Leading Article: The long and whining road to depression

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The Independent Online
'THAT WAS a pity,' said Lord Pym. Lord Carrington came on stronger. 'It was a great pity,' he stated. What were they talking about, these half-forgotten ministers, when they appeared on our television screens last Wednesday night? A sudden shower that marred some overseas royal visit? A printing error in some White Paper? No. They were talking, in the first episode of Thatcher: the Downing Street Years, about the very fundamentals of government policies in the early 1980s. Policies which they thought then, and still think now, were ruinous for the country. Policies that led to the highest unemployment for more than 40 years, to the irreplaceable loss of large sections of British manufacturing industry, to urban riot and social division. Policies for which many think we are still paying the price.

In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher recalls that, when she won the 1979 election, she believed that all she needed were six good men and true. 'Very rarely,' she writes, 'did I have as many as six.' Her position was as weak as that. There was never a majority in the Thatcher Cabinets of 1979-81 for the policies that decisively changed the nature of post-war Britain. Pym, Carrington, Gilmour, St John Stevas, Prior, Soames, Carlisle, Walker - their statements, then and subsequently, suggest that, in their opinion, the country was going to hell in a handcart. So what did they do? They mumbled and grumbled, they leaked to the press, they dared (in what were called 'coded' messages) to mention Disraeli. Lord Prior's explanation is that, if they had all resigned, it would have brought down the Government - 'and, ummm, we weren't elected to, as it were, to resign on . . . and bring down the Government, so we stuck in there'.

Lord Prior at least caused Lady Thatcher some irritation. William Whitelaw, by contrast, is praised in her memoirs because he 'supported me steadfastly when I was right and, more important, when I wasn't'. Given how rarely Lady Thatcher admits to error, this is an extraordinary testimonial. Yet Lord Whitelaw, without whose support the Prime Minister could not have survived (at least not without a U-turn), profoundly disagreed with almost everything she stood for. Most 'wets' made enough of a nuisance to get themselves sacked or banished to a sort of internal exile. Those 'dries', such as John Nott, who agreed instinctively with her philosophy, but not always with the extremes to which she took it, spoke out and eventually left office. Lord Whitelaw just went on and on, a rock of insincerity at the heart of government. He elevated 'party before country' to a point of honour and principle. 'For all I know,' he said airily on Wednesday's programme, people were 'to some extent right' that Lady Thatcher's policies had damaged the country. But the end justified the means, argued Lord Whitelaw. The Tory party won elections and stayed in power. 'Is it supposed that could have happened if the party had been constantly quarrelling with its leader?' asked Lord Whitelaw, as though that were the only question at issue.

What can we conclude from this sorry episode? First, we cannot trust our elected representatives to act in our best interests. Even when they believe that the livelihoods of millions and the social fabric of the nation are at stake, many concern themselves with nothing beyond their survival in office. Second, the power of the British prime minister exceeds that of almost any other Western democratic leader. Lady Thatcher, acting almost alone, effected policies that plunged the country into what Lord Gilmour called a 'desperate depression'. Third, an opposition party has the responsibility to ensure that, at all times, it can provide an acceptable alternative. Almost the only excuse the 'wets' can offer for their surrender (though nobody bothered to offer it on Wednesday night) is that the prospect of a Labour government was then too awful to contemplate, even for many Labour supporters. Fourth, for all Lady Thatcher's protestations that she fought the outdated attitudes of the English Establishment, she owed her survival to Lord Whitelaw's old-fashioned, patrician belief that even bad leaders must be supported lest anarchy ensue.