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