Sunday 1 March 2009
Alan Watkins: We live in Mrs Thatcher's monument
The Iron Lady launched an era of selfishness, greed and fraud which her successors have fostered with care
In depictions of Margaret Thatcher quite a wide gap has already appeared between fact and fiction, between biographies (or other accounts of the period) and novels or plays. The latest television play was on BBC2 last Thursday. It was mainly about her fall at the hands of her own party in November 1990.
A previous TV play, broadcast some months earlier with a different and smaller cast, showed a young Margaret in her struggle to become a Tory MP. In both accounts, Mrs Thatcher was depicted as a clever and, most of all, a courageous woman, fighting off men.
In the first production, she triumphed unexpectedly over her rivals and adversaries. In the second, more recent, production, she was finally brought low. The producers' party line was plain for all the see: men are in a conspiracy to do down women.
In the first play, The Long Walk to Finchley (where she at last found a safe seat in 1959), she was shown in a dismal procession round selection conferences, rejected in favour of men. She had unsuccessfully contested Dartford in 1950 and 1951 under her maiden name of Roberts.
No matter. The programme showed one of her rivals at the selection meeting wearing his war medals on an ordinary suit. I had never heard of the practice before. I assumed the local chairman would have advised the hopeful candidate to take his medals off straightaway, as he had clearly kept them on through some oversight. I do not want to make heavy weather of this, but producers' tricks of this kind are not necessary.
At the time, everyone wrote about how polished Andrea Riseborough was as the young Margaret. And who am I to dissent? But she struck me as far too coquettish: certainly not as a research chemist who had become a tax barrister.
In the second production, shown last Thursday, Lindsay Duncan chose (or someone else chose) to have her face whitened and covered with theatrical make-up or some other more innocent commodity such as flour, as if in a circus, a pantomime, or the old Venetian comedy. Poor Denis Healey used to have this done to him on television as Chancellor because he had such a red face.
No doubt Ms Duncan is a beautiful woman, an accomplished actress and a theatrical favourite of the late Harold Pinter. But the general effect was unsettling, to say the least. Perhaps it was intended to be so. However, Mrs Thatcher was not like this.
She had her kindly side. She would make a great fuss about the kind of bacon her husband Denis liked (streaky, I think it was, and unsmoked, or perhaps smoked: it does not much matter). At all events, if supplies of bacon of the kind Denis liked had run out, she would go off herself to buy it.
When Cecil Parkinson found himself in matrimonial difficulties in the early 1980s, she told him uncensoriously: "Your first duty is to your wife, Cecil." She once rebuked her female neighbour in Chelsea for smacking her children, who were of more or less the same age as the twins Carol and Mark. She insisted that she must say: "No, and keep repeating no."
My criticism is not that the play failed to stick to what happened, but that it tried to put in too much. Most viewers, even those reasonably well up on the events of autumn 1990, would not have had the faintest idea
of who was meant to be who. At one stage, for instance, someone called "Tristan" puts in an appearance. This was Tristan (now Lord) Garel-Jones, at whose house in Catherine Place, just by Buckingham Palace, a meeting of ministers and hangers-on was held to discuss possibilities for the second ballot. In the event, Mrs Thatcher withdrew before the vote and did not stand. He was heard saying: "I'd have got the old bat in."
This was a direct quotation from Garel-Jones in a book I wrote at the time. I have no complaints: quite the reverse. Garel-Jones was saying that he would have taken over Mrs Thatcher's campaign, and that, as organiser, he could have won it for her: a view which is arguable either way. But nowhere was Garel-Jones's presence, function or reputation (for he was not considered wholly loyal to Mrs Thatcher) explained properly or even at all.
Or take the ministers who broke down in tears when they were part of the procession who trooped in to talk to the Prime Minister on the Wednesday evening before her resignation. One of them was Francis Maude. He was not a member of the Cabinet at all, and had turned up to conduct some Treasury business in the House. Similarly, Alan Clark was not in the Cabinet, and simply determined to get in on the act; one may think, typically.
Nothing wrong with that: it was what happened. Even so, it was not at all clear about who was who and what he, or less frequently, she was meant to be doing there.
One of the few exceptions was John Major, at home in his Huntingdon constituency after recovering from an operation to remove wisdom teeth.
One of the lines the film-makers missed was: "Why do I never have jelly? I like jelly." This was a reference to the food which he was given after his operation but he normally missed. He confined himself to keeping quiet and remaining mysterious. It was the way he became Prime Minister for nearly seven years.
At the end of my book on the fall of Margaret Thatcher, published in 1991, I quote John Biffen, formerly Mrs Thatcher's Leader of the House: "You know those maps on the Paris Metro that light up when you press a button to go from A to B? Well, it was like that. Someone pressed a button and all the connections lit up."
When I had finished the book, Sir Philip Goodhart, the Tory MP, kindly gave me the tape he had compiled of the television episode of her fall, from Sir Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech through Michael Heseltine's declaration of his candidacy and the election of Major to the final, tearful exit from No 10 in a dark red suit, with a heroic Denis by her side.
Sir Philip had put the recording together for the benefit of his grandchildren. He gave a copy to me, who had talked to him, together with numerous other Tories of that time. Other participants have contributed their memories and reflections either to camera or to paper. The material surrounding the fall of Thatcher in 1990 far surpasses that of Macmillan in 1963, Eden in 1957 or Chamberlain in 1940 – not to mention Blair in 2007. We need just one last heave of the television cameras.
A couple of months ago, my eminent colleague at the The Independent, Mary Dejevsky, wrote that Mrs Thatcher embodied the virtues of thrift, industry and independence, and that those qualities were lacking in the present government.
She was, I think, mistaken about Mrs Thatcher. She inaugurated an era of selfishness, greed and, latterly, fraud, all of which flourished under her three successors as Prime Minister. The era has now come to an end. If you seek a monument to Margaret Thatcher, look around you.
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