Did Margaret Thatcher "get jokes"?

Her official biographer, Charles Moore, suggests not.

An interesting snippet surfaces from Andrew Gimson's ConservativeHome interview with Charles Moore, author of the long-awaited official biography of Margaret Thatcher, the first part of which is published today. In answer to Gimson's query as to whether the former prime minister had a sense of humour, Moore said:

I’d say these things called jokes, which have punch lines and a set-up and say things like ‘there’s an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman’, are fundamentally male, and she had absolutely no understanding of them whatever. But this does not mean she had no sense of humour. It’s just different. She had a sense of wit because she had a verbal directness which is almost biblical Judaic. Something would come out quickly in riposte, which was sort of funny, yes it was funny really, it was crisp. Another thing was a sense of fun which was about enjoying a situation. There’s a sense of theatre. So one reason why she was such fun to work for I think – not fun to work with, as a Cabinet member, but to work for as say private secretary - is that she’s always terrifically enjoying all this, and there’s a pantomime element in her which is camping herself up, spoofing herself, you know, wanting to go and tap you on the shoulder and wave the handbag. You know, playful. She didn’t understand double entendres at all, of course. That comes into the book.

His suggestion that a traditional joke, exemplified here by his "Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman" example, is a fundamentally male technique for humour seems to me an entirely baseless one. Professional female comedians come in all shapes, sizes and styles, and I've never heard it said before that women are any more or less likely to be able to handle the telling of a formulaic joke. His distinction between crisp wit, a sense of fun and a more theatrical humour is a good one, though - if nothing else, Thatcher is sure to emerge from Moore's Not for Turning as a more, not less, complex figure.

Margaret Thatcher shares a joke with American President Ronald Reagan. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.