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Misunderstanding Mrs Thatcher

How Margaret Thatcher consolidated her power – not thanks to the Falklands War, but because of an opposition that underestimated her.

When in January 1981 the Gang of Four issued the Limehouse Declaration and opened the way to the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Margaret Thatcher was not mentioned. For Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers the danger was the takeover of Labour by the radical left. It never occurred to them that they had entered a decade in which Thatcher would sweep away forever the postwar Britain they wanted to revive. “Not once did the Gang of Four mention her government, her policies or the need to beat her in an election,” writes Dominic Sandbrook in Who Dares Wins. “Owen later told Charles Moore that when they were devising their plans, she never even came up. To people like Jenkins and Williams, it was self-evident that, having been foolish enough to elect somebody so strident, aggressive and narrow-minded, the British people would not make the same mistake again. ‘Roy and Shirley thought Mrs Thatcher was an aberration’, Owen said, ‘and they were looking ahead to the next bit. They assumed they would come through the middle when Thatcherism failed.’”

Many in Thatcher’s own party made the same assumption. For forgotten figures such as Ian Gilmour, a languid landowner who in the 1950s bought and edited the Spectator, served in Thatcher’s first cabinet until he was sacked in September 1981, then published a succession of books attacking her, Thatcher could only be an anomaly that would soon be followed by a restoration of normalcy. Critics of the SDP, Sandbrook tells us, joked that it “wanted a ‘better yesterday’”. Tories like Gilmour expected yesterday to return just as it had been before.

Even at the time, however, it was clear that nothing like this was possible. Butskellism – the convergence on a Keynesian mixed economy forged in the early 1950s by the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and the Conservative chancellor Rab Butler – had been destroyed in the Seventies by chronic industrial conflict, high levels of inflation and unsustainable public finances. There was never any prospect of reviving it. Thatcher was a by-product of the collapse of the postwar British settlement and Labour’s inability to overcome its internal conflicts.

The emergence of the SDP only cemented her chances of staying in office. From the vantage point of the New Right, from which I observed these events, the SDP was Thatcher’s failsafe mechanism. Whatever errors she made, Labour was in a poor position to profit from them. The function of the SDP was to keep Thatcher in power by dividing the opposition, and the party performed its historic role well.

The most compelling accounts of the Thatcher years are not by academics but journalists. Until Sandbrook’s, the best was Hugo Young’s One of Us (1989), an unsparing study that portrayed the mix of apprehension and excitement she evoked when she entered Downing Street. But Sandbrook is better at conveying the prejudice she faced. Gilmour told Young that Thatcher had “no ideas, not even views”, only “some strong prejudices”. Oliver Letwin said she had “absolutely no interest in ideas for their own sake”. It is hard to read such comments without a smile.

Did Willie Whitelaw, the sort of Tory that liberal Britain now views with wistful fondness – and who told friends “I’m sitting around the cabinet table with the most ghastly people” – spend his evenings exploring rival philosophies of conservatism? In her early years in power, the basis of hostility to Thatcher was always her gender and class origins. During the selection process for his successor in 1958, the outgoing MP for Finchley John Crowder was reported to have complained that the party was being forced to choose between “a bloody woman and a bloody Jew”. At the time, these were commonplace attitudes.

Recreating the world of 40 years ago requires exceptional powers of imaginative empathy, together with rigorous attention to the details of everyday life. Sandbrook has these qualities in abundance. His four previous books on Britain since the Suez Crisis covered a time before he was born, or too young to remember anything. He was not yet eight years old at the time of the Falklands war in May 1982, and his memories “are entirely dominated by school and family, toys, books and films”. Beginning with Thatcher entering N0 10 as Britain’s first woman prime minister and ending with victory in the Falklands, Who Dares Wins: 1979-1982 captures the period with clairvoyant vividness. Compulsively readable, the book will be indispensable to anyone who wants to understand these pivotal years.

****

The Seventies are often written up as a period of apocalyptic foreboding. Universities, in particular, were full of people who expected the near-term collapse of the capitalist system, and the British state along with it. But if you looked at society as a whole you were faced by “the simple unarguable fact that most people’s lives were longer, healthier, more comfortable and more colourful than ever before”. In 1979 the UK was the sixth richest country in the world. Many people were living more affluently, and more freely, than in the past. Responses from Mass Observation, which Sandbrook uses illuminatingly at many points, include one from Lesley Hughes, a single parent and part-time industrial cleaner from Stowmarket, Suffolk. She lived in a semi-detached council house decorated with pictures of daffodils, a picture of the Queen with the infant Prince Andrew and a corgi, green curtains, a sofa of black leather, an orange rug and a brown carpet, with ceilings and doors painted in a shade of mustard. Britain may have looked rundown, as foreign visitors often complained, but it was certainly not monochrome.

All the same, there were plenty of reasons for discontent. A sense of irreversible national decline was palpable. In February 1981, finding themselves sharing a first-class train compartment, Tony Benn and Keith Joseph were at one in thinking that “the last 35 years have been a disaster”. Partly this reflected Britain’s diminished place in the world following the ill-advised Suez operation in 1956. More broadly, there had been a slide into economic stagnation and urban deprivation in many parts of Britain, and rising sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Material well-being may have been higher than ever before for large parts of the population, but there were also many with unfulfilled aspirations.

The Falklands War in April 1982 is often credited with solidifying Thatcher’s position, and it is true that the jeremiads of those who opposed it proved to be misplaced. Gilmour predicted it would “make Suez look like common sense”. Michael Foot was denounced by Ken Livingstone as a Tory for supporting the mission though, as Foot said in the Commons, it had been provoked by an act of aggression by a fascist regime. (In a delightful aside, Sandbrook reports that Foot sent a handwritten letter to his shadow home secretary Roy Hattersley demanding his resignation for having been rude about the American poet and short story writer Dorothy Parker. The episode reflects well on both of them. How many front-benchers today could claim to be so well-read?)

Undoubtedly the success of the war helped Thatcher. But popular approval of the government was increasing well before the Task Force set off. The economy was showing signs of life, and the national mood was lifting. The war boosted Thatcher’s fortunes at a time when they were already improving.

In political terms the big losers were the Social Democrats. “In a broad strategic sense the war was a sideshow,” Sandbrook writes. “Yet in psychological and political terms its impact can hardly be overstated.” David Owen grasped this fact at once, Roy Jenkins never did. The portly, patrician figure – whose only previous contact with the high seas, as the lobby correspondent Frank Johnson wrote, had been in various good fish restaurants – was out of his depth. It is telling that this essentially obtuse politician is revered as a statesman. By identifying itself with high-minded middle-class dissent rather than working-class patriotism, the Social Democrats as personified in Jenkins forfeited any chance of replacing Labour and breaking the mould of British politics.

The conventional story in which a failing prime minister was saved by a jingoistic adventure in the South Atlantic suited those who wanted to write off Thatcher as an aberration. As Sandbrook writes: “The alternative explanation – that millions of people actually supported her policies and genuinely preferred her to the alternatives – was too dreadful to contemplate.” The ultra-wet Tory Julian Critchley, who referred to Thatcher with sneering misogyny as “the great she-elephant”, endorsed the established narrative when he observed: “She who dares, wins.” The reference was to the motto of the SAS, the elite military unit that had earned Thatcher’s grateful admiration when it ended a siege at the Iranian embassy in May 1980.

There was some truth in the analogy. If any one of the stages of the Falklands operation had gone wrong, the upshot would have been calamitous. While Thatcher went ahead only after gaining military assurances that it had a decent chance of success, a certain boldness was required to launch the mission. Even so, Critchley’s view was a gross simplification of political realities and of Thatcher.

Who was the “real” Margaret Thatcher? She herself rejected the idea that there was any single version. There were “at least three”, she told an interviewer in 1979: “There is a very logical one, there’s an instinctive one, and there’s one just at home.” It is worth noting that she did not mention an ideological version. She attended a few meetings of the Conservative Philosophy Group, formed in 1974 as a discussion venue for politicians, journalists and a handful of academics. The group met in the Westminster home of Jonathan Aitken MP, who reported her as saying that the Conservatives needed an ideology of the sort the left deployed. But she seemed to enjoy the meetings mainly as an occasion for argument, and there was little sign of “Thatcherism” in her policies and decisions.

Invented by her enemies and critics, the term caricatured a politician who for much of her time in office was considered and pragmatic. She brought to a definitive end to the postwar settlement that – along with many of Britain’s heavy industries – had been dying since the Sixties, but not by imposing some new economic blueprint. Despite being urged by some of her advisers to inject market mechanisms into the way it operated, she would not attack the NHS because she understood that it was a national institution. Her unyielding response to the miners’ strike in 1984 reflected her belief that a similar challenge had ended Edward Heath’s premiership ten years earlier more than any faith in market forces. It was only during her last term in office (1987-90) that she lost her sense of reality.

For most people during these years politics was background noise, not the meaning of their existence. But Sandbrook is right to make the emergence of a semi-mythical Thatcher in the British imagination the heart of the book, and nothing expressed this shift better than the Falklands war. When the islands were described as “miles and miles of bugger-all” by Denis Thatcher – the real curmudgeon, not the Private Eye impersonation – he articulated what was, in fact, an official consensus. Describing the official response to Argentine demands for the return of the islands, Sandbrook writes:

The irony of all this was that, deep down, most British politicians would have been delighted to return them… they had little strategic or economic value…  By the late 1960s the islands’ days seemed numbered. The problem, though, was that while the Foreign Office was very happy to transfer sovereignty to Buenos Aires, the islanders were dead against it… they saw themselves as British, so attached to their mother country that they had donated £50,000 from their own funds to buy Spitfires during the Second World War.

The lessons of the past are elusive. Sandbrook is not at all partisan in his account, and draws no general conclusions. Still, it is hard to avoid the resonances of his story for the present time. Now as then, progressive opinion is shaped by the project of recreating a defunct centre ground. If the SDP dreamt of reviving Butskellism, the centrist dream today is to return to the halcyon years of Tony Blair and David Cameron. How idyllic these years were for many people is another matter. In any case, events have moved on since then. The Iraq War; the near collapse of the global financial system; the rise of the far right throughout much of Europe, left-nationalism in Scotland and Catalonia, and radical green movements in many countries; the election of Donald Trump; intensified authoritarian repression in China; and a rapid unravelling of Western power in the Middle East have transformed the global landscape beyond recognition.

In Britain, the party system is in flux. But those who yearn for the restoration of a vanished consensus are moved by nostalgic delusions of the kind that led Roy Jenkins and the forgotten Tory wets to political oblivion. If Sandbrook’s magnificent history of these decisive years is any guide, there will be no going back. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982
Dominic Sandbrook
Allen Lane, 976pp, £35

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 06 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong