A political heavy-weight

On Thursday President Donald Trump (not the “heavy-weight” of my title) was acquitted by the US Senate. The day before, he gave his State of the Union address, with supporters cheering “Four more years.”

Those who, like the Blogger, find this depressing, may wish to be reminded that in autumn 1990 Margaret Thatcher gave a dynamic and forward-looking speech to the Conservative Party Conference. It was rapturously received, with similarly-minded supporters chanting “Ten more years.”

“One month later, she resigned.”

The above sentence is a quote from a biography of the UK’s first woman Prime Minister, which I was going to post about once I’d finished it – but recent events pushed it up the list.

Biographies of politicians I disagree with – biographies of anyone, in fact – aren’t usually high on my book-list, but I read regularly to a friend, and she has a wider taste in books, especially non-fiction. We have been going through John Campbell’s two-volume biography: Volume 1: “The Grocer’s Daughter” was published in 2000, and Volume 2: “The Iron Lady” in 2003. (Apparently there is an abridged edition.)

There are other magisterial tomes about Margaret Thatcher, but I wonder why, because I honestly can’t see how anyone could better this one. It seems to me to be superbly even-handed, thorough and well-written.

The thoroughness and depth are awesome. Campbell seems to have read every political memoir, and spotted where they differ. He compares people’s accounts of what happened with Hansard. He mentions in a footnote that Margaret Thatcher and someone (was it Woodrow Wyatt? The book is not in front of me) had opposing views on Europe in 1990 – and that this reversed the views they both expressed on an edition of  “Any Questions?” thirty years before. Every time one thinks, “Yes, but I want a bit more about X,” whether X is the trial of Clive Ponting or Mrs Thatcher’s attitude to the church – it comes.  Painstakingly he covers relations with the US, Europe, social  policy, economic policy, cabinet reshuffles, Northern Ireland (I’d never noticed that Indira Gandhi’s assassination happened less than a month after the failed attempt on Thatcher’s life at the Grand Hotel in Brighton) and her manner on television.

We’ve almost finished the long read (we’ve reached the revenge of Geoffrey Howe) and although nothing will make me understand macro economics I have mainly followed the arguments.

It is even-handed. I have no idea how Mr Campbell votes or voted. It’s plain he hasn’t a great deal of time for Neil Kinnock (or Mark Thatcher.) But he seems to me to be very fair. He points out (for example) the patronising and/or chauvinistic attitudes she often had to deal with in her early career that may have coloured her attitude to the universities and to some European politicians, and he gives praise where it seems due. Harold Wilson is credited, rightly, as founding the Open University – but it hadn’t actually opened when the government changed in 1970 and Margaret Thatcher became Secretary of State for Education. As a believer in cutting public spending, she could easily have strangled it before birth – but she didn’t. Did you know, in addition, that she was one of the earliest world leaders to note the problem of global warming, and urge other countries, such as the US, to join in combatting it?

He argues, interestingly, that although she was criticised for refusing to impose sanctions on South Africa, she was working very hard for change behind the scenes. He is fascinating on her relationship with the Queen, of whom apparently she once said regretfully that “she’s the sort of woman who might vote SDP.”

But this fairness only makes Campbell’s condemnations, when they come, sharper. To take a few examples: the effect of the council house sales policy on homelessness decades later, the dishonest way the government ignored its own rules on arms sales to Iraq (there is a very lengthy section on the Scott Inquiry and its flaws. Campbell points out the gross improbability of her claim that she didn’t know what was going on), her bullying of Cabinet colleagues, her contempt for local government (very odd in the context of her father’s lifelong commitment to it) and failure to ever put together a coherent approach on Europe – the word “trenchant” might have been made for him.

He speculates on the fact that, although like her male political contemporaries, she lived through the Second World War, as a woman she did not fight nor had she done national service, unlike all of them. Did this contribute to her visceral opposition to German unification, and her constant preference for supporting the US over Europe?

(In her 11 years as PM, she only appointed one other woman to the Cabinet: and that woman, Lady Young, only lasted two years.)

A two-volume heavy-weight biography is bound to be huge, and no one will be interested in it all: the minutiae of who was who’s private secretary, or the details of exchange rate fluctuation, do not excite me. Nonetheless the book is extremely well-written – with clear but elegant prose, sometimes passionate, but also often extremely entertaining. Unfortunately, not owning a copy, I cannot quote his funny asides and delightful footnotes. He has a great turn of phrase, and a lovely way with quotes.

Criticisms: once or twice I think I noticed a phrase repeated hundreds of pages later. And possibly a mention of Bloody Sunday might have put the Northern Ireland situation into more context.

I can’t think of anything else.

Two final points. There has been a poignancy in reading the European passages of “The Iron Lady” while, around us, Brexit happened. Both the Conservative and Labour parties radically changed their attitude to the European Union, formerly the EEC, during her political life – almost as if they couldn’t both be pro or anti at the same time. Margaret Thatcher was one of the first with the vision (an anti-Soviet vision, of course, at the time) to expand the Union into Eastern Europe. Her intransigence helped to build up the “Eurosceptic” attitude that led to Brexit. But to both Campbell in 2003 and doubtless to Thatcher while Prime Minister, the UK’s membership of the EU was an absolute irrevocable given of the modern world.

And finally… I am so glad that I am never going to be Prime Minister.

Love from the PPI Blogger

1 Comment
  • Stephen Sheridan

    9th February 2020 at 3:49 am Reply

    Good on you for having the resilience for wading through such a political biography of such depth. But it shows that even a book of such detail can get things wrong. For instance: “He speculates on the fact that, although like her male political contemporaries, she lived through the Second World War, as a woman she did not fight nor had she done national service, unlike all of them. Did this contribute to her visceral opposition to German unification, and her constant preference for supporting the US over Europe?”
    Well Campbell is wrong here. The Leader of the Labour Party Michael Foot (for 3 of her 11 years as Prime Minister) volunteered for the armed forces but was rejected due to his chronic asthma. Also why does Campbell assume that British war veterans in 1990 would be in favour of German unification? What evidence does he cite? Many veterans I grew up around (including my Dad) were very concerned about German reunification, mainly because it would entrench German economic dominance in Europe and one nation having so much economic power in then EEC would undermine the economic freedom of the others. The Eurozone stagnation in the South of the EU and the removal of elected governments there to be replaced by technocrats, as well as the debt enslavement of Greece may have proved them right.

    While Thatcher was PM there was no EU. It was the EEC until 1993 when it became the EC following the Maastricht Treaty. It only became the EU with the Lisbon Treaty. I believe she opposed both the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, because of how they fundamentally changed the structure and nature of the EEC, so I don’t think Campbell has the evidence to prove she saw British membership of the organisation as irrevocable when she was PM. It became a different organisation with those two Treaties and had she still been PM, she would have blocked those Treaties from happening, which would probably have resulted in a more defined two-speed structure with UK becoming more of an associate like Norway.

    You are absolutely right that Thatcher saw the then EEC as an attraction to the countries of Eastern Europe that would help dislodge them from Soviet dominance. Thatcher was not the only one to see the EEC as a bulwark against Russia. I heard a speech by the Finnish Ambassador in 1998 when he admitted that their prime motive for joining the then EC in 1995 was to give them some protection against a potentially resurgent Russia; which they had been effectively forbidden to have from the West in the 1948 Finno-Soviet Treaty (Finland had been a co-belligerent, rather than a formal ally, with Germany against the Soviet Union from 1941 until 1944, when it negotiated a separate peace with Stalin).

    In her time as PM, Thatcher was lucky to have kept power as long as she did on several counts.
    -She had the benefits of North Sea oil revenue to cushion some of the worst economic impacts of the wholesale de-industrialisation of the North.
    -She had the bounce factor of being a successful war leader in the Falklands (which could so easily have gone the other way), despite the crisis occurring because of a collective failure of the MoD, intelligence and diplomatic services.
    -She was faced by distinctly mediocre Labour leaders, who also had to spend most of their time trying to hold their party together.
    -Much of her political changes were created for her by think tanks of others (Howe, Leith Joseph etc), rather than coming from her own thoughts – mind you I guess that is true for most politicians!

    As for her support for fighting global warming, I distinctly remember Cecil Parkinson coming out of No. 10 to announce that with a statement that this meant that we absolutely had to invest heavily in nuclear power, so I was and remain extremely cynical that she hitched herself to the bandwagon in order to keep our nuclear power industry alive. Similarly while Education Secretary, she implemented the removal of many Grammar Schools – an institution that had given her access to education to the highest level. That makes me wonder how strong her ideology was or whether she was moulded by many around her and then convinced herself that she was the intellectual inspiration behind it all. That in turn may have helped contribute to her hubris of the Poll Tax, the shameful failure to even attempt an industrial strategy to rebuild something on the ruins of our lost heavy industry and her inability to reform our dire two-tier education system.

    On the other hand, she was a political giant among pygmies and she broke that glass ceiling for women in British politics for good. It has only taken the Labour Party 45 years to nearly catch up, with 3 female to 1 male leadership candidates at this stage! What if Barbara Castle had become Labour Leader in the Eighties or more recently Yvette Cooper?

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