Comment: My name is Margaret and I'm a recovering prime minister

Much-maligned radical reformer or callous demi-dictator? Geoffrey Wheatcroft on the woman who won't go quietly; profile; MARGARET THATCHER

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:01

WHEN STANLEY Baldwin resigned as prime minister in 1937, he promised, echoing the signs in London buses, "not to talk to the driver or spit on the floor". This isn't a precept every subsequent Tory ex-premier has followed. Churchill, Eden and Home were silently loyal to their successors, but Sir Edward Heath's performance as the Incredible Sulk has been one of the wonders of the age.

As for his successor, the woman whose devotees have been so derisive about Heath's disloyalty has herself been wonderfully unhelpful since her involuntary departure from office nine years ago. She doesn't just speak to the driver, she spits on his head. But then, she just can't keep off the hard stuff of politics.

She might almost have begun her utterances last week by saying: "My name is Margaret, and I am a recovering prime minister."

First she said that single mothers and their children should be put in the care of convents. Then she wrote to the Times to say that General Pinochet was a friend of this country who should be allowed to return home. At 73, she still yearns for a drop of high-proof political controversy. No serene old age beckons for this problem politician.

Her life since 1990 hasn't been so much lonely as desperately frustrating. She lost a premiership without finding a role. Hence her continual entertaining of foreign visitors (among them Pinochet, to whom she gave tea shortly before his arrest), her caballing with doting younger bearers of the true faith like the MPs Iain Duncan-Smith, Bernard Jenkin or Oliver Letwin, and her restless globe-trotting.

If not without honour in her own country, she has a much more astonishing following abroad. She gave 100 lectures last year, drawing audiences of 2,000 in Brazil, or 10,000 in the Mid West, where ardent Reagano-Thatcherites will pay pounds 1,000 for a ticket to hear her speak. She speaks because she likes it and they like her, but also because she needs the money, to support herself and to pay for her Thatcher Foundation.

Just as George I founded the Regius Chair of Modern History at Cambridge to promote the Protestant Succession, so Lady Thatcher has founded her own chair there to promote free-market capitalism. It is her last mission to mankind, and with her eye to posterity she has given all her papers to Cambridge (and she was privately contemptuous when no-longer-young Winston Churchill sold the Churchill papers for several millions).

Very few politicians have ever stimulated such strong reactions, and none can have stimulated such intellectual dishonesty, on either side. From her earliest ministerial years, "Mrs Thatcher milk-snatcher" was a hate-figure for progressive England.

By the time she audaciously seized the Tory leadership from Heath in 1975, she had begun to frighten Labour seriously. By the time 12 years later when she had won her third successive election - a feat itself uprecedented since the Great Reform Bill - she obsessed the liberal left as no other Tory this century has done. But one did not have to be a Thatcherite to find some of the loathing neurotic (if Jonathan Miller hated her as "the human race hates typhoid", how did he feel about Himmler, or even Pinochet?) and ungenerous.

Self-styled egalitarians never gave any credit to the grocer's daughter from Grantham who had made her way to Oxford when that was a great deal harder than it is now. Self-styled feminists could find no words of praise for the first woman to become prime minister of a great European democracy. There was also an almost psycopathic reluctance to acknowledge how much she had changed the political landscape, for ever.

Nine years ago, champagne corks popped between Hampstead and Islington when her own parliamentary party deposed her, and they popped again last year when the Tories were at last ejected from office. But that was a pyrrhic victory for the left. The ejection was performed by New Labour (more new than Labour, surely), led by a man who openly espoused the Thatcherite doctrine that "Britain needs more successful people who can become rich by success through the money they earn," and who said "I believe Margaret Thatcher's emphasis on enterprise was right".

Looking back, part of the the hatred directed at Mrs Thatcher was irrational. Her critics on the left deserve to be asked a series of questions. International finance and currency dealing can often look ugly; but do you want to go back to the exchange controls of 1979? Her defeat of the miners was brutal; but do you want to bring back the old union strangle-hold on industry? Privatisation saw some repellent profiteeering; but do you want those industries renationalised? The sale of council houses was sometimes problematic; but do you want to tell the people who bought their houses that they should go back to being council tenants? And yet, that dishonesty on the left has been matched by another version, from her own passionate supporters on the right. These are the people who have never forgiven the Tory party for deposing her. They are the Maggobites, Maggie's Jacobites drinking to the queen over the water, and even dreaming of her return.

What the Maggobites never came to terms with was the full extent of her failings - in her own terms - as well as her strengths and her personal as well as political limitations. For one thing, she's what German students call a Fachidiot, a "subject fool", someone who knows everything about one discipline but nothing about anything else. And her Fach is politics.

Despite Oxford, the Bar, and her work as an industrial chemist (when she was partly responsible for the invention of Mr Whippy ice cream), she is a woman of painfully limited interests. Churchill wrote and painted, Home fished and shot, Heath sailed and strummed, even Denis refereed rugby and then played golf until his back gave in. His wife has no recreations or hobbies of any sort. She tried to interest herself in Chinese porcelain, but she remains a complete philistine, and notably ill-read. Her single- mindedness has been a strength, but it takes displeasing forms. A famous historian once wrote cruelly: "She repaid loyalty with disloyalty ... She was surrounded by dependents and sycophants, whom she rewarded lavishly and threw aside when they had served their turn. Her rule was dynamic and sordid at the same time."

The funny thing about that sparkling passage is that A J P Taylor wrote it more than 30 years ago, more than 10 years before Mrs Thatcher became leader of the Tory party, almost certainly before he had even heard of her. But then he was writing not about Margaret Thatcher, but about David Lloyd George (only "he" and "his" have been changed to "she" and "her").

Lady Thatcher herself venerates the memory of Churchill, and - can one doubt it? - identifies with him. But the prime minister she most closely resembles is surely Lloyd George, as Taylor's words show. The three of them - Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher - indeed have much in common: all formidable personalites, all autocratic rulers, all succesful war leaders. And they each had much the same tastes in flashy or shady hangers- on, though even Lloyd George's "garden suburb" and Churchill's dodgy entourage barely rivalled the quite extraordinary court of wizards, mountebanks and plain crooks which surrounded Thatcher in her years of power.

What the Maggobites lack above all is a perspective on her extraordinary reign, with its miseres as well as grandeurs. They never grasped that she was part reactionary and part radical, but not a conservative. And they wilfully overlooked the way in which Thatcher so often failed the test of Thatcherism, and was prepared to betray what she was supposed to stand for.

If you want to tease a Daily Telegraph journalist, ask which prime minister was responsible for the Single European Act and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Or point out that, however defiant she was while the Falklands war was being waged, the war was shockingly expensive, and in any case unnecessary, fought only because of a dismal failure of statecraft in the first place.

Or observe that Mrs Thatcher did nothing to end mortgage income tax relief, an essential step on her own economic premisses but one which she was unable to follow logically, blind to the truth that rising house prices were the single most vicious motor of general inflation. Or finally and conclusively ask what sort of Thatcherite she was if public spending was almost exactly the same percentage of domestic product when she left Downing Street as when she entered it.

Of course, she herself will never see it. And nor can she ever forswear the sheer kick of telling the world what's wrong. Like so many other addicts, she just can't give it up.

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