Books: Cultural Amnesia — Margaret Thatcher |
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Margaret Hilda Thatcher (b. 1925) read chemistry at Oxford but went into politics, a field in which she succeeded to the point of becoming prime minister of Great Britain. Her ascent to this post was a crisis for Britain’s ideological feminists, who could no longer maintain that there was a glass ceiling to rank attainable by women. (Some of them said she was not really a woman at all, but a view which had had little plausibility when applied to Elizabeth I had none whatsoever when applied to someone with a husband and children.) Though very few of those males in attendance upon her ever managed to complete a sentence without being interrupted, it was not true that nobody could get her ear. Some of those who did were intellectuals. This fact could be disturbing if you were an intellectual of another persuasion. “There is no such thing as society,” a statement of hers which was held up by her enemies as an example of her callousness, was in fact a summary of a recognized philosophy of individual responsibility. It could well have been planted in her ear by one of her closest advisers, Sir Keith Joseph. But it was undoubtedly her fault not to realize how it would sound if released as a sound bite. She let such gaffes happen only because she almost entirely lacked tact. Her rule was unchallenged for just so long as, and no longer than, that lack was thought to be a virtue. But her lack of verbal guile made her praise, when she gave it, doubly flattering. Once, in her presence at a soirée in No. 10 Downing Street, I managed to complete the thought that the great advantage of the British constitution, vis-à-vis the American constitution, was that it had never been written down. She was so emphatic in endorsing what I said that for a while I thought the idea was mine. In 1990 she was forced out of the leadership of her party by Sir Geoffrey Howe. Having grown far too confident of her own infallibility, she had been ruling without a cabinet, and with typical lack of diplomacy had assumed that those cabinet members whose opinions she had brushed aside would not mind. But they did, and that was the end of her reign: although she stuck around close enough and long enough to make life miserable for several luckless males who later got the job of leading the Conservative party, usually to defeat.

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SHE MUST HAVE got Solzhenitsyn mixed up with Rumpelstiltskin, and the result was a composite character of a kind unseen since that unjustly forgotten 1950s Hollywood musical The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr T., whose fans will remember two roller-skating old men joined by the one beard. Most things that Prime Minster Thatcher is remembered for saying were not said very memorably. They are remembered because she said them. One of the Conservative party’s tame writers, probably Robin Douglas-Home, later handed her the catchphrase “The lady’s not for turning,” which she delivered to the waiting television cameras with typical over-emphasis. She might or might not have realized that the line was a variation of Christopher Fry’s ringing title The Lady’s Not for Burning. Probably not: on her own proud insistence, her literary tastes ran mainly to the novels of Frederick Forsyth, read more than once so that she could savour their vigorous prose. A quasi-biblical phrase “Let us rejoice at this news”—she delivered it to the surrounding press at a key moment in the Falklands war—probably came to her from memories of the Book of Common Prayer. But this single word, “Solzhenitskin,” was a truly original coinage, so startling and resonant that I have employed it ever since, and think of it every time I see her picture. As she charges forward into her bustling, interfering dotage, an old party still haunting her old party, she has even become, in her appearance, a fitting companion for Solzhenitskin—whose Russian component, Solzhenitsyn, also lived to see the day when his intransigence began to erode his legend. In my mind’s eye I can see the helpless Solzhenitskin with this untiring crone yammering in his ear, telling him what he already knows, interrupting him in mid-sentence even as he struggles to agree. When I was in the press party that trailed her through China in 1982, I never heard a man in her company get six words out in succession, except perhaps for Zhao Ziyang, and even with him it was only because she had to wait for the translation. So she had to interrupt the translator.

It would be a mistake to think that Thatcher got her basic ideas from her entourage. The same assumption is made about Tony Blair today, and it is equally untrue. What Thatcher got from her attendant spirits, when she was wise, was mainly her vocabulary. Somebody must have told her that the works of the Russian dissident Solzhenitsyn provided powerful backing for her dislike of collectivism, so Solzhenitsyn would be a good name to bring in. She tried, and invented Solzhenitskin. (The fact that whoever was in charge of the Tory party political broadcast could not bring himself to correct her pronunciation is a sign of either his ignorance or the blue funk she induced in her support group even at that early stage.) Admittedly, the Russian sage’s real name is hard to handle without practice. Solzhenitsyn probably had the same sort of trouble when he tried to say “Thatcher.” It was remarkable, however, that when the prime minister mentioned Solzhenitskin on television, it did not get a laugh. Normally all too ready to pounce on any slip she might make, the liberal press held back on that one: perhaps they didn’t realize she had made a mistake. The liberal press at the time was already showing signs of a contracting frame of reference. When the Duke of Edinburgh mentioned that he had been reading Leszek Kołakowski, his mere citation of the Polish philosopher’s name was regarded by the Private Eye school of political commentators as conclusive evidence of pretentiousness. Obviously they found Kołakowski’s name funny in itself, because it sounded so foreign. Equally obviously, they had no idea who Kołakowski was; that the critique of Marxism in his monumental three-volume Main Currents of Marxism was a standard item for anyone working in the field: and that its pertinence had long before spread his name to most readers who read seriously about politics at all. Viewed from Pseuds Corner, anyone who refers to a big book by a foreign author must be a fake. (One of the signs of the marvellous self-confidence that has always reigned in the Private Eye prefects’ room is the unquestioned assumption that someone like the Duke of Edinburgh might be trying to impress them.) The view is limited, but has the large advantage of being easily expressed. All it takes is the written equivalent of an impatient snort and a wrinkled nose. Strangely enough, however, “Solzhenitskin” was greeted with a respectful silence. In my television column for the Observer, I was the only journalist of any kind who welcomed his advent, and I have to confess that I myself got Rumplestiltskin mixed up with Rip van Winkle, and ran around making cheap cracks about Thatcher’s having suggested that Solzhenitsyn had been asleep for a hundred years.

In the long run, Thatcher’s mistake, whose consequences we have all inherited, was to listen to her intellectuals not only on the level of slogans and smart remarks but on the level of their convictions. Her own fundamental notions would have seen her through. Her electoral base, for example, expanded into the working class as a natural result of her inbred conviction that people would look after council houses better if they were given the chance to buy them. With her widely admired passion for good housekeeping, she could have opened Britain to the free market without dismantling its civilized institutions, and so won kudos all round. The institutions had their representatives in her cabinet, but it turned out that they might as well have been speaking from the Moon. Her free market ideologists, on the other hand, could approach her in private, where they had access to her ear as her cabinet colleagues never did. The free marketeers convinced her that some of the institutions were a hobble for commerce. By herself, she would never have thought of removing the quality requirements for the Independent Television franchise bids. When she did, the predictable result was a stampede of the big money to secure the franchises through pre-emptive cost cutting, and a plunge down market once the franchises had been secured. The BBC, eager to placate the government, and afraid that it could not justify the television licence fee unless it kept its audience share, duly followed ITV in its swallow dive off the cliff. The long-term result was a ruined broadcasting system. By the time Mrs. Thatcher was remaking the state, Solzhenitsyn was preaching spiritual renewal: to the disappointment of his liberal admirers, he no longer seemed to believe that the West’s free institutions were very much preferable to the Eastern authoritarianism he had helped to dismantle. But if the young Solzhenitsyn had been present, and could have got a word in edgeways, he might have told Mrs. Thatcher that the opinions of intellectuals might be an adjunct to sound government but are no substitute for it. The Russian Revolution was prepared by theorists who were able to persuade themselves, in a period of chaos, that their theories would be put into action. But the only political theories worthy of the name are descriptive, not prescriptive. If prescriptive theories have plausible hopes of filling a gap left by a decayed or undeveloped institution, the game is already lost.

She should have trusted her instincts and shut out the smart voices, which—as often happens when they at last get a hearing—turned out to be not smart enough. Her best instinct was to stick to a simple course of action once it had been chosen. That instinct became her enemy, and the enemy of the country, on those occasions when a simple course of action was not appropriate. In domestic policy it hardly ever is. But her instinct paid off in foreign policy, with far-reaching results. When she chose not to be faced down by the Argentinian junta, she followed through with the necessary consequence: war. There were yells of protest from the far left, which would have preferred to give a green light to the Argentinian fascists rather than resort to gunboat diplomacy. The far left preferred love-boat diplomacy: an interesting reprise of the Labour party’s position in the late thirties, when the menace of Hitler was admitted but the menace of rearmament seemed greater. Over the Falklands, the parliamentary Labour party had no choice but to go with her—nobody pranced for war like the Labour party’s leader, Michael Foot—but the first disaster would have put her on the block. There wasn’t one; the British carried the day; and the junta fell as a direct result.

There was another long-term effect of her courage which is seldom considered. Later in the same year, 1982, she went to Beijing to face the Chinese leaders in the matter of the upcoming Hong Kong handover. Typically, the bonzes of Beijing announced their conclusions before the talks: Hong Kong would become part of China. But she had never thought any other result was possible. What was really in the balance was what would happen to Hong Kong after it became part of China. The Chinese might have reduced it to the condition of Tibet. They didn’t do so, and have still not done so. It seems fair to conclude that Mrs. Thatcher obviated the possibility by her prestige. She had won in the Falklands, and had done so partly because of the firmness of Britain’s alliance with the United States. (An important factor, in that regard, was undoubtedly the diplomatic effort of the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Nicholas Henderson.) Thus she was able to suggest to the Chinese leaders that the consequences of extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedoms might be drastic. She probably didn’t have to suggest it out loud: she had a way of glaring at the right moment that went through the language barrier like a bullet through butter. With the Americans behind her, Mrs. Thatcher was presenting the Chinese leaders with the possibility of atomic war. The freedoms of the Hong Kong citizens were not up to much, but they were better than nothing, and the colony’s last governor, Chris Patten, in the final few years before the handover, did a lot to reinforce them. Beijing vilified him for his pains, even going so far as to call him a tango dancer: but such withering invective left him unshaken. He kept on reminding Beijing that the citizens of Hong Kong had rights and that the rights were inviolate. He did what the Foreign Office had never done. So did Mrs. Thatcher. Beijing sent in the soldiers but they never fired a shot. Nobody was arrested. The Trojan War did not take place. Since that blessedly uneventful day, a flourishing Hong Kong’s influence on mainland China has already been huge. If the eventual consequence is an irreversible erosion of China’s monolithic state, the transformation will have to be traced back to the same extraordinary year, 1982, in which the Red Army’s tanks did not come to Poland. What didn’t happen in Warsaw eventually influenced everything that did happen in Europe until the fall of the Berlin Wall. It could well be that what didn’t happen in Hong Kong started the same sort of process in the Far East. It was the year that Thatcher flew to China to be faced with a fait accompli, but in fact accomplished everything by dictating what would not be allowed to occur. She couldn’t pronounce “Solzhenitsyn,” but in most other respects she knew how to say what she meant.