Thatcher and Sons, by Simon Jenkins

Hardly true blue
Click to follow

This is a book to be approached sceptically. The thesis is set out in the title and subtitle, "a revolution in three acts": that Margaret Thatcher inaugurated a revolution in this country, continued by John Major and Tony Blair. The cover illustration and a short chapter, "Gordon Brown, Thatcherite", extend the thesis to the likely next prime minister, and a sentence towards the end ("A grandson is born") to the possible next but one, David Cameron. A reasonable person might guess that such a simple argument must be either meaningless or wrong.

But Simon Jenkins is a clever man. He writes well and can turn a good phrase. Surely we have something to learn from him? We learn, in short, that you can be clever and write a book in which nearly everything is obvious or wrong. Jenkins declares that something has "become a cliché but that does not make it inaccurate". The trouble is that it does not make it accurate, either. This is a book of inaccurate cliché: most is inaccurate, or clichéd, or both.

It is not simply a matter of factual inaccuracies. Keith Joseph destroyed his Conservative leadership chances by appearing to advocate eugenics, not to "restrain the immigrant population of Britain" but the lower orders, "social classes 4 and 5". The rules for electing a Conservative leader in Thatcher's time required a candidate to win the first ballot not by 65 per cent but by satisfying two conditions, winning by 50 per cent and a margin more than 15 per cent. Major won the 1992 election by a majority not of 25, but 21. Neil Kinnock was not "succeeded unopposed" by John Smith - an election was contested by Bryan Gould.

Where facts are not wrong, interpretations often are. Jenkins says that "Blair came to a career in politics" under Cherie Booth's influence, but many sources testify to his driving ambition to become a Labour MP before he met her. He says that Blair tried to sack the entire shadow cabinet (which he did not), "unaware that it was formally elected by Labour MPs". Blair had then been an elected member of it for six years.

The central judgements of the book are either commonplace or - well, we are not supposed in new-model politics to dismiss opinions out of hand, but I disagree with them. He begins by describing Thatcherism as consisting of two broadly contradictory strands - reducing direct state control of the economy, while increasing state regulation.

Well, I never. Then he says that Major consolidated both revolutions. A politician of the same party continued many of the same policies and dropped the unpopular, really "Thatcherite" one, the poll tax? Goodness, gracious. Then he describes Blair as more Thatcherite than Thatcher. "Far from putting Thatcherism into reverse after taking office in 1997... they [the Blair/Brown duumvirate] supercharged it." From the blindingly obvious to the obviously blind in one short step.

This sub-Trotskyite argument, currently reaching its full flowering among Unison and assorted leftists denouncing the "privatisation" of the NHS, requires a wilful aversion to reality. A universal healthcare system, free at the point of use, transformed by the largest, most sustained spending increase since its foundation? Just what the Lady ordered. The superficial parallels abound. City academies are "Whitehall grammar schools". Except that they are not selective and are in areas of social deprivation.

Blair has intensified the second Thatcher revolution, centralising power in No 10. The UK political establishment has remained "largely immune" to the devolutionist movement... apart from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London? Before Jenkins gets going on the parliament-reduced-to-a-cypher nonsense, he notices "the number of back-bench rebellions rose to the highest as a percentage of all votes" since 1945.

He mistakes Blair's careful courting of the Lady herself for ideological kinship. Yet he fails to notice that Blair was just as solicitous towards Paddy Ashdown, which did not make him a believer in PR. So, many changes Thatcher wrought have survived. Like most left-wing parties in the world, Labour has explicitly accepted market economics. Wow. But it is the differences between Thatcher and Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron that make the latter interesting, not superficial similarities.

John Rentoul's biography of Tony Blair is published by Time Warner