It is quite extraordinary and can be attributed only to a deliberate amnesia but I can never remember that November 22 is the anniversary not just of the physical assassination of President John F. Kennedy but of the political assassination of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the 25th one this year, to be quite precise. And yet, if you ask me where I was when I heard about those events I can describe it in great detail in both cases.

Let us turn, instead, to the Thatcher premiership before that assassination; let us turn to the beginning when everything seemed to be going wrong and yet she managed to impose her authority on the party and the government.

There has already been a reference on this blog to Kwasi Kwarteng's book about those crucial six months from Geoffrey Howe's budget of March 1981 to the party conference (oh happy days when there was only one of those a year) of October 1981 in Blackpool. The book is topped and tailed by a chapter by a Portrait of a Lady and an Epilogue that takes us to the summer of 1983 and the triumph of that year's election. Mr Kwarteng acknowledges that the Argentinian junta did Margaret Thatcher a favour by its invasion of the Falklands but also acknowledges that the landslide of 1983 was not occasioned solely by the Falklands war, which is unlikely to have been fought by any other Prime Minister, in any case.

The six months in question were eventful: the March budget, now seen as the foundation of Thatcherite economic policy that eventually turned the country round, was attacked on all sides, including the Conservative. Among other derisory descriptions it was characterized as one that gave no hope to the young and the unemployed, often by the politicians and economists who had brought the country to the economic crisis. which necessitated the budget.

Those six months also saw the death of Bobby Sands, the Sinn Fein MP, and other hunger strikers in the Maze, riots in Toxteth, Brixton, Moss Side and one or two other areas as well as a split in the Labour Party, which could have resulted in a genuine social-democratic party that might have been victorious in 1983. But it did not do so.

Thatcher's Trial goes through the various events in great detail, something that even a hefty three-volume biography cannot do but there is a problem with it all: one gets the distinct impression that Mr Kwarteng dislikes Margaret Thatcher and would like to side with her various opponents, particularly the wet grandees she eventually got rid of. It is of them that he writes with affection and admiration and it is of her that he is rather dismissive.

We hear a great deal about her "uncomplicated" attitude, her very simple religion, her continuing behaviour as if she were a prize-winning grammar school girl (Mr Kwartend is, as we all know, an Old Etonian), her black and white attitude to the world, which is a complicated and delicately shaded affair. 

It is not entirely clear why saying that the riots were a matter of law and order and criminal behaviour is rather simplistic and worthy of disdain, whereas saying that spending more government money was politically astute, subtle and complex.

Nor can one be all that impressed by Mr Kwarteng's sympathetic attitude to the various opponents of Geoffrey Howe's budget because they were people who cared about the social fabric of the country. Those riots could not have been caused by the less than two years of the Thatcher government. Even David Owen wrote about the problems that had accumulated for twenty years though he seems to have forgotten that for more than half of that period there was a Labour government and towards the end he was part of that. The social fabric of the country had worn very thin, indeed, by 1979 under the great care of those who were wringing their hands at Thatcher's "cruelty" and "uncompromising hardness".

The same applies to the problems of Northern Ireland, inherited by Thatcher from three of her predecessors. Even the rule to which the Maze prisoners objected to and, which pushed them into those hunger strikes had been put into place by the Labour government. 

The truth is that Thatcher was faced with a very difficult situation and had to take very difficult decisions. Had some of her predecessors who allegedly cared so much about that social fabric, were more subtle and did not take a supposedly uncomplicated attitude she had imbibed with her Methodism taken some of those decisions, those early months of her government (as well as the later struggle with the unions) would have been very different. 

She was, however, lucky in her opponents from the "wets" in her own party to the Argentinian junta, from the outdated and increasingly extreme Labour party to the incompetent Social-Democrats. Even Arthur Scargill played it all wrong but one cannot really blame him: he thought he was still dealing with her complex, politically subtle. intellectually broad-minded (or so Mr Kwarteng will have us believe) predecessors. 

If one can put up with the author's rather unexpected attitude to his subject one finds a great deal of interest in the book. Mr Kwarteng has done his research and has shaped it into a very interesting, fluent account. Higher praise one cannot give. 

Kwasi Kwarteng: Thatcher's Trial
Six Months That Defined A Leader

2015 Bloomsbury, London

... in 1874, Sir Winston Spencer Leonard Churchill. The current Conservative History Journal has a couple of extremely interesting articles about him that remind us of the fact that he remains a controversial figure as is right and proper.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent. It was not the war to end all wars and we have had a number since then. But at that time we remember all the dead of all the wars and honour those who survived.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Dorothy L. Sayers, for reasons that are still debated by literary critics and historians, abandoned the writing of detective stories in 1937 though she continued to review other books in he genre and was very active in the Detection Club (here is my review of Martin Edwards's history of that august institution, in case anyone is interested). She became more interested in theological matters, social commentary and, eventually, translation of Dante. With C, S. Lewis and Charles Williams she became during the war a popular commentator from the right-wing perspective (unlike J. B. Priestley whom she greatly admired) and a popular theologian.

The long essay I have just finished reading, Begin Here, was commissioned and written at the end of 1939, during what is known as the "phony war" and published in early 1940. It was reprinted and republished many times during the no longer phony war, despite paper rationing.

In this Sayers tried to sum up what she felt had gone wrong with the country, its society and the its people and proposed some tentative ideas about what might have to be done after the war. It is curious how many people at various points of the political spectrum started thinking about post-war society almost as soon as the war began, there being a general assumption that this war would really change everything.

There are too many things in the book for me to discuss in just one posting but let me refer to something that amused me intensely and made me realize that some annoying aspects of our own society goes back a lot further than we sometimes think.

On pages 116 to 117 (I managed to find a copy of the Second Impression, from February 1940) we find the following, which will sound familiar to many people:

I am perpetually disquieted by the popular appetite for what is (horribly) called the "personal angle" on every question. This irrational obsession pervades the newspapers, makes the lives of public characters a burden to them, distracts public worship from its proper object, and is rapidly destroying the intelligence of the people.

It is as though nobody cred fro what is said, but only for who says it. an unsigned article in a newspaper carries no weight, however sound its arguments; except in those few national organs that are still read by highly educated people, articles on theology, drama, science, sociology, poetry or any other special subject have to be sponsored by "a name" if they are to attract attention - nor does it seem to matter in the least whether "the name" knows anything about the subject or not.
Another aspect of the subject is covered at a later point of the book, at the start of the last chapter, called Begin Here, where she outlines her various suggestions for the future:
All questions of fact and all judgements calling for specialised experience must be referred to the people who have that special knowledge and experience. But when we have heard what they have to say, we must use our individual judgment as to the action to be taken, bearing always in mind the geral principles by which we have decided that the world should be governed.

We must also remember that an expert in one department is only an amateur in another; a biologist is no more specially qualified to pontificate about theology than a theologian to lay down the law about stage-management.
What, I wonder, would be Miss Sayers's opinion of the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, a successful and fairly talented actor, who seems to have set himself up as an expert on all subjects to do with morality.

This, as it happens, came out before the second volume of Charles Moore's magisterial (the only word one can use) biography and concentrates on just two years of Margaret Thatcher's premiership: the first two, before she established her control over the party and laid the foundation for her achievements (or otherwise, if you happen not to like what she managed to do).

I found Kwasi Kwarteng's Thatcher's Trial on the shelves for new books of London Library and took it down immediately.

This is how the author sums up the theme of the book:
Thatcher's Trial is a short account of the six months which defined Thatcher as a leader. These six months started with the budget delivered on 10 March 1981 and ended with the reshuffle of her government which took place on 14 September. during this period, Margaret Thatcher showed herself to be inflexible, tough minded and courageous.

Her judgements were clear but often wayward; her self-belief sometimes faltered, although publicly she never let any hesitation blunt her message. She always conveyed an image of utter certainty, even when some of her closest allies openly expressed reservations.
I am looking forward to reading Mr Kwarteng's description of all of that.

In the first place, however, I was reminded of the fact that the famous September 1981 reshuffle got rid of a number of wets and, more to the point, a number of grandees who had assumed that the Conservative Party was theirs to run. Among these were Sir Ian Gilmour and Lord Soames whom Mr Kwarteng describes as having had "a political career of considerable distinction" but whose achievements (with the possible exception of his stint as Our Man in Paris) depended very largely on the fact that he was Sir Winston Churchill's son-in-law. Neither of them every forgave her.

Various versions of what happened when Thatcher had given Soames his marching orders have circulated the political world then and have done so ever since. Quoting from Thatcher's own The Downing Street Years, Mr Kwarteng says:
His sacking was a notable scalp for the daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer. To Margaret Thatcher, who was not so often as obviously class conscious, Soames gave 'the distinct impression' that he felt the natural order of things was being 'violated' and that he was, in effect, 'being dismissed by his housemaid'.
Other versions were more colourful, notably Hugo Young's in One of Us, which is the basis of this:
Soames decided to give Thatcher a piece of his mind as is reported to have 'assailed her for twenty minutes for her various shortcomings'. His irritation was manifest and it was said that his 'thunderous' and booming voice 'could be heard out of the open window halfway across Horseguards Parade.
Exactly as he would have spoken to a recalcitrant footman or under-gardener (housemaids being in his wife's domain). The lady must have given as good as she received because Soames was by the account many of us have heard, severely put out. Charles Moore describes his reaction in his first volume:
Christopher Soames reportedly complained to friends that he would have sacked his gamekeeper with more courtesy than Mrs Thatcher had shown him (though why one should expect gamekeepers to be shown less courtesy than Lord Soames in matters of employment was not clear).
On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that Margaret Thatcher had summed up Christopher Soames and his attitude to her and to the Conservative Party fairly accurately.

Powered by Blogger.




Blog Archive