Monday 31 October 2005
Bruce Anderson: Margaret Thatcher's real lessons for the Tories
She had great ambitions, but understood that government needs compromise
I have written before that even after years in office, Mr Blair often thinks of himself as a burglar. He broke into a grand house and then stumbled upon the owners. To his relief, he was mistaken for a guest and invited to the dinner table. But he can never quite relax. He is often cocking half an ear for the sound of police sirens.
A lot of Labour MPs share Mr Blair's belief that the Tories are about to become an electoral threat. They are less relaxed about the prospects than their leader appears to be. Their refrain is: so many years in power, so few steps towards socialism. They are unimpressed by Mr Blair's apparent antipathy to comprehensive schools and by his plans to cut invalidity benefit. They are alarmed at the thought that Mr Blair will amuse himself in his final period of office by reminding his party that he was never really one of them.
For years, they put up with this because he brought home the electoral bacon. They were like northern soccer supporters. The team had been bought by billionaires who arrived for the matches in a helicopter. Instead of names like Scragger, Braithwaite or Stoatby, the players were now called Amontillado, Couturier or Berlusconi. But at least they got to Wembley and stuffed the hated Tories. It will be amusing to observe the Labour Party. Labour MPs have already rediscovered factional politics and party disunity. That will intensify.
Not that the Tories are without their divisions. In the early 1990s, a large section of the Tory parliamentary party became clinically insane. My friend Matthew Parris believes that this is explained by guilt over the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher. Having committed the hideous crime of matricide, the party could find neither rest nor expiation. Once they had assassinated Lady Macbeth, the Tories were doomed to suffer her fate.
Although it is hard to believe that such an exotic tale of melodrama and psychodrama could apply to the stolid characters on the Tory benches, there is a lot of truth in Mr Parris's assessment. For years after her fall - partly because she herself kept tearing them open - the wounds continued to bleed. But there was a further factor.
During her long period in office, the radiance of Margaret Thatcher's personality so bedazzled so many of her followers that they were unable to see how she governed. Although she may have had great ambitions, she was always cautious in the methods which she used. She introduced her changes a year at a time, a Bill at a time; always slicing digestible quantities of salami, never risking choking by wolfing the entire sausage.
Some battles she did not even try to fight. When she became Prime Minister, the clocks throughout many public services had stopped in 1969. After her 11-year premiership, little had changed. In education, the main change was the abolition of O-levels, a change which Tony Blair would not have dared to make.
Margaret Thatcher did do one thing for the public services. She spent a great deal more money, without changing the structures. She also signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the European Single Act, which gave away far more power to Europe than the Maastricht Treaty did. She accepted a deal with the French which kept the Common Agricultural Policy in being. On any objective assessment of her record, Margaret Thatcher was not a Thatcherite.
She has a defence. She understood that government requires compromises, while electoral politics necessitates concessions. Even when she appeared to wander from the line of march, she kept the ultimate goal in view. But she chose her own way of getting there.
So did John Major. But he lacked her force of personality. His gentle, measured, nuanced exposition was far too grown up for many of his Tory colleagues. It did not provide them with a drug powerful enough to prevent them from committing electoral suicide.
The aftershock of all that is still a problem for David Cam-eron. He has to put up with a number of colleagues who do not understand that any successful Conservative leader will require the same tactical flexibility which Margaret Thatcher employed.
David Cameron could carry on where Margaret Thatcher left off. His main obstacle in doing so may not be Tony Blair. It could come from some of his own simpler-minded supporters who, after three successive defeats, are still not at ease with the real world of politics.
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