Saturday, 28 January 2012

Thatcher - The Downing Street Years

This is a BBC series that was made in 1993 to coincide with the release of the first volume of Margaret Thatcher's memoirs, The Downing Street Years.

At the start of the series, we see a surprisingly young and feminine Thatch taking up the reins of government.  She came to power in a time and place that are already quite remote from the Britain of 2012.  The Britain of the 1970s - the "sick man of Europe" - was a land of power cuts and strikes in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer had gone cap in hand to the IMF and it was seriously suggested that the UK would be the first developed country in the world to go back to being a developing one.  For Thatcher, the notion that Britain was in decline was intolerable.  She likens the task that faced her to "trying to run up a down escalator".

Thatcher led a party that was already divided following her deposal of Edward Heath in 1975.  Some of her closest colleagues were aristocratic "Wets" from the party's left wing - Heathites like Francis Pym and Jim Prior, and Peter Carrington, a wealthy hereditary peer.  The Wets didn't like Thatcher at all, and it didn't help that she didn't share either their sex or their social background.  Thatch was deeply, proudly middle-class, almost to the point of chippiness.  She says that the old-school Tory grandees thought that "the grocer's daughter didn't really know how things were done".  A meritocratic capitalist, she dismisses their sense of social responsibility as a "guilt complex" originating from their inherited wealth.

Amid the mounting damage of the 1979-81 recession and Thatcher's hardline economic policies, the Wets tried to force a move to the left of the sort that Ted Heath had executed a decade previously.  Unemployment was heading for 3 million and inflation stood at 22%.  Some ministers - including John Nott and John Biffen - duly moderated their policies, but the Iron Lady was having none of it.  What seems to have saved her was the unswerving loyalty of the deputy prime minister, Willie Whitelaw.  Whitelaw was an unlikely ally - an old-school aristocratic Tory who had hoped to succeed Heath - but his support proved to be invaluable.  Every prime minister needs a Willie.

Fortunately for Thatcher, she was bailed out by General Galtieri (plus a suicidally inept Labour Party, though the series doesn't elaborate on this).  As with Winston Churchill in World War II, Thatcher's political and character flaws turned into strengths in the circumstances of war.  As Neil Kinnock wryly observes, Thatcher's greatest attribute was having the right enemies.  General Galtieri came straight from Central Casting, as did Arthur Scargill, and indeed Kinnock himself and his predecessor Michael Foot.

Thatcher saw her mission as being to break the social democratic consensus that had dominated British politics since the Second World War.  Her view of politics was absolutist and Manichaean.  She makes it clear that she values toughness, clarity and "guts" above negotiation, compromise and "appeasement".  Her ire was not reserved for those on the socialist left: Conservative moderates of the Wet persuasion were "traitors" who had unpardonably accepted the fact of Britain's decline.  She says that she wanted to be respected, not liked, and she concedes that "diplomacy wasn't my forte".  At one point, she says contemptuously: "They're a weak lot, some of them in Europe, you know. Weak. Feeble."  This is in the context of the refusal of Britain's European partners to co-operate with the American bombing of Libya in 1986, so Thatcher is effectively saying that agreeing to everything that the Americans ask for is a mark of strength.  She seems to think that the poll tax could have been made a success by sheer effort of will, if only her colleagues had kept their nerve.

At times, it seems that she saw running a government as not being essentially difficult to leading a religious sect.  She explicitly speaks the language of religious faith when she explains the reason for her downfall following the resignations of Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe: "my trouble was that the believers had fallen away".  She also says that she never had as many as six true blue Thatcherites in her team.  A lesser politician might wonder what this said about the merits of her policies, but not Thatch.

Yet she comes across as being something more than a one-dimensional monomaniac.  Her performance on camera is lively, and she speaks vigorously and intelligently.  It is apparent that her profound seriousness is balanced by a degree of humour.  She was quite capable of being flirtatious with men around her ("unmercifully", according to Alistair McAlpine), and she apparently had a soft spot for handsome male colleagues like Humphrey Atkins.  She was considerate to those whom she worked closely with.  She wept when her speechwriter gave her her famous quotation from St Francis of Assisi.  She expected loyalty, but she showed it as well.  She backed her trusted adviser Sir Alan Walters even when it meant alienating Nigel Lawson.  She opposed the Major government's pit closure programme out of loyalty to the miners who had kept working during the Scargill strike, and she reveals that she vetoed a similar plan while in office.

Moreover, the series does not obscure the greatest irony of Margaret Thatcher's prime ministerial career: that the shrill right-wing ideologue showed the same instinct for political pragmatism that she despised in others.  She signed up to the Lancaster House agreement that put Robert Mugabe in power in Zimbabwe.  Her deal on Britain's EEC rebate, which has since entered Eurosceptic mythology as a glorious victory over the greasy foreigners, was in fact a compromise.  She was furious that her demands had been watered down - but she accepted the deal.  In the difficult aftermath of the Brighton bombing, she repeatedly executed U-turns on issues like the privatisation of British Leyland.  When Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson tried to strongarm her into taking Britain into the ERM, she resisted - but she ended up doing just that.  The makers of the series might have added that she also signed the Single European Act and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, increased NHS spending, failed to shrink the overall size of the state and maintained a top tax rate of 60%.  It was only after she left office that she was able to give free rein to her ideological prejudices without having to worry about the mundane matters of staying in office and winning elections.

Another striking feature of Thatcher's time in office is that she was very lucky.  In spite of later attempts by her followers to airbrush her image, the fact is that she was not a wildly popular, invincible leader.  She could have been brought down by any number of real or hypothetical circumstances: the ravages of the 1979-81 recession, a mutiny of the Wets backed by Willie Whitelaw, a resurgent Labour Party led by Denis Healey, a failure to retake the Falklands, a failure to defeat the NUM, the toxic aftermath of the Westland affair (the seriousness of which is mostly forgotten today)....  Whisperings about a change in leadership started as early as the time of her historic third election victory in 1987.  When Willie Whitelaw retired the following year, she lost a very important restraining influence.

When the end came, it was famously dramatic.  She had become increasingly autocratic and out of touch.  She began to depend on unelected courtiers like Charles Powell, Bernard Ingham and Sir Alan Walters.  In strenuously backing the poll tax, she succeeded in alienating many of her own supporters, not to mention swathes of Conservative voters.  Most seriously, she made the fatal mistake of crossing her two closest allies, the Chancellor Nigel Lawson and the Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe.  Red flags started to appear in 1989.  Lord Carrington was dispatched by the men in grey suits to tell her that it was time to go.  Lawson resigned from the Cabinet, and the pro-European backbencher Sir Anthony Meyer challenged her for the party leadership.  The following year, her bullying of Geoffrey Howe came home to roost.  On 1 November 1990, Howe resigned - and effectively took Thatcher with him.

Within days, her old enemy Michael Heseltine had launched a bid for the party leadership, and he won enough votes in the first round of the ensuing contest to force a second ballot.  Thatcher's Cabinet colleagues realised that the game was up.  They told her that they would back her if she fought on (with the exception of Malcolm Rifkind), but that she could not hope to win.  Thatch took this advice - which was perfectly sound in itself - very personally.  She describes it, in a phrase which has passed into the political lexicon, as "treachery with a smile on its face".  She still seems to be in denial about what happened, perhaps not altogether surprisingly.