Political Commentary: An outrageous performance from the principal player

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LADY Thatcher has resolutely followed Dylan Thomas's somewhat impertinent advice to his dying father, and refused to go gentle into that good night. We are only two weeks away from the third anniversary of the Great Fall, and the old girl is as animated as ever. What I really mean (for it is usually better to be honest) is that she is madder than ever.

I first realised that, to use the Welsh phrase, she was going a bit funny when I saw the television pictures of her clearing up rubbish in St James's Park. The bits of paper and so forth had been put there specially for her to remove - common practice, I suppose, in the age of photo-opportunities. More disturbing were her disjointed, stabbing movements with the pointed stick on which she was seeking to impale the offending objects.

This would have been in 1989. At around this time her eyes too assumed a newly manic quality, much in evidence during a disastrous European election broadcast. And her teeth looked as if they were about to gobble one up.

In the intervening years, these characteristics have become exaggerated. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she herself has exaggerated them for the benefit of the television cameras. She has been giving a performance of herself in a heroic style which has come to be regarded as outmoded in the West End and is now represented on the English stage in its full flowering only, perhaps, by Mr Donald Sinden.

One of the consequences of this way of carrying on is that words are used less for their meaning - their capacity to state a case or to advance an argument - than for their ability to convey emotion in the speaker. In Lady Thatcher's case this is usually a scorn which is calculated to shrivel an enemy at 200 yards. It is perhaps worth making the distinction that these are not 'emotive words' in the sense in which that phrase is commonly understood. Rather they are words which enable the actress, in this case Lady Thatcher, to clench her teeth on them, to roll them round the mouth or to spit them out.

Consider, for example, her use of 'vanity' in one of the first programmes to describe the behaviour of Lords Carrington, Gilmour and Pym in her early Cabinet. By her own account, she found them patronising and she resented it. But the civil Lord Carrington, the mild Lord Pym and the shy Lord Gilmour were not vain men, not really. Nor are they so today. What they all were was ineffectual, as both Lord Gilmour and Lord Prior have admitted in their own valuable accounts of the period.

The most interesting admission, however, probably came from Lord Whitelaw. He said that at the time he not only disagreed with her but thought that what she was doing was bad for the country. And yet he continued to lend her his support to maintain the Conservative Party in office. True, his own position can be deduced from his own memoirs, which are among the less informative about the period. But his saying it on television made the picture sharper and somehow all the more shocking.

The word presumably appealed to Lady Thatcher less for its appositeness than for its biblical ring: 'Vanity of vanities, sayeth the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity' (Ecclesiastes i2). There is also: 'Behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit' (Ecclesiastes i14). 'Weak. Weak. Weak' does not perhaps have the same scriptural resonance, though we are reliably informed by St Paul that 'God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty' (1 Corinthians i27).

This is not an approach which would be likely to commend itself to Lady Thatcher at any time, least of all in her present period of retrospective self-glorification. On Wednesday she used the twice- repeated word to defend (or, rather, to praise) her own support of the United States bombing of Libya and to excoriate the European nations which had refused to join with her.

Leave aside the merits or demerits of the case. The European refusal to support Mr Ronald Reagan in this enterprise could by no normal standards be described as weak. Indeed, it can plausibly be argued that any standing up to the US requires a certain amount of courage. But Lady Thatcher, having hit on a word, then repeats it twice for histrionic reasons. It was reminiscent of the 'No. No. No' in the House in relation to Europe which precipitated Lord Howe's resignation and her own downfall.

We already know that Lady Thatcher intends to describe her colleagues' desertion of her as 'treachery'. Presumably we shall be hearing more along the same lines on Wednesday, in the last programme of what has been a notable series, which has made a genuine contribution to our understanding of the last 15 years. Some television critics have, I see, been complaining that certain matters are not explained as painstakingly as they might have been. But then, it is no more the function of political televison than it is of a political column to put things in baby-talk for the benefit of those lacking all knowledge.

There still remain doubts to be resolved about the Fall. For instance, shortly after that terrible event, Lord Wakeham confided that what turned out to be the fatal queue of ministers on the Wednesday evening had been his idea (even though Sir Peter Morrison may have approved of it to 'gee them up', as he put it at the time, and other supporters may have acquiesced in it).

Lord Wakeham was clear in his recollection that Lady Thatcher did not want to meet her colleagues one by one. The process would take up too much time. Having made a statement and answered questions about the Paris summit on the Wednesday afternoon, she then had to write her speech for Thursday's censure debate. But Lord Wakeham, according to his story, insisted that she saw them, and she reluctantly complied. He effectively confirmed this account on The World This Weekend. Lady Thatcher's version in her memoirs is different:

I could, of course, have concentrated my efforts for the second ballot on winning over the backbenchers directly. Perhaps I should have done. But the earlier meetings (of the Wednesday) had persuaded me that it was essential to mobilise Cabinet ministers not just to give formal support, but also to go out and persuade junior ministers and backbenchers to back me. In asking for this support, however, I was also putting myself at their mercy.

Questions of this sort are undoubtedly fascinating, to Lady Thatcher and to others. It is natural that those of us who go in for this kind of thing should be interested in the programmes - even take a perverse relish in the principal player's outrageous performance. This is quite different from wanting her back at Number 10, no longer an ageing actress but a real live Prime Minister. Yet this is what numerous citizens seem to want. They evidently enjoy being screamed and shouted at. Not I. In fact, the programmes have made me realise that we are insufficiently grateful for Mr John Major.

Comments