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.
There was never any sense that she respected these men or the dangers they endured; no sense that these people were fighting for something real and good and irreplaceable. She wore an international sneer and seemed to me like Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life or the unforgiving bosses in Germinal. Hugo Young, her biographer, later said she became harder than hard. But to us Thatcher was always a politician made of hard dogma, almost sociopathic in her inability to see the human beings behind the percentages she wielded like knives.
We used to gather tins of food for the miners. The wives ran soup kitchens for a year during the strike but the Barony colliery was eventually closed in Thatcher’s time. Those who want to test the view that Mrs. Thatcher’s government had excellent recovery plans for Auchinleck and New Cumnock should visit the towns today. Unemployment and social problems have destroyed community life there and in March 2013 New Cumnock was voted Scotland’s most dismal town. There are no shops, there are derelict houses, the town hall is facing closure, and the church is empty. And that is only one of hundreds of towns in Britain that felt the impact of the Thatcher revolution. “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out, out, out.” I can still hear that every time I think of her, shouted by men and women who brought out something cruel in her.
There was a vanity in Mrs. Thatcher, much copied by her followers, that the enmity she stirred up in people was merely a reflection of her toughness when it came to “getting things done.” But it was mindless of her to think so. Politicians have always been disliked and always blamed, but Thatcher appeared to many people in Britain to have no feeling for the people whose lives were hurt by her policies. No feeling and no understanding. Her stridency appeared to excite boys who remembered their nannies, but to other men and women, the poorer sort, she was the incarnation of blind authority. She knew there were real families out there in Britain’s hinterlands or northern lands, yet, like a crazed statistician or a bad novelist, she couldn’t really imagine what their lives must be like.
The summer before going to university I got a job with the Manpower Services Commission, at the Job Centre, working the front-line desk with the unemployed. It was 1986 and I’ll never forget those lines of men coming up to the desk to inquire about their suitability for work. There were no jobs. They could try for something in a bar or a hairdresser’s, but fifty-year-old men weren’t going to get those jobs and I was instructed not to send them for interviews. Norman Tebbit, one of Mrs. Thatcher’s proudest and crudest lieutenants, told them to “get on your bike and get a job.” And here they were, skilled tradesmen with thirty-five years’ experience, asking if I could put them forward for a job they weren’t going to get collecting glasses in a bar. Mrs. Thatcher came up with various schemes, such as Restart, where the unemployed would be called in and interrogated about what they were “actively” doing to seek work. And I was told to talk to each of the men about the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, by which the government would give them a grant to start up their own business. The notion that some people are simply not entrepreneurial was lost.
Maggie was basically saying: “Stop being who you have been. Stop being who your parents were.” And she did it to the accompaniment of national bands and flag-waving. She mocked the values of families that weren’t like hers. After she became prime minister, she opposed gay rights at every turn, promoting the infamous Section 28 passed by her government in 1988, which banned state schools from depicting homosexuality as an accepted relationship. Most of all, she patronized the people who were unable to share her vision. She made an enemy of them and that is why they hated her, not because they were extreme people—most of them were not—but because they recognized an abuse of power when they saw it.
The word “divisive” has been much used in the coverage of Maggie’s death. But you had to be there, as they say, to really know the ill effects of the divisions she installed in those communities. The Britain that Orwell describes in his essays is a place of fairness, a place of differences gently tolerated, for the most part, and a country where one could be fair even about Stalin or about toads. And that is the place that ended with the advent of Mrs. Thatcher’s stridency.
“Can’t pay. Won’t pay.” That was another slogan born around the same time in response to the Poll Tax introduced by Mrs. Thatcher. The idea was to levy the same local rates regardless of income, a boost to rich people on large incomes in the south but a misery for those struggling in the north, which was already blighted by industry closures. It was the final nail. Even her biggest supporters recognized that, with the Poll Tax, Mrs. Thatcher was contravening a basic tenet of fairness that had always, at some level, seemed crucial in Britain. (Even if it wasn’t: it seemed so.) It wasn’t fair what she was doing and the fact that she tried out the Poll Tax in Scotland before bringing it to England felt like a beastly act. It was probably the single biggest contributing factor to the resurgence of the Scottish National Party and the later establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament. She hated the idea of such a parliament but it can be counted as one of her unwitting creations.
Callousness came to stay. “Did she have a heart?” wrote Matthew Parris in The Spectator’s current tributes to their favorite leader. “In two years of working with her, I never reached a conclusion, yet my personal admiration for her only grew.” Historians fell for her, too: “I loved doing things for her,” wrote Hugh Thomas, while Andrew Roberts began to cry the day she resigned and turned up at her door with flowers. We learned that successive British politicians were cowed by her popularity. They tried to do what she did—foreign wars, small mercies—and even now they feel destiny is kind to leaders with “strong moral vision” beneath their faults. Listening to Ed Miliband or Tony Blair or the Labour Party deputy leader Harriet Harman the week of her funeral, one is left in no doubt that we are living through a long Conservative era, for not one of them, even on principle, could take real issue with what she did that was wrong for Britain. Not one came out to attack the harshness of her philosophy or recognize the grief it brought about for so many. None noticed how she divided the country and brutalized the north. It was as if none of them really has a morality: they only have politics.
The Economist, still admiring her linkage of low taxes and the end of the cold war, sees that she was too often driven by something punitive. “Hatred, it is true, sometimes blinded her,” said the magazine in a recent editorial.
Infuriated by the antics of left-wing local councils, she ended up centralizing power in Whitehall…. Her stridency, from her early days as “Thatcher the milk snatcher” to her defenestration by her own party, was divisive. Under her the Conservatives shrank from a national force to being a party of the rich south.
She couldn’t hold the nation together, indeed she drove it apart, and that is because she didn’t really believe in the nation except as a sentimental or martial entity. That’s the strangest legacy of all about Maggie: if you listen to those who loved her and thought she was manifestly right, you find, after a while, that you are with people who don’t know their own country and don’t like it either. They think they like it because they don’t like Europe, but in fact, they abjure both. They like their own lives, of course, and their own kind, but they imagine the rest of Britain is mainly an unspeakable place of aliens and scroungers. This feeling borrows heavily from Thatcher and her notion that there is no such thing as society. We heard it recently from George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, when he spoke about people who are dependent on housing benefits, and you can find the same stuff every day in those apocalyptic screeds against the poor that adorn the Daily Mail.
She wasn’t fair and she didn’t know the meaning of the word. If she had, she would have helped, not opposed, Nelson Mandela in his fight against apartheid. She wouldn’t have personally ordered the sinking of the Argentinian warship General Belgrano even though it was outside the defined exclusion zone. (Three hundred and twenty-three men died that night.) She wasn’t fair and she wasn’t just, either, otherwise she would have seen—as many of her ministers did—that the Poll Tax would only make life harder for people who were already struggling.
None of her acolytes will grasp the irony of her political life: that, with Thatcherism, she set out to save the soul of the nation and ended up selling it off to the cheapest bidder. By the end of her reign people loathed her ideology and loathed her style; even the Conservative Party—by whom she was hung, drawn, and quartered in no time—came to see that her famous obstinacy was really a form of madness that would only lead to defeat.
Spite came to live in Britain during her time and we became partisan to the point of psychosis. Those who questioned the rise of get-rich-quick-ness as a responsible way to live and a decent way to support the population were treated as Communists. Speaking personally, I never particularly liked the manners and corruptions of a certain bullying group of trade unionists. But still, looked at with open eyes, one might argue that the excesses of those union men were a little smaller-scale, a little local, when compared with a good many of today’s bankers and oligarchs. To Thatcher’s metaphorical children there is no argument there: a free-market criminal is always preferable to a left-leaning one, even though, as we have discovered, both can be state-sponsored.
Mrs. Thatcher gave the modern world a new kind of distrust for liberal values whenever they came up against market demands. She thought people who didn’t agree with her revelations were “the enemy within.” People who didn’t agree with Mrs. Thatcher were just not “one of us,” they deserved no empathy, had to be beaten, and Britain for a while found her drama of certainty addictive. It was Maggie’s good luck to come along at a time when her brand of intimidation could appear like a refreshing change. Her ferocious talent entered the community like a wrecking ball and her lack of subtlety perfectly matched the spirit of the age.
One of her allies told me that she spent much of the last period of her life feeling she had failed. She saw a country half-changed—run now by a legion of whimpering men without the potency either to extend or reject her ideas—and she regretted that she had not done better on two fronts: by being more present as a mother and by being stronger when it came to opposing the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. But even that was long ago. By the time of her death, sitting in a chair upstairs at the Ritz, she was lost to nearly everything but silence. Her political servants on all sides will sing her praises, but she didn’t sing theirs, and nobody else will, either. Margaret Thatcher’s greatest legacy will be to have made Britain a place more out of love with the idea of tolerance. There was, appropriately enough, a gun carriage and a military procession in London on the day of her funeral, while 378 miles away, in the former mining town of New Cumnock, the third-generation unemployed put their dole money together to throw a street party.