Margaret Thatcher: vol II, the iron lady, by John Campbell

Nerves of steel in an age of iron certainties
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is never easy writing instant history. How can you make judgements about the significance of someone's words and deeds if you do not know what happens next? John Campbell does his best in the circumstances. The second volume of his biography of Margaret Thatcher (from 1979) relies on available printed sources. Some of the leading characters have rushed out memoirs, so they and their views are treated more seriously and at greater length than those who have been more judicious.

The book has the strengths and weaknesses you would expect, based on a view from the mezzanine floor just above the Thatcher era. The author captures the uncertainties, the chaos and random events that characterise all governments. He is no more swept off his feet by the Falklands factor or the heroic achievements of economic reform than he is contemptuous of the real successes Margaret Thatcher had, both as a party politician and as a stateswoman. He is reasonably balanced, although he fails to understand the coherence of the driving ideas that lay behind the substantial economic reforms of the government she led.

It is fashionable today for the present prime minister and his spinners to compare Tony Blair with Margaret Thatcher. I cannot see any real comparison. As Campbell demonstrates, Margaret Thatcher was driven by some certainties of view. She was honest, led from the front, and never ducked a difficult decision if she thought it right.

Campbell's book is full of Cabinet members and senior policy advisers. It does not report on a government mesmerised by focus groups and opinion polls, tacking this way and that in an attempt to capture the prevailing wind. There is no giant Alastair Campbell figure stalking the corridors of Downing Street, writing articles for publication, sending instructions to the government machine, and treating policy as a cosmetic for the media.

Reading this book reminds me just how different government was then. I think Tony Blair is much more in the mould of John Major. We have experienced more than a decade now of Blajorism. Where Thatcher would stand firm and argue her way through, Major and Blair tack, trim and alter the words. Where Margaret would remind people of the basic truths - there is no government money, you can't spend what you don't earn, free enterprise delivers more than the state - John and Tony have attempted to reassure people that these uncomfortable truths do not always apply. Where Margaret Thatcher would see a problem and argue away until she found a policy solution, her successors often saw merely issues of presentation that just required a different media strategy.

The book follows the present Labour line on relations with the EU. It simply asserts that Mrs Thatcher gave away more powers in the Single European Act than Edward Heath did in 1973, signing the Treaty of Rome, or John Major did at Maastricht. By implication she also gave away more than Tony Blair at Amsterdam and Nice. This is just not true. There was a bigger loss of sovereignty through signing up to Rome.

The book questions why she did it, and examines the notion that she did not understand what was involved. This cannot be true, as I remember sending her a minute about the loss of powers and proposing that in the negotiations we allowed qualified majority voting only for specific measures for the single market, to be followed by a resumption of the veto. Margaret Thatcher did not accept my advice, because she did accept the Foreign Office view that the price was modest for a reasonable gain.

The author should also remember that Margaret Thatcher had been a very enthusiastic pro-European in the 1970s. Only the pressures of dealing with our partners over many years pushed her to a strong Euroscepticism.

The book sometimes wanders into important inaccuracy, owing to the partial sources available in print. The author seems to think the Policy Unit in the middle 1980s had a very narrow focus, only to broaden under my successor, Brian Griffiths. In practice it had a very wide remit in my time, with a full complement of 10 people covering all policy issues save non-EU foreign policy and intelligence. The author does little justice to the Fowler reviews of social security, seeing it as a simple exercise of budget defence. In reality much more was at issue, for it was part of the whole policy of popular capitalism.

The chapter on this theme tells but half the story. Yes, as Campbell says, moving to "everyman a home owner" was a central plank of the programme. Yes, offering the public the chance to own shares in the great privatisations was also a small part. Bigger by far was our view that people should have a more direct stake in their pension savings.

That was the main outcome of the Fowler review, as we sought to give people power over the great sums accumulated on their behalf by employers and trustees. So too were the raft of policies designed to promote small business and enterprise. The best way of creating popular capitalism was to expand self employment and small business. And the best part of the privatisation programme was not the general offer for sale to the retail customer, but offers to employees. My favourite privatisation was National Freight: the company was bought out by the lorry drivers, who set about transforming it into a great success.

This book is workmanlike, and a good read. It captures some of the smoke and fire of the political battlefield in those hectic years. It does not do justice to the transformation of the UK economy after the disaster of the 1970s, nor make enough of the very different style of governing - from what had gone before, or from what followed.

We could do with some of Margaret's honesty and sense of direction today. Without it we are losing the gains she made on cutting taxes to foster enterprise and independence, and turning back the clock in handling the unions. Margaret Thatcher may be a footnote in the history of relations with the EU, but she is a big chapter in our story of self-government.

John Redwood, MP for Wokingham, headed the prime minister's policy unit, 1983-85

Comments