WE ALL KNOW that if you are old enough to remember the year at all, you can remember where you were and what you were doing on November 22, 1963, when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot. Recently an opinion poll in a London paper confirmed what had already occurred to me: that most of us can remember what we were doing a year ago, exactly twenty-seven years after Dallas, on the morning of November 22, 1990, when we heard that Margaret Thatcher had resigned as Prime Minister.
Quite apart from her achievementunique in British politics since well before the advent of universal suffrage— in fighting and winning three consecutive general elections and in holding office continuously for longer than any of her predecessors since the early nineteenth century, Thatcher was the first Prime Minister since William Ewart Gladstone to give an “ism” to the language. People recognized ‘Thatcherism” even if they had some difficulty defining it. And more than any other politician I can remember, she aroused strong feelings—some loved her, more hated her, few were ambivalent about her.
In a nice historical irony, Thatcher was destroyed by a device that she had been the first to use, in order to grasp power herself. Until the 1960s the Conservative Party had no formal mechanism for choosing its leader (who as a matter of course became the Prime Minister when the party was in power). Tory leaders simply “emerged.” Phis displeased progressive Tories, not least because they had supported the late R. A. Butler, who twice failed to emerge, in 1957 and again in 1963, when many thought him much the best-qualified candidate and the choice of the whole party if it could have been consulted. After Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s mysterious emergence as Harold Macmillan’s successor, in 1963, the once and future Cabinet Minister lain Macleod published a historic article in The Spectator exposing the “magic circle” of men of similar insider background (“Eight of the nine men mentioned in the last sentence went to Eton”) who had effectively chosen Home. The article helped to doom the traditional means of selecting leaders—and the traditional dominance of the Tory Party by that magic circle of upper-class insiders.
And so a system was created for the election of the party leader by the Conservative members of Parliament. It was used for the first time in 1965, when Douglas-Home voluntarily stepped down and was succeeded by Edward Heath. The Tory tradition of loyalty (or sycophancy) being what it was, it was supposed that elections for leader would be held only when someone went quietly, as Douglas-Home had done. But there was no reason in principle why an incumbent leader should not be challenged. Ten years after Heath became leader, someone showed that there was no reason in practice, either.
The someone was Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher, then a comparatively junior member of the Conservative front bench. She was an outsider, both in the racetrack and in the broader sense, and this was the key to her career from beginning to end. In 1975 the outsider struck, challenging Heath for the leadership of the party (then in opposition). At first it was assumed that even if she emasculated the incumbent by her challenge, a more senior member of the Tory apparat, such as William Whitelaw or Geoffrey Howe, would step in as a compromise candidate. But after Thatcher had passed and thus humbled Heath on the first ballot, the Tories followed the logic of events and chose the candidate who had had the courage to challenge.
As much to the point, they backed the interloper. This wasn’t unprecedented. Mavericks had become Prime Minister before then, though usually in extreme circumstances. Lloyd George forced his way to power in 1916, Churchill in 1940, as the men who could win their wars. Almost more striking in its way, in 1868 the Conservative Party—the Tories, the Gentlemen of England, the party of Church and Crown—had taken on an exotic Jew as their Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher was the most surprising choice as party leader since Benjamin Disraeli.
She didn’t “belong” socially, standing quite outside the aristocratic hierarchy of the party. The daughter of a Methodist shopkeeper in the small provincial town of Grantham, she had worked her way through the local grammar school and Oxford, and had become an industrial chemist and a lawyer. She married a businessman who gave her useful financial independence; she had two children, twin boy and girl; she entered Parliament in 1959; she progressed slowly up the ministerial ladder. And yet all this time she remained an outsider: by origin, by attitude, and above all by sex. Disraeli could be baptized as an Anglican; there was nothing Margaret Thatcher could do about being a woman.
THIS WAS HER weakness and her strength. She was cut off by the “homosocial” traditions of her party, which thirty years ago were very strong and are scarcely weak even now. It was a chaps’ party—chaps who had known each other at school, at university, in the army; chaps who met to talk and drink in the House of Commons smoking room or the clubs of St. James’s Street. This was a camaraderie from which the lowborn were mostly excluded, and a woman was by definition entirely excluded. And so Margaret Thatcher had to plow her own furrow, make her own friends, and attack the citadel of power from outside.
This conditioned her original attack on the leadership. Heath’s time as party leader and as Prime Minister had ended in failure. He had won the 1970 election on a free-market platform, but had soon abandoned it in the face of events. After the debacle of that government in 1974, Thatcher underwent a conversion. The Tories had always had an ambiguous relationship with the doctrines of laissez-faire and the market economy: in the nineteenth century it was the Liberals who were the party of free trade. Now Thatcher was born again as a votary of laissezfaire. Under her leadership there would be no more U-turns, no more compromise.
And once she had taken office, her “outsiderness” colored the whole eleven years of her prime ministership, as she purged her party and tried to shape it in her own image. In the first years of her government a kind of inner-party opposition developed: interventionist “wets,” who belonged to the Eton and White’s Club old guard, men like Lord Soames and Sir Ian Gilmour. They were cleared out of the Cabinet before long and replaced to the extent that Thatcher could manage by people to her own taste—who were usually outsiders like herself.
Her affinity for Jews, for example, was unmistakable. When she had been converted to the true faith of free enterprise, her guru was Sir Keith Joseph, the patrician Jewish elder statesman who had already undergone the same conversion. Her own parliamentary constituency, in the north London district of Finchley, has a large Jewish population with which she closely identified; these small businessmen and accountants were almost as much “the folk from whence I came” as her own artisan and shopkeeper forebears. And an unusual number of Jews sat in Thatcher’s Cabinets: Joseph, Nigel Lawson, Leon Brittan, Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Howard.
Philosemitism was a characteristic she shared with one predecessor. Thatcher quite often spoke of her reverence for Sir Winston Churchill, whom she did not in fact much resemble, except in this regard: mutatis mutandis, he, too, was an outsider.
Until 1940 Churchill’s political career had made him anathema to the respectable. He may have been the grandson of a duke, but, as George Orwell pointed out, Churchill was not a gentleman. Throughout his life his associates wrere as unrespectable as he— Lloyd George, Lord Birkenhead, financiers like the American Bernard Baruch and the South African Sir Abe Bailey. When he finally became Prime Minister, he surrounded himself with a kitchen cabinet of shady hangers-on: Beaverbrook, Bracken, Lindemann.
They were surpassed in extraordinariness, if not in shadiness, by the weird crew of wdzards and mountebanks whom Thatcher assembled around her in Dow ning Street. Some of those she attracted could be dignified with the name “intellectual,” a number of them spiritual refugees from socialism, the English equivalents of neo-conservatives. ‘This group—the historian Hugh Thomas, the former Labour MP Woodrow Wyatt (both of them made lords by ‘Thatcher), the journalist Paul Johnson, once the editor of the socialist New Statesman—stuck by her to the end with an intense personal loyalty.
Her Tory opponents reasonably said that these men were right-wingers (once left-wingers) rather than Tories. But their devotion to her was not only ideological; it was the sympathy of fellow’ oddballs and renegades.
Inside Number Ten itself she collected a crew of fanatical devotees. Some, like the economist Alan Walters, were already ideological sympathizers; others, like Charles Powell, had been nonpolitical civil servants, or even, like her press secretary (and hit man) Bernard Ingham, sometime Labour supporters. Besides these a fringe or riffraff of camp followers floated in and out of her office. ‘The most conspicuous, perhaps, was the former MP and popular novelist Jeffrey Archer, whom ‘Thatcher chose at one point to make deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, until an untoward episode with a prostitute forced his resignation. Being an outsider brings advantages; one of the disadvantages is that the outsider is often a very bad judge of men. That was, if possible, even truer of Thatcher than of Churchill.
Some in her party attacked her for ignoring or even betraying Tory tradition. ‘They were more right than they realized. She was not a conservative: part reactionary, part radical, she never had the smallest instinct to leave things as they were. On the day after wanning the 1979 election she inappropriately (and inaccurately) quoted Saint Francis: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” In fact she had come to bring not peace but a sword, and she soon show’ed a rare talent for making herself hated — not least by the old guard in her own party. They had assumed that she would have to return to cautious, corporatist, interventionist tradition. Instead, she actually did what she had promised, reducing the income tax, cutting back state intervention in the economy, putting deflationary policies into practice in a way that soon led to rapidly rising unemployment. The ranks of her enemies swelled. They included not only the Labour Party and Heath (who never forgave her for successfully challenging his leadership) but, more significant still, “the consensus,” which she had also challenged and which resented her with increasing bitterness. But the bitterest resentment and the noisiest opposition came from a particular class that had rarely raised its voice before, because it had not needed to: the liberal academic, artistic, literary, and media community—the clerisv, or, as a wit called them, “the chattering classes.” These were the new insiders, or the new establishment; and the continuing confrontation between Thatcher and these chatterers was the most interesting subtext of her years in office.
IN 19H2 THATCHER successfully led the country in the war to reconquer the Falkland Islands; in 1983 she won her second general election; in 1984-1985 she defeated a strike by the seemingly invincible miners’ union, a victors’ in its way as dramatic as the one over General Galtieri. And then, early in 1985, she came up against a tougher enemy still: her old university. She was proposed for an honorary doctorate at Oxford, as Oxonian Prime Ministers always had been. No one could by then doubt the peculiar distaste felt for the Prime Minister within the academic community, and although such proposals had always gone through on the nod, this one was opposed. It was debated in Gongregation, the parliament of the Oxford faculty, and rejected. The blackballing dons felt that Thatcher was different, because of “the cuts”—by now fighting words— in academic spending. The truth was deeper. She didn’t chatter on their wavelength.
The chatterers’ hatred reached a crescendo with the 1987 general election and her third victory. At the time, two newspapers asked voters how they would vote. Not anv old voters: these were not the masses, men and women in the street, or anything like a representative cross-section. They were the clerisy, the literary and artistic intelligentsia. If their collective opinion was anything to go by, the Tories and Margaret Thatcher should have been wiped out at the election. Some were commendably frank about their motives, from the composer Sir Michael Tippett—“As an artist, I’m impelled to vote Labour, since it’s the only party committed to more extensive State funding for the arts”—to the actor Antony Sher: “As a member of the arts [sic] I am heartened by [Labour’s] pledge to double the arts budget,” The philosopher A. J. Ayer caught the same mood when he said that he was voting for the centrist Alliance without much hope of electoral success, “but at least it is not philistine” (this last is another key word in the vocabulary of chattering Thatcherphobia).
Others who were quizzed answered with a verbal violence that became a hallmark of Thatcherphobia. “The most appropriate response" to the election, thought the playwright Dennis Potter, “would be to hawk up a contemptuous gobbet of spittle onto the ballot paper.” He manfully overcame this instinct, because “Mrs. Thatcher is the most obviously repellent manifestation of the most obviously arrogant, dishonest, divisive, and dangerous British government since the war. All that really counts is to get these yobs and louts away from the swill bucket.” The novelist Julian Barnes was not much more temperate: “The chief function of this election is to turn out Mrs Thatcher and her spayed Cabinet, whose main achievement in the last eight years has been the legitimation of self-interest as a public and private virtue.” Another playwright, Michael Frayn, said that he would vote whichever way seemed to him “to offer the best hope of getting the present barbarians out.”
But the barbarians weren’t evicted. Thatcher returned to Downing Street with a reduced but still large majority; the hatred of her enemies intensified. Another mini-survey of the intelligentsia, conducted in early 1988, told the same story. Peter Porter, the poet, found Margaret Thatcher “bullying, stupid and brutal,” while the theater director and all-purpose intellectual Jonathan Miller went further than anv before in his choice of language. Why were so many in the cultural establishment hostile to Thatcher? he was asked. The question was silly, Miller said: “It’s the same as why the bulk of the human race is hostile to typhoid.”For his own part, he found the Prime Minister “loathsome, repulsive in almost every way.”
If there seems an element of hysteria or attitudinizing in this, at least it wasn’t confined to public declaration. Anyone who lived in England in the 1980s and mixed at all in literary society knows that. Those with long memories recall the disrupted dinner parties and broken friendships during the Suez crisis of 1956, or, if they have longer memories still, during the Spanish Civil War, twenty years earlier. Thatcherism roused feelings rather like that.
A friend of mine lives in the “NW1” district of north London once immortalized in Mark Boxer’s cartoons, heartland of the chattering classes and thus the very epicenter of middleclass-intellectual anti-Thatcherism. About four years ago she gave a dinner party at which the Question of Thatcher came up. When asked, my friend said that although she could see how tiresome the Prime Minister sometimes was, how bullying or querulous, one had to admit all the same that she had done something for the country. Among the guests was a fashionable writer (by which slightly sneering adjective 1 mean that he has a literary following but is barely known to the large public). Two days later the hostess received a letter from this man. He said that he felt obliged to thank her for dinner but that in view of what she had said, he could never see her again. She might as well have been explaining that for all his faults, Hitler had great achievements to his credit.
Indeed, the Thatcherphobes themselves didn’t hesitate to suggest totalitarian comparisons. In the late 1980s a left-liberal political group was founded in London called Charter ‘88, echoing the Czech resistance group Charter ‘77, and an intellectual anti-Thatcherite magazine called Samizdat was launched. A few people connected with these may have hesitated, may have had some inkling of the absurdity and indecency of comparing people like themselves (the editor of Samizdat was Professor Ben Pimlott, an acclaimed academic historian who holds a chair at the University of London and who has often written for establishment newspapers) to men and women in Eastern Europe who had risked jobs, publication, liberty, and even lives for their political beliefs. But there were others who were proof against any ridicule. In that summer of 1988 the 20 June Group was also started, a think tank—or discussion group or coterie—whose purpose was to oppose ‘Thatcher’s continuing rule and to redeem the hour. Its prime movers were the playwright Harold Pinter and his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, and its meetings were originally held at their house in Holland Park (where she had formerly lived with her first husband, the Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser). Other members of the group included John Mortimer, Melvyn Bragg, Margaret Drabble, Fay Weldon, and (until he went into hiding the next February) Salman Rushdie.
When news of this group became public, there was universal derision. ‘The thought of these prosperous writers, broadcasters, and publishers meeting in one of the most expensive streets in London to pool their indignation about the evils of Thatcherism was irresistibly comical; there had been “champagne socialists” before, but nothing quite as rich as this. The groupies themselves smarted under the ridicule, with the exception of Pinter, who scented oppression and replied defiantly, “We have a precise agenda and we are going to meet again and again until they break down the windows and drag us out.”
Now, BEFORE examining the psychology of this Thatcherphobia, one or two points should be made. These literary Thatcherphobes accused the Prime Minister of pursuing “extreme rightwing" policies, but they were Bollinger Bolsheviks, not men and women of the left in any serious sense. The real— the serious—left didn’t love Thatcher, of course, but felt a wary respect for her. She enraged the left wing of the Labour Party by her political success, but just as much by standing up for her beliefs. And with all their rage, they were bound to admire her for that. It was their common complaint against Neil Kinnock, the leader of the opposition since 1983, that he wasn’t defending socialist principle in the way that she defended anti-socialist principle.
The point was made even more cogently by Raphael Samuel, a Marxist social historian of the old left. A little more than seven months after Thatcher fell, he saluted her and her sense of history.
On Russia and eastern Europe, if not on southern Africa, on enterprise culture if not on education, and even in her brutal treatment of uneconomic pits and the coalfields, she showed an intuitive capacity to seize on what was new and developing—perhaps the first condition of the historical imagination—and she clearly cares passionately about the past, or at least her version of it.
He instanced her “excited interventions” in the debate over how history was taught in schools; her magnificently tactless lecture to the French at the time of the 1989 bicentenaire, telling them how it was the English who had invented liberty; and her invocation of “Victorian values.” In all of this he found, “One of the unnerving things about Mrs Thatcher for anyone on the left was that she spoke our language, or at any rate addressed our traditions, far more convincingly than she did those of her own party”—or, he might have added, than most politicians on the left any longer spoke it, or addressed them.
What Samuel most admired in Thatcher was precisely her outsiderness. She
had no feel for the traditions of the British ruling class or—despite the Ealklands war or her invocations of Churchill—for the imperial dimension of British history, whence her impatience with the Commonwealth and her indifference to royalty. A lifetime of active politics seems to have insulated her from, rather than drawn her into, the mystique of Westminster and Whitehall.
She reached out instead to the provincial England of her childhood, constructing an alternative national epic in which there was a merchant-adventurer in every countinghouse, a village Hampden in every store. ... she spoke in the accents not of church but of chapel, and in her radical contempt for paternalism it is not difficult to find echoes of her Northamptonshire shoemaker forebears. Her version of Victorian values was of a piece with this, invoking the plebeian virtues of selfreliance and self-help rather than the more patrician ones of chivalry and noblesse oblige.
Phis acute analysis explains in large part the hatred that Thatcher aroused. Though those “inties,” as the smart slang goes, those academics and writers, would never have begun to see the fact—and would have been horrified to be told it, since most of them suffer from the intellectual’s fantasy of being a rebel even when he is drawing a large university or state salary—they resented Thatcher as an upstart. And they resented her because of her attack on their own cozy complacency as academic apparatchiks or “members of the arts.”
FEW OF - THE Thatcherphobes even began to examine their own motives and their own self-interest. How many of these liberal members of the arts ever stopped, for example, to address the blindingly obvious truth that all state subsidy of culture represents a net transfer of resources from poor to rich? How many dons pondered the same truth about subsidized universities? Even the finest minds were defeated by rational arguments that went against the grain of their own prejudices. I have mentioned the philosopher the late Freddie Ayer. Three years ago I sat with him, watching cricket in front of the pavilion at Lord’s, as it happens, and listening to his eloquent tirade against That Woman. She was doing everything she could to destroy English intellectual life with her savage application of free-market doctrine and her attack on the universities. As a result, all the best people were leaving English universities for the United States. The latest example he instanced was Alan Ryan, the political scientist, who had just left New College, Oxford, for Princeton.
It was amusing to hear the eminent logician’s logical confusion. Oxford used to be an independent corporation but has in the course of this century most unwisely placed itself in the financial hands of the state, from which almost half its income now comes. Princeton is a private, self-financing university. Ryan’s migration from one to the other was a tribute to laissezfaire and private enterprise. Dons and members of the arts had a point when they complained about the philistinism of Thatcher’s government, obsessed with utilitarian ideas of value for money which were inappropriately applied to academic and cultural life; what they never remembered was the old saying that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Despite those tirades, Thatcherphobia wasn’t universal among writers and artists. The novelists Anthony Powell and Kingsley Amis remained devotees of hers, and a younger novelist, Peter Ackroyd, said that he preferred a politician who honestly didn’t pretend to be interested in the arts to a cultural phony. A more surprising Thatcherite was the artist Francis Bacon: “It simply isn’t the point of politicians to be proart. I don’t know if she admires painting all that much, but it doesn’t matter.” The renegade don Noel Annan repeatedly pointed out the weakness in the position of Our Age (the title of his recent book) or Our Sort of People. They assumed that whatever the economic state of the nation, it would be run by and for them.
The chattering classes are more meritocratic and permeable than the traditional ruling class (which itself is much more permeable than is sometimes realized). But they have their own hegemonic values and manners, which had been accepted in one way or another by previous Prime Ministers, whatever their origins—and which Thatcher rejected. She appealed over the heads of the clerisy to the common people of England. Her electoral victories were thanks to the “C2s”—in adman-speak, the newly prosperous upper working class—and the lower middle class, who w’anted to become more prosperous still through a promised enterprise culture and lower taxation. It was Thatcher’s affinity with these voters and their aspirations that most enraged her critics.
I do not wish to be visited in hospital by the prime minister
Let your relatives know your wishes, and keep this card with you at ail times.
t that in the event of my injury i.n a public transport disaster b) “Plane ‘Rail ‘Underground “Ferry ‘Bus ‘Motorway
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER DO I WISH TO BE VISITED IN HOSPITAL BY MARGARET THATCHER
t of a sudden change of Prime Minister, if possible c
Thatchcard, front and back: many Britons wouldn’t leave home without it
“Bourgeois triumphalism” was the memorable phrase coined by Peregrine Worsthorne (“petit-bourgeois triumphalism” might have been better still) to describe the flavor of the Thatcher years, with the ascent of the yuppies, of the C2s, of the “Essex Man,” as one
newspaper coined him, from the county just outside London. But at least Worsthorne was writing from the romantic right, unashamedly reactionary and snobbish. Much more extraordinary, and telling, were the terms in which ‘Thatcher’s liberal enemies denounced her. The playwright Peter Nichols dismissed her supporters as taxi drivers and rich butchers. Lady Warnock, the philosopher who is head of Girton College, Cambridge, was more forthright still. The way ‘Thatcher shouted people out was characteristically lower middle class, she said. Her clothes and hair were insufferable, “packaged together in a way that’s not exactly vulgar, just low.” And there it was. Margaret Thatcher is rather “common.” That is a word whose nuances are almost impossible to explain to an American audience (and so much the better for the Americans) but that is still crucial in England. The ancient, arcane class consciousness lingers on— and in quarters that don’t even know they are class-conscious.
If the hatred of Thatcher was fueled as much by straight snobbery as by intellectual snobbery, it was also fueled by plain disappointment. She was often said to have snubbed the trade unions as much as attacked them politically: there was no more “beer and sandwiches” at Number Ten when the union leaders were invited in to settle problems. As much to the point was the way that she snubbed the clerisy.
The higher intelligentsia had not merely had its own vision of society and how it should be improved. A social problem or injustice would be identified and researched by academics who would then agitate for a government commission, to be followed by legislation. “It was jobs for the intellectuals in a big way,” Annan was paraphrased by one reporter as saying, and there was also the assumption that if any intervention was needed, the state would pick up the bill: “Mrs. Thatcher, of course, would have nothing to do with that, and she was dead right.”More generally, the dream of his generation after 1945, as Annan puts it, had been an end to class war, with the nation “pulling together” instead of competing. In the 1970s that dream had turned into a nightmare of stagnation. And then Thatcher had offered her alternative vision of a highly competitive society, and the voters had liked what she offered. They, too, wanted a high-competition, low-tax country—and they didn’t want high culture, however much we highly cultivated people would have liked them to.
SINCE AS FAR back as it could remember, the left-liberal intelligentsia had suffered from a problem that Alfred Braunthal once called the “mystic cult of The Masses, who always feel the right way and always act the wrong way.” Now it wasn’t even clear that they felt the right way. Essex Man, the upwardly mobile C2s, all those who had voted for Thatcher, had gone and let their cultural betters down. In the process and by their reaction, those betters—the Oxford dons, NW1, the 20 June Croup—showed their true colors. They might have unconsciously quoted Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest: “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”
It was this resentment—this sense of rejection by the masses who had not set a good example—that ran like a thread through the intellectual hostility to Thatcherism. What did the novelist John Fowles mean when he complained about “the self-centred notions of the new conservatism. . . . This rightward and selfward tendency in most of the electorate since the 1950s,” when he condemned “personal advantage, the ethos of the grocer’s daughter” (that snobbery again!)? Or what did the minor poet Adrian Mitchell mean when he shrieked that “Thatcher’s vision is a little plastic credit card”? Thatcherism meant “bulging plastic awnings . . . above unisex aerobic centres, sado-video centres and plonk bars. And it was under Thatcher that you were first offered Filofaxes, mangetout peas, Jacuzzis and compact bloody discs.” This was it: consumerism, yuppiedom, “bourgeois triumphalism”—or, to put it another way, more people than ever given money to spend and the freedom to spend it as they chose. The trouble was that all too few of them spent it in the politically correct—or culturally correct—way.
In some ways Thatcher’s career ended in failure, as (it has been said) all political careers do. By this year macroeconomic Thatcherism seemed far from a success, even in its own terms. Income taxes had been significantly cut (it might be remembered that the highest marginal rates of British income tax when Thatcher became Prime Minister were 83 percent on earned income and 90 percent on “unearned,”or investment, income), and yet the amount of the national income taken in all taxes, direct and indirect, and spent by the state was as high as ever. The former union stranglehold on British industry—unique among Western countries—had been broken, but when Thatcher departed, the country was in a deepening recession. Any increase in productivity in the 1980s had largely come from layoffs in overmanned industries, rather than from genuine efficiency.
There is no doubt that Thatcher had become deeply unpopular by last year—in the country at large, among the political class in European capitals (though not in the White House), and, fatally, among her immediate colleagues. Not only did she feel for them an outsider’s disdain, but she had treated them with something like contempt. In late 1989 Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, resigned over economic policy—and over whether it should be dictated by himself or by Sir Alan Walters, a member of her kitchen cabinet. A year later Sir Geoffrey Howe resigned from the government and unleashed the closest he could to a Fierce attack on Margaret Thatcher. The Labour politician Denis Healey once said in the House of Commons that to be attacked by Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep; on this occasion the dead sheep bit back. This emboldened Michael Heseltine to challenge Thatcher, as she had challenged Heath fifteen years earlier. She beat him in a one-toone ballot, but thanks to the quaintly complicated electoral system there had to be a second ballot. On Wednesday night her Cabinet colleagues told her that she must withdraw in favor of another candidate in order to avert the frightful prospect of a Heseltine victory.
And so on that Thursday morning we were wherever we were—in my case the offices of The Sunday Telegraph, shortly before ten o’clock, when someone rushed over to look at the television screen, and I looked up to hear the news. That day there were celebrations all over north London and north Oxford—literally, actors and writers calling one another and meeting to open the champagne. Perhaps they drank too soon.
In contrast to 1975, in 1990 the dories didn’t follow their own logic, which would have meant choosing Heseltine as leader. They chose instead John Major, a perfect compromise candidate, a man who had risen without trace, certainly without any of Thatcher’s blinding conviction. There was an almost audible sigh of relief from within the government when Thatcher resigned. A hidden story of the Thatcher years, it became clear, was just how badly she had treated her colleagues. (It was always said, and I can believe, that she was, in contrast, consideration and kindness itself to her personal staff.) As someone put it when Geoffrey Howe resigned, he had been seeing something of Margaret Thatcher most days for most of fifteen years, and you couldn’t really blame him if he wanted a break.
But if there was this unconscious relief, there was no intention of abandoning the Thatcher legacy in its entirety. Whatever her precise failures, she had had a much broader success. It could be measured—as some of her enemies were honest enough to admit—by her stature in almost every foreign capital, and thus the renewed respect for her country.
Still more it could be measured in the subtitle of the political commentator Peter Jenkins’s book Mrs. Thatcher’s Revolution: The Ending of the Socialist Era. It could be measured, that is, by the new-look Labour Party, which had permanently forsworn not merely fullblooded socialism but also high taxation and central planning.
These things might have come about without Margaret Thatcher, but it is hard to see how. Of course she coincided with the right historical moment, which culminated in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, but it is all too easy to imagine what might have happened to England in the 1980s under another Prime Minister. The most dishonest of all her enemies are those who openly or secretly welcomed her achievements but resented the way she brought them about, as though a less formidable, abrasive, and exasperating personality would or could have done so. As they say, if you want the meat you have to pay for the bones. In the years that preceded Thatcher’s coming to power, it had been a commonplace of British political debate anywhere outside the extreme left that the unions had to be tamed, inflation curbed, and economic initiative revived. Thatcher was entitled to look back on her eleven years in office and ask, “Why should our endeavor be so loved, and the performance so loathed?”
And loathed as she was by the selfsatisfied chattering classes, she had taught them no end of a lesson. She gave more people what they wanted than any national leader before, whether educated NWl (myself included) liked what it was they wanted or not. She was in that sense the most democratic and egalitarian Prime Minister her country has ever had. And anyway, what’s wrong with compact bloody discs?