Waving goodbye to Maggie
PAUL WOOD remembers the remarkable woman who shaped his generation
I felt very old when I read an interview this morning with Margaret Thatcher’s nemesis, Michael Heseltine, and saw that “Tarzan” is now 80. And now, the news that the grand old lady herself, the Great She-Elephant, She Who Must Be Obeyed, Tina (There is No Alternative) has finally died.
Apparently patients in Britain who suffered from amnesia, senility, delirium or schizophrenia, when they were unable to remember the names of their children or spouses nevertheless recognised her name. People dreamt about her as frequently as they dreamt of the Queen or members of the royal family, which British people do very often. She was part of my generation’s collective subconscious, part of the very fibre of our being, whether we liked or loathed her.
I disliked Mrs. Thatcher when she was in power very much, mostly because of unemployment and her economic policies and partly because she was not at all a social conservative. I still think, though I was wrong on a number of things, that Britain’s relative economic decline, compared to other developed economies, was not very significant, though I understand much better now why people at the time thought it was. I suppose if enough people thought it was then perhaps it was, but I am still relaxed about the fact that the English were, before Margaret Thatcher, less concerned about getting on and hard work than the Americans and Japanese.
I still have doubts about privatisation and certainly about using the proceeds for tax cuts, but privatisations worked far better than I expected. So did tax cuts. It was unemployment that cowed and broke the unions, but though this was terribly sad they needed breaking. I see now, but did not then, that tax cuts were needed to reduce state power – unfortunately, that battle seems lost these days. The poll tax was a terrible idea, as I knew it would be before it was even mooted. Rates were the perfect tax, but I drove Essex Man crazy with self-righteous fury by saying so.
Mrs Thatcher was in many ways a classical liberal, as her so-called “wet” opponents within her party alleged, but she most of all represented what Salisbury called “villa Toryism”. A good thing too in many ways but without always a feel for the working class or the poor, at least up North and in Scotland, though millions of working class people loved her very much.
But overall how much better things were when she was Prime Minister – no devolution; far fewer powers given to the EU (though she agreed to majority voting); 50,000 immigrants entered the UK a year instead of large multiples of that now; hereditary peers; far, far fewer laws and far more freedom, especially freedom of speech. Parliament stayed up till the early hours for key debates and was not merely a rubber stamp for governments; there were about 26 women MPs, which seemed normal, and family-friendly Parliamentary hours had not been introduced. Although things were already very politically correct, a phrase that had not been coined in her day, people smoked in pubs and could do a hundred other things our liberal-authoritarian masters no longer allow.
She was not socially conservative at all – encouraging women not to go to work would have cut male unemployment. My main reason for admiring her now is all the laws she would not have brought in, on press regulation, hate speech, discrimination, unfair dismissal and all the whole caboodle.
In the 1970s, as a young boy, I knew England needed a De Gaulle, but completely failed to see she was our De Gaulle (the difference being her loyalty to America). Her willingness to follow America in almost everything always irked me but she was not the stuff lapdogs are made of. Mr Blair was.
She was right about the Cold War, though I winced at her and Mr. Reagan’s speeches. She was right about the enemy within, but presided over a period when the Left took education and academia further Leftwards than they had every been. She was right about Europe but signed the Single European Act, which gave up the requirements that decisions of the EEC require unanimity. She was right to go to war with Argentina but had she not said she would scrap HMS Endeavour I doubt if the invasion would have happened. (I urged the MP I worked for to ask questions about HMS Endeavour before the war started.)
I thought the Rhodesian settlement a great achievement but the Foreign Office fooled her into thinking Nkomo would win the elections and instead Mugabe did. She was right to want to reduce immigration from the 50,000 a year which made people, she said, feel “swamped” but failed to do so.
The Guardian editorial pays tribute to her but ends on this note:
Her legacy is of public division, private selfishness and a cult of greed, which together shackle far more of the human spirit than they ever set free.
I think socialists had convinced the English for a generation that enterprise and individualism were greedy and selfish, so that when they became enterprising and individualistic they felt gleefully amoral or else guilty, when in fact they were being moral. I remember my shock in about 1989 when, reading the volume on Chaucer in the old Macmillan’s English Men of Letters series the writer pointed out that in Chaucer’s age as in every age the English were enterprising. I did not want to hear this but the English always were enterprising, rather as we now think of Americans, until the mid-20th century. The 1970s were arguably a more selfish decade than the 1980s, with endless strikes and at one point the dead unburied. Selfishnness, though, you have always with you.
I heard her speak innumerable times. Margaret Thatcher’s greatest defect was her lack of eloquence. She did not have the words to make her ideas seem socially concerned or expansive, when in fact she was a moralist and hers was a moral crusade. As she once said,
Economics is only the method. I want to change people’s souls.
She was the only good looking woman MP in her day and, though I was never attracted to her, most MPS were. I often saw her when I worked in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. She had very good legs and a generous bust. Mitterrand is supposed to have said she had the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe, though, according to the very reliable Charles Moore, Lady Thatcher’s official biographer, what he really said was ‘the voice of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Stalin.’
I only met her once, when I was eight, when my father took me to the Houses of Parliament and I got lost looking at coins on display on the walls. She found me, took me to my father and showed us various coins that were not on public display and then the Members’ Terrace. I knew who she was because at eight politics was my passion. She was the shadow Education Minister and soon to take away free school milk.
My father wanted to take me up to see Winston Churchill’s state funeral (I was three) and I shall never forgive my mother for dissuading him. He went alone and I watched it on television which does not count, especially as I do not remember it. The first death of an English Prime Minister I remember is therefore Anthony Eden’s in 1977. I clearly remember that evening, walking home from school, thinking of that forgotten old man, living in Jamaica, his reputation in shreds because of Suez, for whose death Parliament would adjourn for a day. The child is father to the man and I was a born historian. 1977 is a long time ago. Still, Jerry Brown is Governor of California and I was two years below Hugh Laurie at university so I am still young. Young-ish. For how people are rejoicing at her death, click here.
Finally, a footnote. (I love footnote knowledge.) Mrs. Thatcher invited Jimmy Savile to Christmas dinner at Chequers every year. What fun those dinners must have been.
PAUL WOOD is an English writer living in Bucharest. This article first appeared on his blog