Methodist from Grantham. Not only were socialists and patrician appeasers wrong, they were wicked, for if left unchecked they would produce a future Hitler. This explains Mrs. Thatcher’s Churchillian pretensions. On her first visit to Germany in 1975, she celebrated her elevation to the Tory party leadership by declaring war on socialism and making the V-sign—“all the more appropriate since I was in Germany.” She was going to fight World War II all over again, first against the enemies within, then against “Europe.” Wartime nostalgia, Kulturkampf, and economic policy somehow blended together. To get rich and possess property was to strike a blow for freedom. This ethos can sound harsh but is not automatically to be despised. It is shared by many immigrants, children of immigrants, and most Americans. Not all immigrants, to be sure: the Schlegel sisters would have disapproved, but then they were a figment of E.M. Forster’s imagination and he provided them with a splendid property smack in what is now suburban Thatcherland.

2.

Mrs. Thatcher’s crusade of the self-made against the well-born was not conservative in the traditional British sense of the word. It was a radical challenge to the clubby way Britain was governed by Old Boy networks, based either on smart public schools, Oxbridge, and Pall Mall clubs, or on trade union connections. That is why it appealed to ambitious outsiders of all kinds, including a number of Jews, but also skilled workers, keen to break the bounds of their class, entrepreneurs who felt stifled by the state, financial scam artists, provincials on the make, disillusioned leftists, Americanophile stockjobbers, intellectual mavericks, and young rebels in a hurry. If Alfred Sherman, a crass, eccentric, Jewish ex-Communist, was a typical Thatcherite intellectual, then so was Paul Johnson, a crass, eccentric, Catholic ex-socialist. Mrs. Thatcher’s radicalism had something in common with the eighteenth-century rebellion against the Francophile Whig aristocracy; it was cultural, political, as well as moral. Like the nationalist rebels then, Mrs. Thatcher talked about restoring “ancient British liberties,” but she did so in the dogmatic, philistine, xenophobic manner of the early Methodist preachers.

But Mrs. Thatcher’s Poujadism was more complicated than simple class envy. She may have wanted the patricians to move over, but she, as well as many of her supporters, wanted to be toffs themselves, at least to dress like them, talk like them, and if possible buy houses like them. Where the old and the new guard differed was in their attitude to people who were less well off. Patricians liked to think they took care of their people. But many of those who had just made it into the middle classes resented paying for the welfare of those who had not. This was one reason for hating the welfare state.

The results did not always live up to her preaching. She effectively curbed trade union power, which most agree was a good thing. And she transferred many state monopolies into private hands, with mixed results (better telephone services, inefficient and expensive water and gas supplies). But she failed in the most important Hayekian enterprise: the state did not shrink much under Mrs. Thatcher; its functions—local government in particular—were merely displaced. More and more powers fell into the hands of semi-private unelected outfits known as quangos (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations).7 Instead of restoring power to the people, an erosion of democracy took place; sources of power and authority became murkier. The only power that was visibly strengthened was that of the prime minister and her advisers.8 Her own cabinet ministers, let alone the parliament, were frequently excluded. As for Europe, she ranted and raved against it, but she signed the Single European Act in 1986, which committed the member states to a future economic and monetary union.

The problem with Mrs. Thatcher is that her Kulturkampf often got the better of her. The state according to Hayek is a mechanism for setting the rules for private enterprise and competition. You do not turn to the state for moral succor, cultural sustenance, or the meaning of life. Perhaps too many Schlegelians had depended on the state to support them. But Mrs. Thatcher set upon “vain intellectuals,” the BBC, libraries, universities, theater companies, and museums with fervor, as though they had to be punished for permissiveness and moral turpitude. To be sure, Mrs. Thatcher’s adversaries often reacted absurdly—starting a journal called Samizdat, for example, as though Thatcherism was a form of Stalinism. But it isn’t hard to see why. For there was a basic hypocrisy at work. The more Mrs. Thatcher’s dogmatic belief in the marketplace contributed to the coarsening of British life, the louder she hectored people about “Victorian values.”

Julian Barnes is a Schlegelian par excellence, a Francophile, vaguely leftish, metropolitan, sophisticated, in style even a trifle dandyish. Naturally, in his Letters from London, he deplores the slide from “liberal conservatism” to “Thatcherism,” or, as he puts it, accurately enough, from fudge to dogma. He catches her presence, her ton, very nicely:

She stands rather stiffly at the dispatch box [in Parliament], with swept-back hair, firm features, and an increasingly generous embonpoint thrusting at her tailored suit of Tory blue or emerald green; there, butting into the spray and storm of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, she resembles the figurehead on the prow of some antique sailing ship, emblematic as much as decorative.

His pieces hang together, because most of them deal in one way or another with the tawdriness, the vulgarity, the greed of a nation busy selling off “the family silver” (Macmillan’s phrase).

It is of course typical of a Tory grandee to regard nationalized industries as “family silver.” It is equally typical of a grand writer not to seem to understand why Thatcherism was popular with so many people, for so long. Barnes is so filled with disdain for Mrs. Thatcher’s style that he misses her main attraction: many people felt she was offering them a chance to “make it,” to forget their places. And many of them did, at least until the next recession whacked them. Mrs. Thatcher believes that capitalism is “the creed for the common man.” In theory, the pursuit of money gives everyone a fair shake, denied in systems based on totalitarian dogma or the privileges of birth. True, when people with little cultivation get greedy, it is not a pretty sight. But if gentlemen do not like the smell of money, it is because they usually have enough.

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.

Letters

Mrs. Thatcher’s Ghost May 23, 1996

  1. 1

    Peregrine Worsthorne, January 10, 1988, quoted in Charles Dellheim’s The Disenchanted Isle.

  2. 2

    Hugo Young, May 27, 1986, quoted by Dellheim, The Disenchanted Isle.

  3. 3

    England in the Eighteenth Century (Penguin, 1950), p. 96.

  4. 4

    The Downing Street Years (Harper-Collins, 1993), p. 151.

  5. 5

    The Fall of a Great Museum,” New York Review, April 7, 1989, pp.10-14.

  6. 6

    See Perry Anderson’s superb article about the European Union in the London Review of Books, January 4, 1996.

  7. 7

    The sharpest analysis of this phenomenon is by Andrew Marr, in his book Ruling Britannia (London: Michael Joseph, 1995).

  8. 8

    One of the wittiest books written about the Thatcher era is by Alistair McAlpine, entitled The Servant: A New Machiavelli (Faber & Faber, 1992). In the style of Machiavelli’s advice to the Prince, McAlpine describes the role of the Prince’s ideal servant. The Prince must be kept in power, so he may carry out the Idea: “The Servant’s task is to see that nobody hinders the implementation of the Idea. This is not a handbook for those who would compromise.” McAlpine was treasurer and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party under Mrs. Thatcher.

  9. 9

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

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