The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

de­feat in 1944 shat­ter­ing. She be­lieved in fair­ness, even in Key­ne­sian­ism at this point, but said in­di­vid­ual en­ter­prise was ev­ery­thing and any no­tion of progress or any mys­ti­cal con­cept of the na­tion (as with the Nazis) had no em­pir­i­cal ba­sis.

There were a cou­ple of men she went out with be­fore Denis Thatcher, one of whom she might have been in love with. At one point she de­scribed Denis as ‘‘ not a very at­trac­tive crea­ture’’ — he had been mar­ried be­fore and, she said later, a bit rue­fully, she could never be the first Mrs Thatcher — though they seem to have been happy to­gether (de­spite a midlife cri­sis of his that had him head­ing off to Africa for three months).

He was a busi­ness­man and his money meant her as­cen­sion to the up­per mid­dle class was as­sured. He main­tained she only got pre­s­e­lec­tion be­cause he was away at the time and that if he had been there any­one would have said, ‘‘ We don’t like the look of that pair!’’

She rose through the ranks of the Con­ser­va­tive Party and by the time Ted Heath won of­fice in 1970 was set for the min­istry. De­spite the fact that she hated the ‘‘ soft’’ jobs re­served for women — she would have liked to be chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer — she be­came sec­re­tary of state for ed­u­ca­tion and science. This is when she was dubbed ‘‘ Mrs Thatcher milk­snatcher’’ be­cause as a com­pro­mise mea­sure she abol­ished school milk for all but tots in or­der to pre­serve other ser­vices.

A fur­ther irony was that she was charged with im­ple­ment­ing the switch from the gram­mar school sys­tem to com­pre­hen­sive schools. Thatcher was con­scious of the fact the streamed gram­mar schools — for which chil­dren were tested at age 11 — al­lowed one in five kids to get the kind of ed­u­ca­tion that could take them to the top of Bri­tish so­ci­ety. She noted the leader of the Labour Party (Harold Wil­son) and the leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party (Heath) were gram­mar school prod­ucts.

She said, too, it al­lowed ‘‘ peo­ple like me to have ac­cess to gram­mar schools so we could com­pete with peo­ple like Shirley Wil­liams’’, re­fer­ring to the noted Labour politi­cian who with David Owen was to be­come one of the Gang of Four, the So­cial Demo­cratic Party break­away party that chal­lenged Labour when it be­came un­electably left-wing.

It’s easy to for­get now, in light of the Blair/ Brown con­sen­sus about eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism, how par­lous the Bri­tish econ­omy be­came in the 1970s, how much Heath’s govern­ment had tried to win the bat­tle with the unions and failed mis­er­ably, and how much, af­ter Wil­son re­signed sud­denly and Jim Cal­laghan took over, the coun­try be­came mired in in­fla­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, af­ter Thatcher’s elec­tion vic­tory it would also see an un­re­al­is­ti­cally left-wing Labour Party with the elo­quent Michael Foot as leader but Tony Benn, that aris­to­cratic turn­coat, as the power be­hind the throne.

There was also a deep sense on both (mod­er­ate) sides of pol­i­tics that only some kind of govern­ment of con­sen­sus, of Tory lambs sit­ting down with Union lions, could pos­si­bly make sense of the in­fla­tion-rid­den mess the coun­try was in.

Thatcher, af­ter she took the lead­er­ship from Heath, set her­self against this. As prime min­is­ter, in the face of Heath’s ‘‘ wet’’ stric­tures, she thun­dered that con­sen­sus ‘‘ was the process of aban­don­ing all be­liefs, prin- ciples, val­ues and poli­cies in search of some­thing in which no one be­lieves, but to which no one ob­jects’’.

Thatcherism was a hor­ror to old-style wet Tory grandees such as Ian Gil­mour, who said of her mone­tarism: ‘‘ In the Con­ser­va­tive view . . . eco­nomic lib­er­al­ism, a la Pro­fes­sor Hayek, be­cause of its stark­ness and its fail­ure to cre­ate a sense of com­mu­nity, is not a safe­guard of po­lit­i­cal freedom but a threat to it.’’ On one oc­ca­sion Thatcher said to Gil­mour, ‘‘ Ian, don’t you be­lieve in cap­i­tal­ism?’’ He thought this in­vo­ca­tion of dogma was akin to blas­phemy and replied: ‘‘ I don’t be­lieve in so­cial­ism, if that’s what you mean.’’

Even Su­per­mac said to her, ‘‘ The so-called ‘ money sup­ply’ pol­icy may be use­ful as a guide to what is hap­pen­ing just as a speedome­ter is in a car, but like a speedome­ter it can­not make the ma­chine go faster or slower.’’ And Lord Hail­sham ad­vised: ‘‘ Al­most all Roo­sevelt’s poli­cies were wrong, but po­lit­i­cal economics is ap­plied psy­chol­ogy, and they worked.’’

In fact Thatcher seems to have been more like this than her crit­ics knew. As Moore writes, she took an eco­nomic the­ory (which Denis Healey, the pre­vi­ous Labour chan­cel­lor had ap­plied in his bud­get) but the dif­fer­ence was that she be­lieved in it on prin­ci­ple.

Thatcher in fact had a wartime be­lief in look­ing af­ter peo­ple but she didn’t think the state was the ideal carer. Could state ser­vices ever com­pete with the good Sa­mar­i­tan who acted out of the good­ness of his heart and the com­mands of re­li­gious duty? In much the same way she wanted tax cuts not least for the wealthy be­cause she be­lieved ant­ie­gal­i­tar­i­an­ism was the nec­es­sary ba­sis of an en­light­ened cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety. ‘‘ Na­tions de­pend for their health, eco­nom­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally, upon the achieve­ments of a com­par­a­tively small num­ber of tal­ented and de­ter­mined peo­ple,’’ she said.

Yes, the race can cer­tainly ap­pear to be there for the strong and there is no deny­ing Thatcher’s ex­tra­or­di­nary for­ti­tude. Moore ar­gues Thatcherism was never a phi­los­o­phy but a dis­po­si­tion of mind. She em­bod­ied the ab­so­lute re­fusal to ac­cept the idea of pol­i­tics as the art of the pos­si­ble. Like a re­li­gious devo­tee she be­lieved in her po­lit­i­cal vi­sion be­cause it was im­pos­si­ble (or could seem so).

So she let the Ir­ish hunger strik­ers die even as the Tory wets begged her to force feed them. Wouldn’t this be a de­nial of free will, she asked. At the same time she was sus­cep­ti­ble to a let­ter from an Ir­ish­woman, the mother of one of the dy­ing. And be­cause she was made of sterner stuff than most politi­cians, she could also say, ‘‘ You have to hand it to th­ese IRA boys.’’ She could ac­knowl­edge courage when she saw it.

Long be­fore, when Airey Neave, the Colditz hero got the so-called knights of the shire — the cash-poor, toffy, for­mer World War II of­fi­cer MPs — to vote for Thatcher (though a woman was the last thing they imag­ined as leader) he did so by play­ing on the fact the qual­ity they ad­mired most was courage.

She was a woman of iron. Any­one who reads Moore’s riv­et­ing ac­count of how she fought the Falk­lands war and how she stared down Rea­gan’s sec­re­tary of state Alexan­der Haig (‘‘the devil Haig’’, as she called him) and she de­nounced as un­speak­able any at­tempt to treat a mil­i­tary Junta and a con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy as morally equal will get a sense of her ex­tra­or­di­nary met­tle. No won­der Ad­mi­ral Field­house said of her: ‘‘ Keep that woman away from me. I have a war to fight.’’

But no won­der, ei­ther, that when she fi­nally won, Hail­sham said in cabi­net that her ‘‘ courage and lead­er­ship’’ had ‘‘ added new lustre to our arms and the spirit of our peo­ple’’ and that he quoted Henry V: ‘‘ Non no­bis Domine’’. She looked baf­fled at the Latin. The full line reads ‘‘ Not unto us, Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be the glory’’.

Moore says the vic­tory ‘‘ fit­ted her un­usual mind­set, which was both con­ser­va­tive and rev­o­lu­tion­ary’’. He also says it con­firmed her in her sense, her danger­ous sense, of what she could achieve alone.

This is a su­perbly told life of one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary women in Bri­tish pol­i­tics. It is im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine it be­ing done bet­ter.

From left, Mar­garet Thatcher in her kitchen and with hus­band, Denis, when she was elected Tory leader in 1975; one reaction to her death this year, be­low

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.