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Sunday Supplement - Walden Reminisces

This is a transcript of a programme broadcast on Radio 4 on 17 October 2004. It must not be reproduced without permission

Part Three - The 1980s

The 1980's in Britain belonged to Margaret Thatcher. Never has any peacetime Prime Minister dominated a decade in the way she did. Some of he admirers claim that there has rarely been a leadership as powerful as hers. But there is a puzzle here, because she was never popular. If one only looked at the opinion polls it was hard to see what kept her in office. The majority of voters didn't like her and they didn't like her policies either, including those which these days are praised to the skies. People thought she was too harsh and so were her policies.

Nor was she only disliked on the political Left. Some leading Tories loathed her. As a matter of fact, though they kept quite about it at the time, she had her secret admirers in the Labour Party who respected her courage. Supposing we had to assess the views of Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine on Margaret Thatcher? You almost certainly know that it was the Tory Heseltine who couldn't stand her. Blair took a much more favourable view. He liked the way she kept her nerve under pressure and her insistence on having her own way.

So Margaret Thatcher was a paradoxical figure and never more so than in the reaction she inspired in women. She was the first woman Prime Minister. But women didn't take to her as one might have expected. This became a common talking point in the media at the time. One of the researchers who worked with me in television in the early 80's was due to have lunch with a woman Tory M.P. and asked me what this M.P. thought of Thatcher. "I don't know," I said, "but you'd be wise to play it safe. Assume she doesn't like her." Just for once I'd got it right. We were supplied with enough adverse material to fill three programmes if we'd chosen to use it. According to this well-known female politician Thatcher was wrong about everything, was dangerously unstable and her government was going to fall apart pretty quickly. Suspiciously precise evidence was supplied to justify these views.

I don't know why so many women disliked Margaret Thatcher. I can only guess. Certainly she wasn't a heart on her sleeve feminist. Having won the top prize the hard way she didn't take kindly to being told that women needed a bit of additional help to compete with men. She was inclined to think that women were superior to men. She said repeatedly that men were good at talking, but if you wanted something done you should send for a woman.

Perhaps she offended some women because she wasn't a softie. After one interview I did with her, she asked me if I could guess what she hated most. I confessed my ignorance. "Wishy-washy people" she said, "I can't stand anybody who's wishy-washy." I suppose this could be seen by many women as contempt for anybody who was uncertain and a love of only those who were tough. There was a general complaint that Thatcher wasn't gentle enough.

Then again she was known to be a devoted wife as well as a party leader. There was a story that when she'd been Ted Heath's Minister for Education she used to leave the Ministry to buy bacon for her husband Denis's breakfast. It was pointed out to her that somebody could be sent to buy this bacon, but she replied, "Oh no. Only I know exactly what Denis likes!" I can see how such stories might infuriate some women. Here was Thatcher, who had paid domestic help, apparently exalted as the perfect housewife cooking her husband's full English breakfast before spending the day running the country. And so, for whatever reason, she wasn't pick of the day for most women, as graphically illustrated by the Home Counties Tory MP who told me "Between ourselves my wife doesn't like her, but I hope she never finds out because she frightens me to death as it is."

Disapproving women, men who were scared of her and rotten opinion polls, you'd be entitled to wonder how this woman managed to stay in power throughout the 1980's. Well there were some strong positive factors involved, but I must cite the crucial negative factor - the opposition was badly split. The early 80's were an extraordinary time for the Labour Party. It wasn't just that it had lost power, what seemed even more significant was that it had lost the ability to understand what was going on. When Jim Callaghan resigned as leader having pretty well lost control of the party, Labour MPs astonished most people by electing not Denis Healey, but Michael Foot. Nobody who knew much about the electorate thought that Michael had the slightest chance of winning a General Election.

I adored Michael Foot. I remember once being on holiday with him in Venice. Not only did we argue all the time about politics (which pleased us both) but I was astonished by the depth of his historical and cultural knowledge. Little did the voters know what a jewel of a man he was. But, to be fair to the voters, they'd rightly spotted him as Nye Bevan's old friend, who was way to the left of the average voter. I had explained to me what Foot was doing as Labour Leader. The votes that had made him leader hadn't been cast in the belief that he would win elections. Many M.P.'s thought he was the last chance of keeping the Labour Party together. Astonishingly enough Foot was soon outflanked on the Left by Tony Benn, who looked as if he might become leader and who got the Party to accept many of his policies. I liked Benn because he was a superb House of Commons man - an adornment to parliament. But he had less chance than Foot of winning a General Election. I had to rub my eyes to believe what was going on and I wasn't alone. The shrewd Labour M.P. Gerald Kaufman described Labour's 1983 election manifesto as "The longest suicide note in history."

By then the Old Labour Party had split. The Gang of Four, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers had left the Labour Party and formed the new Social Democratic Party. The SDP teamed up with the Liberals as the Alliance for the 1983 election, and polled nearly as many votes as The Labour Party. It was this split among her opponents that massively strengthened Thatcher's hand. But nobody wins without some strong cards to play and Thatcher had hers, though very few believed it in her early years as Prime Minister. Her Cabinet was well stocked with the group she contemptuously called Wets, whom she only slowly got rid of. One of them told me over drinks "You know this isn't going to go on more than another six months. It can't work. She's too harsh." "Harsh" - that word again. All her critics used it. Most of her policies, including those we are told marked a fresh start for the British economy, were damned at the time as "harsh."

The way the story is now told is that the sturdy British people saw through this partisanship and rallied to their gallant leader, whom the Russians had called The Iron Lady. They may not have liked her, but by heavens they respected her. That's the yarn we're now given and I can tell you that it isn't true. In early 1982 Thatcher's opinion poll ratings were appalling and she was a deeply unpopular figure. The skids were well and truly under her. And then came the Falklands War. It changed everything.

In general the British like a quiet life. When things are peaceful we're genuinely shocked by anything we see as harsh. Nor are we first in the queue for radical change. Nothing that Thatcher had to offer was ringing any bells. But that was in peacetime. The Argentinean invasion of the Falklands was the turning point in her career. British forces showed great skill and courage in the conflict and the British people was rightly proud as it watched the reports on television. And they had little doubt that Thatcher had been the vigorous leader of the war. She had unhesitatingly taken hard decisions. It was only than that many people began to say that though they didn't necessarily like her, they had to admit that they respected her.

Thatcher was by temperament a warrior. The Falklands changed the angle from which most people viewed her. Plainly she was hopeless at whispering the sweet nothings of politics. She had no soft side and all the St. Francis of Assisi stuff dreamt up by speechwriters rang horribly false. That much people had already decided. Now a new thought occurred. Fair play to the woman: she really was tough. As the Iron Lady she wasn't a phoney. If at the 1983 General Election she had faced New Labour, who knows what would have happened. As it was she beat the "longest suicide note in history" by a mile.

I noticed a difference in her interviews after the Falklands War. A lot of the tension had gone out of her. Her self-confidence (never negligible) rose to new heights. And she made no bones about her agenda. The enemy without having been beaten hollow, she proposed to settle accounts with the enemy within. Plenty of well-meaning folk didn't want her to treat domestic problems as if they were battlefields and I saw their point. But the changes she made were huge. Whether they would have ever have come about without her ferocity is hard to judge. What isn't in doubt is that she changed the British way of organising capitalism and that for good or ill her changes have endured.

I interviewed her regularly and indeed the very first interview I ever did on television was with her, in 1977 when she was leader of the Opposition. I found her a woman of the most striking contrasts. For instance, she was extremely straight-laced and her moral views were rooted in the 1930's. That was in theory. In practice she was extremely tolerant to any of her colleagues who fell short of her high standards. This wasn't hypocrisy. She may have forgiven the sinner but she never spoke well of the sin. She just didn't seem to expect mere men to live up to her ideals.

This mixture of rigid theory modified by worldly commonsense dominated most of her actions. The difficulty was that it was impossible to judge just how much theory and how much commonsense one was going to get in any particular policy. As time went on and she enjoyed victory after victory, she listened less. Her mind was quickly made up and hard to change. I'm sure this is what happened with the poll tax. Plenty of Tory MPs were shaking in their shoes at having to face the voters in a General Election with the poll tax hung round their necks. But she thought that in theory it was just a tax, the best that could be found. Nobody was able to convince her of how unpopular it was. She'd faced down unpopularity before and didn't fear it. She should have done, because the poll tax was the real reason she lost the leadership.

I had a personal experience of how strange her judgement could be. In 1987 I interviewed her in Downing Street for the 'Sunday Times' and she said in answer to my question about her eventual retirement that she intended to go "on and on." After the interview she asked me to stay and have a drink. Then she asked if she could tell me in confidence who she thought her successor should be. I agreed, and she said "John Major." I was speechless with surprise. This was before Major had been Foreign Secretary or Chancellor of the Exchequer, both jobs she later gave him. I think he was Chief Secretary at the time and wasn't anybody's front runner for Tory leader - except hers. She confided that he was "one of us" and I was even more shaken. Major wasn't a Thatcherite, quite the opposite. Later on after she'd helped him to become leader and Prime Minister the relationship between them became poisonous. How she can have possibly supported that Major, who later pronounced her "mad" and "loopy" and wanted her, as he put it, "isolated and destroyed," shared her views is beyond my understanding.

But have no doubt, whatever you feel about her, that as Prime Minister she was in the Walpole, Pitt, Gladstone and Disraeli class. Which of us can truly understand such people?


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