Dominic Lawson: Keith Joseph may have been odd, but the father of Thatcherism was not uncaring

Keith, it is true, had little time for the lighter things in life; he refused to have a television
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The Independent Online

If you were feeling not quite right in the head, would you consult an economist? I ask, only because half a page in Wednesday's Independent was devoted to the observations of a professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, who claims to have established the underlying reason for the conduct of the British economy during the Thatcher years.

In case you missed it, this is Professor Fitzgerald's thesis: Sir Keith Joseph, the man Margaret Thatcher acknowledged as her intellectual guiding light, suffered from a form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome. Not only that, says Professor Fitzgerald: "Monetarism has some of the characteristics of Asperger's in its insensitivity and harshness - that is my point, the man and what he does in life are one. It is important to know this because these people control the destiny of the nation."

The health editor of this newspaper described how "Professor Fitzgerald conducted armchair diagnoses on prominent politicians ... using contemporaneous records". I had always thought the ethics of psychiatry meant that you needed to have the client actually lying on the sofa in front of you while you conducted your "armchair diagnosis". If you have never met the person you are diagnosing, it is, or should be, a bit of a professional problem. It's not a legal problem, however, if the invisible and involuntary client is dead: he can't sue for libel.

Unlike Professor Fitzgerald, I met Keith Joseph on a couple of occasions. He was a distant cousin on my mother's side of the family. I did not sense the sort of social awkwardness which is characteristic of genuine sufferers from low-level autism. It is certainly true that he was absolutely uninterested in small talk, but he was easy to engage in conversation.

If you still have a copy of Wednesday's article - headlined "Keith Joseph, the father of Thatcherism, was autistic" - look closely at the accompanying photograph, of Sir Keith sitting next to Margaret Thatcher: he is staring at her right in the eye, and smiling. Depending on your political views, you might find such behaviour odd, but it is absolutely the opposite of what you would expect from a man with Asperger's: he will find direct eye contact extremely uncomfortable, and would certainly not smile while attempting it.

I've no idea if those with Asperger's are indeed "harsh and insensitive", but it could not be a less apt description of Keith Joseph. If you think I might be biased, read the memoirs of David Owen, who was in no sense a political ally. Owen writes: "I found him far from his stereotype as a harsh right winger. He was a highly strung, deeply sensitive intellectual with the social awareness and concern that is often found in the leaders of the Jewish community."

Intellectual, Keith certainly was. He gained a first-class degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford, and became a fellow of All Souls--his thesis was on "Tolerance" - but refused the offer of a lectureship. Instead, he became an Alderman in the City of London, and as one account explains: "Like Attlee he was deeply moved by the poverty and distress of the East End and, powerfully motivated by compassion and the need for social reform, threw himself into a wide variety of charities."

How does this tally with his fearsome reputation as the father of Thatcherism and disciple of monetarism? Keith Joseph had a hatred of what he called the "pocket money society", in which all essential expenditures such as housing, health and education were increasingly paid for by the state. He believed that this infantilised the public, leaving them little to decide that was important; instead they would think only about what toys to buy for their pleasure, like children without responsibilities. Keith, it is true, had little time for the lighter things in life; he refused to have a television in his house.

Regardless of the conclusions of Professor Fitzgerald's mock-psychoanalysis, Keith Joseph fully understood what people thought about him. He described himself as "a convenient madman" and, in one of his trailblazing speeches of the mid 1970s, declared: "Of course I shall be misinterpreted. I am not saying that we should not help the poor, far from it. But the only really lasting help we can give to the poor is to help them help themselves. To do the opposite, to create more dependence, is to destroy them morally, while throwing an unfair burden on society."

As for monetarism, it is fantastically ignorant to describe "insensitivity and harshness" as being among its characteristics. It is not a political creed, like socialism, but simply an expression of classical economics: that inflation is a disease of money, and can only be treated by monetary, rather than political, means. Of course, if you are in the business of attempting to squeeze a high level of inflation out of the economy, as was the case in the early Thatcher years, then the treatment can be very painful. At the time, some argued that high inflation was not in itself a problem. Keith Joseph had learnt enough history to know that the greatest victims of high inflation have always been the poor; the rich generally find ways to invest their money offshore at such times.

Professor Fitzgerald justifies his claims of Keith Joseph's mental problems by saying that "he was regarded as so eccentric that other members of the Cabinet suspended normal rules of behaviour for him". What did this eccentricity actually consist of? One story about Keith Joseph gives an indication.

During the election campaign of 1979, the editor of The Sun, Larry Lamb, told Margaret Thatcher that Joseph's image as a cold and heartless man was damaging the Tories. Conservative Central Office immediately contacted Keith to ask him to supply some anecdotes about the help he had given to the poor, to furnish an article in The Sun to be entitled "The Human Side of Keith Joseph". Keith responded that everything he had done until then as a politician to help the poor had been "either in vain or counterproductive". He would supply no anecdotes. The article never appeared.

So when one of his former colleagues, Reginald Maudling, described Keith Joseph as "nutty as a fruitcake", it's worth remembering that Maudling was a politician of a more familiar cast: cynical, complacent and corrupt. Seen from that perspective, Keith Joseph's moral fastidiousness and self-lacerating honesty must indeed have seemed weird. If Keith Joseph was "a fruitcake", then the real shame of it is that this country has had too few nutty politicians.