There are summer evenings in London when Piccadilly Circus looks impatient for its neon, when the rain is falling and the tourists appear to be weary of the daylight. And it was on such a night in June 2003 that I met Margaret Thatcher. The meeting wasn’t entirely auspicious: she didn’t know who I was, and, more importantly, I didn’t know who I was, until I saw her across from me and realized I wouldn’t shake her hand. I have never met anyone so politically galvanizing as the person I had known only as Maggie throughout my childhood. She could make heroes and villains of people just by existing. Let us allow, if nothing else, that Maggie’s effectiveness ran proud of the usual standards, for people could decide what kind of person they were just by looking at her and registering their own reaction. I suppose every generation has a leader who personifies the moment when ideology seems lighted up with charisma. Yet the person at the bar seemed entirely dark to me and I froze.
We had gathered at the Carlton Club for a dinner to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Bill Deedes. One should expect to meet English Tories at the Carlton Club: it is one of their primary feeding grounds, encircled by portraits of their political ancestors. Bill Deedes, who died in 2007, was once editor of the Daily Telegraph and a former Conservative member of Parliament for Ashford. He served as a junior minister under Winston Churchill and was later minister of information in Harold Macmillan’s Cabinet.
Deedes had spent most of his life as a valiant and fairly reliable journalist and was the model for William Boot in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop. (The novelist and the young newspaperman had gone out to cover Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia.) Waugh’s characterization annoyed Deedes slightly and I took the risk of teasing him about it as much as possible. We became friends and coagitators for the work of the charity UNICEF in opposing child-soldiery in Sudan. Deedes loved Margaret Thatcher and you could tease him about that, too. But his real hero, friend, and confidant was Thatcher’s husband, Denis. They played golf together, and Deedes, throughout the 1980s, was the imaginary recipient of the “Dear Bill” letters that appeared in the satirical magazine Private Eye.
When I entered the club I approached the bar and immediately saw Bill surrounded by dark, dripping gargoyles. Most of these were made of bronze and set on plinths. But Conrad Black was also there along with Tim Yeo, then a member of the Tory shadow cabinet, and Margaret and Denis Thatcher. On the spot, I made a quick social calculation. If I went to the bar I would have to shake her hand and I couldn’t do that. But once we were at the table it would be fine. (We were about thirty people.) So I turned heel and walked out of the club and made my way up St. James’s and stopped for a drink at the Ritz. After half an hour I came back down and took my place in the dining room under a giant portrait of Benjamin Disraeli.
I think there were five speeches. Mine was second. All I can remember saying was that working in the field with Bill was an odd experience because he was always sixty years older and always sixty yards ahead. (I didn’t mention Boot.) Conrad Black did slightly better, pointing out the amazing skills and fantastic judgment that made Deedes one of the best journalists of his generation. Lord Black, that night, didn’t betray how anxious he was to please the Iron Lady, but he always was. “He desperately wanted to come across with stature,” one of his business associates told me. “He was obsessed with the question of status and reputation, especially when it came to Mrs. T. One time we went for lunch at Chequers and he was almost beside himself with nervousness. He became loquacious and felt he had to tell her everything he knew about Tory history.”
I looked at Mrs. Thatcher when Black sat down. She was directly across from me looking becalmed. She didn’t mention that she had thrown a party at 10 Downing Street to mark the end of Bill’s time at the Telegraph. Or that she had ordered him to enter the House of Lords after he had refused. “I don’t want to go with those old bores,” he said.
“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Just go.”
Then Deedes himself stood up to talk about other company and other nights. “We had some wonderful evenings at Number 10, didn’t we Margaret?” he said. “I remember one dinner party in particular: wonderful wine, things were gathering pace over the Falklands War, and Mr. Mulroney was with us, you know, the Canadian prime minister.”
She smiled up at him.
“Well, you kept having to leave the table to take telephone calls. You know, Lord Carrington, and that man at Defense, John Nott. March 1982. Anyway, we had a lovely evening. Now, you know it’s customary for people to send a thank-you note after such a lovely party? Some people even send flowers or maybe a chocolate or something. Well, Mr. Mulroney of Canada—do you remember?—he went one better and sent you a battleship. It was terribly nice of him, we felt.”
The table was in an uproar and I got into a nice conversation about gardening with the elderly gentleman next to me. In the middle of some elementary thing about planting potatoes, I suddenly remembered that the IRA had tried to blow up the Carlton Club in June 1990, causing injury to twenty. I looked over at Mrs. Thatcher, who seemed to be in a world of her own, and realized she was a veteran of IRA bombings, but I wasn’t going to mention that to her or to the elderly gentleman, who seemed miles away from discomfort or scandal. I got everything wrong that night, including about the old man. About 11 PM, once we’d run out of conversation on the subject of roses, he asked me if I’d be kind enough to help him on with his coat. I lifted it from the back of his chair and saw it had one of those stitched white name tags, the kind you see on the garments worn by young people attending English public school. As I leaned in to put the coat around the gentleman’s shoulders I took the time to look again and confirm that it said “J. Profumo.”
Margaret Thatcher’s main achievement, you might say, was to move the spiritual headquarters of the Conservative Party from the Carlton Club to the working-class housing estates of Britain. She always slightly hated England’s elite, or hated the idea that you couldn’t have an elite of shopkeepers, and by the end she left Britain a greedier and seedier place. Despite the pomp and circumstance of her funeral and the many plaudits she has garnered since her death, her great experiment actually didn’t work: the people who could get rich got richer, of course, but she and her followers had no plan to relieve the economic misery that befell the others, the people who were now forced to live on state benefits, which continued to grow. It is the communities of the other—where no new investment took hold, where no new jobs came to replace the ones that were scrapped—that continue to fester in modern Britain.
There was a country that died, the one in which the classes felt a little responsible for one another, survived wars together, a country in which young people used to have options outside the service industry or the gambling fraternity. And you can still see that country dying every day of the week on television. Gap-toothed and overlagered, unemployed and proud of nothing, the great-grandsons and daughters of the respectable working class are seen screaming at each other on The Jeremy Kyle Show, a tribute to Thatcher’s legacy and her impact on British social cohesion.
It was an impressive work of social engineering but ultimately a dreadful one. She created a population that is more dependent and less productive. She made us more individual but less cooperative. It must have looked heroic on paper or in the essays of Milton Friedman. But what she did was incredibly coarse in practice: she ground the unions down but left workers with no alternative form of self-esteem or protection, and the result, today, is a workforce of the alienated. She boasted of setting people free but British working people have never been more enslaved to the whims of fashion, corporate greed, and agism than they are now. A young person from a former mining community where there might have been classes in the evenings and a sense of propriety, decency, modesty, and community can now only hope for a place in “the zone”—the world of the “haves”—by winning a celebrity contest or by thriving on the black market.
She made a Lottery nation. And it took her best protégé, Tony Blair, to make that a living delusion. I grew up on one of those housing estates in Scotland. It was Ayrshire: a mining community and one also given over to farming and manufacturing. The first time I heard someone from our street talk about Thatcher, it was a couple of neighbors who had decided to buy their council house. Thatcher had made it possible for the government’s housing stock to be sold, giving tenants a “leg up” onto the property ladder. The couple loved Maggie: they were able to buy their house cheap and immediately changed the color of their front door, to show their neighbors they were now different.
All the kids in my class were given a small bottle of milk every day at mid-morning. It was nice to drink the milk, but nicer, in some larger way, to learn that you lived in a country where the government your parents paid their taxes to cared about you that minutely. Thatcher stopped the milk. It seemed new, the thought—promulgated by Keith Joseph, Norman Tebbit, and, chiefly, Margaret Thatcher—that people who didn’t want to strive and become better than their neighbors were totally lacking in spirit.
At first it seemed like a small philosophical problem: older people, hard-working people, contented people, sick people would argue that they didn’t have to be winners. They didn’t want to do better: they were quite happy to do fine. They liked being like other people. It squared with their sense of belonging and with their idea of what made British life stable. My mother worked in a youth club and Thatcher closed it down.
Meanwhile, in 1984, when I was sixteen, the coal miners down the road at Auchinleck went on strike. It wasn’t controversial to hold the view that some of the unions were out of control, that change had to happen, and that arrogance was rife. But suddenly there was a turn in the conversation, not locally, but on the TV news: the union men were now corrupt, evil, violent criminals. To us they were hardworking men who made half-decent wages in terrible conditions, people who lived in modest houses and had holidays at the English seaside. But in the news they were tyrants and Mrs. Thatcher was going to bring them down.