The British Sleep Foundation has my full support. Just don't ask me to get out of bed to give it

One of the worst things Margaret Thatcher ever did, as far as I am concerned, wasn't going to war over the Falklands, or destroying the notion of society, or even privatising anything that moved, but boasting that she did not need more than three or four hours' sleep a night. Flaunting one's lack of eye-shut may have been macho back in the eighties, but now it just looks . . . tired.

I don't want to see any more ads that have stupid business executives preparing for power breakfasts and power showers so that they can power their way into takeovers after transatlantic flights. I don't want to know about any more superwomen who get up in what would be the middle of the night to go to the gym and "touch base" with their children before breakfast. I want to see sleep reinstated as an essential element of life - not something that you do when you just can't keep awake any longer.

There are good healthy reasons for getting enough sleep, or so the doctors tell us. Too many of us manage on seven rather than nine hours' sleep, with the result that we have more accidents in planes, cars and trains, and that we are actually becoming more stupid, or "borderline retarded" in the lovely expression used of us by Canadian researchers. Lack of sleep makes us less intelligent because sleep is necessary for memory, creativity and generally coping with what our increasingly crowded waking time throws at us.

Yet we must, I think, insist on sleep for sleep's sake to counter the dreadful work-fixated ideology that is everywhere engulfing us. Thatcher thought that sleep was for lesser mortals. Indeed, sleep is the ultimate reminder of mortality. New Labour may allow us to sleep, but only so that we can get up and do more work. Sleep is simply some sort of refuelling - it is seen somehow as a waste of time.

Even going to bed these days has become associated with activity rather than rest. Going to bed with someone means sex, and sex now means work - it is spoken of as some God-awful duty to encourage emotional health and fitness. If you ask me, it is easy to have sex with practically anybody. It is sleeping with them that is the real test of intimacy.

Without sleep, our thinking becomes fuzzy and befuddled. We think up ever more dumb ideas like "quality time" to compensate for real time. Children, relationships, families - ie, people - don't want quality time. They want and need quantity time, because that's the only kind there is. You cannot "cram" emotionally, any more than you can kid yourself that four hours of hard-core sleep is the same as a real stretch.

Anybody, even me, can go without sleep with the right drugs, but why deprive yourself of the pleasure of sleep? Why not stay in bed when you can? Is sleep really to be seen as some dirty secret, some admission of failure? What else is the all-purpose word "stress" actually code for but exhaustion?

There are those who really can't get enough sleep because they have small children. But there are those who have no excuse, who simply feel that their leisure time must not be wasted on such a worthless pursuit. Even when my babies were small, and like me would sleep in of a morning, my mother would be appalled. "How is she going to get up for work in the mornings?" she used to yell at me. As my daughter was six months old at the time, I was obviously falling behind in instilling the work ethic into her.

We have become horribly American in our habits. We get up too early and have this nonsense of breakfast meetings. Maybe this makes some people feel indispensable - but what really is so important, apart from war, that it has to be decided at 8am?

And what of dreaming? Did Thatcher ever dream? I doubt if she ever fitted REM sleep into her four-hour cycle - and it shows. Here is a woman without an inner life, so that when her public role abruptly ended she had nothing to fall back on. Dreaming makes us who we are. One of the worst aspects of sleep deprivation is dream deprivation.

None of this figures in the new global climate where we are to organise our lives ever more frantically. Public figures don't help much by presenting themselves as always on the go and never needing to switch off. To say that a politician looks tired is a kind of insult. Success is equated with one's ability not to need much food or sleep; in other words, one's ability not to be human at all.

The British Sleep Foundation is to be launched this week to raise our awareness about sleep. It has my full support. Just don't ask me to get out of bed to give it. It is probably saying very sensible things about health and safety and falling asleep at the wheel. But what it really needs to say is "sleep more, work less, live better".

The only people who think that it is possible to oversleep are, in my experience, bosses and those who think it is possible to overdream.

Suzanne Moore is a columnist with the "Mail on Sunday"

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong