The rats and cowards who brought down a Titan
Simon Heffer on the final instalment of Charles Moore’s Thatcher biography and Paul Corthorn’s ‘Enoch Powell’
Charles Moore’s massive, three-volume, unsurpassable biography of Margaret Thatcher reaches its end in a suite at the Ritz Hotel where, thanks to the generosity of the Barclay brothers, the former prime minister passed her last days. A woman who had built her leadership on an apparent reputation for indestructibility went the way of all flesh after a long and difficult decline, 22 years after a rare coup d’état at the top of the British politics: the first since Lloyd George sawed Asquith off at the knees in 1916.
She had suffered from a steady loss of her mental faculties for around a dozen years before she died; and she had never accepted her removal from the office she had held with such distinction, or the fashion in which it happened. No one since, and relatively few before, had had such command of the country; and no one had faced such an apparent void when he (and before her they were all “he”) went out of Downing Street.
This volume begins after Mrs Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987. Two policies conspired to bring her down three and half years later. The first was the community charge, or poll tax, which advanced the principle apparently outrageous to the left (whose discontent was exploited by Mrs Thatcher’s enemies within her own party) that all those adults who benefit from local public services should contribute to their funding.
No one since Mrs Thatcher, and relatively few before, had such command of the country
The second was Europe. When Mrs Thatcher objected to the increasingly corporatist and anti-democratic direction of the enterprise, several of her ministerial colleagues decided to behave as though Europe were a religion; and indeed some of them still do. A combination of the two, together with Mrs Thatcher’s own growing impatience with some of her colleagues and the haughty tone she would deploy towards them, ranged her enemies up against her. They struck, and they won, but largely because in a bravura display of cowardice so many of her supposedly loyal cabinet colleagues abandoned ship.
Moore deals painstakingly with the third term, faithfully chronicling the seemingly non-stop circus of summit meetings and diplomacy in which Mrs Thatcher had to engage in the last years of her rule. This was the zenith of the very special relationship with Ronald Reagan; and of her “doing business” with Mikhail Gorbachev, and bringing about the end of the Cold War. That achievement remains something the British people seem to take for granted, or at least not fully to comprehend — perhaps because they were never under the Soviet yoke and because only a minority of Britons ever believed the Russians would drop a nuclear weapon on them.
By contrast, in parts of Eastern Europe, notably the Baltic States, she remains a heroine without parallel in modern times; and is widely revered in America, where as the other superpower the existential realities were somewhat more immediately appreciated.
However, the extensive summiteering took Mrs Thatcher’s attention off the domestic agenda. It did not help her support among the British people, although she retained a very serious powerbase among the electorate; and her understanding of the public response to her domestic policies was far from what it might have been. Her absorption in international diplomacy came at a price, and never was that more apparent when she found herself in Paris in November 1990, at a somewhat self-congratulatory summit to mark the effective end of the Cold War while the ballot that would decide whether she would remain leader of the Conservative Party, and prime minister, took place in London.
It reflected — and Moore, who is scrupulously objective in his presentation of facts and his analysis, concludes this too — her distance from the day-to-day political process, and from the true source of her power. She had faced a leadership challenge from a quixotic backbencher, Sir Anthony Meyer, the year before, and had not taken it seriously. Moore notes that one of the more duplicitous of her ministers, Tristan Garel-Jones, had warned some around her that Meyer’s challenge was the beginning of the end. They chose not to listen. The extent to which Garel-Jones and some of those in the self-regarding “Blue Chip” group ensured that he was right is described in great detail by Moore in the penultimate section of his narrative.
It was one of Mrs Thatcher’s overseas trips, in September 1988, where the touch-paper was lit. I was part of the press party that flew with her to Bruges where she made a speech about the future of Europe, as she saw it. It was not until we were on the plane that we were given the text, which made it clear that the direction of travel being dictated from Brussels was not one she was prepared to accept. The trigger for this outburst had been a speech made a fortnight earlier, at the Trade Union Congress’s annual conference at Bournemouth, by Jacques Delors, the then president of the European Commission. Delors’s line had been that the sufferings of the working-class movement in Britain were nearing an end, because the European Community intended to liberate them from the excesses of Thatcherism.
One of Mrs Thatcher’s aides told me that she had watched Delors on television — in those days the TUC was considered sufficiently significant for its usually tedious proceedings to be broadcast — and steam came from her ears. Hence her observation, in the Bruges speech, that she had not spent years rolling back the frontiers of the state for them to be reimposed by a foreign power. The battle began.
Moore catalogues the debate, in the 18 months before her downfall, about whether or not Britain should join the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System. Mrs Thatcher’s breed of monetarism, which owed more to Enoch Powell than to Milton Friedman, included a commitment to floating exchange rates. Her Chancellors of the Exchequer — first Nigel Lawson, then John Major — argued that her monetary policies had proved incapable of containing inflation, and that only joining the ERM would achieve this end. The real reason inflation was not as low as it might be was that the money supply was growing faster than the rate of inflation plus growth; and it was within the Treasury’s competence to slow that rate of growth down, and the government’s job to deal with the political consequences of a tightening of public spending. Lawson resigned because he would not accept the role of Sir Alan Walters as an alternative economic adviser; Major was out of his intellectual depth on the question from the start, but was directed by some religious zealots — Douglas Hurd, notably, and Kenneth Clarke — towards the policy. Between them, and with the support of colleagues who felt they knew the way the wind was blowing, they directed Mrs Thatcher towards the policy, which meant a surrender of monetary independence.
Once in — and this all happened after Mrs Thatcher had been defenestrated — interest rates had to be kept at a level that suffocated the British economy in order to justify the notional value of the currency. John Major, her eventual successor, sowed the proverbial wind and reaped the whirlwind: membership of the ERM, concluded six weeks before the vote against Mrs Thatcher by her party, and Britain’s humiliating exit from it in September 1992, justified her reluctance to go in. Major was, as prime minister, walking dead for the remainder of his premiership, and went down to the greatest Conservative defeat since 1906.
The highlight — in literary terms — of this book is Moore’s account of Mrs Thatcher’s removal from office. The Europeans chose to ignore her strictures in the Bruges speech. By October 1990 they were seeking to force constitutional change on the members of the EC that would necessitate further surrenders of sovereignty — the sort of changes that were embodied in the Treaty of Maastricht, which Major himself eventually signed, with limited exemptions, in December 1991, and which properly gave birth to a strong anti-European faction within his party, and more to the point within his parliamentary party.
Mrs Thatcher gave a combative account in the House of Commons of her determination to resist these incursions on her country’s sovereignty; it dismayed the religious zealots, notably her former chancellor and supposed deputy prime minister, Sir Geoffrey Howe, whom she had treated increasingly dismissively in the preceding years, often humiliating him in front of their colleagues. Howe determined to resign; Michael Heseltine, who had walked out of a cabinet meeting in January 1986 over disagreements in the Westland affair, took this as his moment to raise the flag of their faction. Howe, whose weakness of character had disabled him from taking on Mrs Thatcher, was similarly unwilling to take her on in a leadership contest. Heseltine had no such qualms.
But although much of the cabinet had had enough of Mrs Thatcher — not least because her refusal to vacate her job was impeding their ambitions — they did not like the arrogant certainties of Heseltine. This was the argument many of the cabinet used against Mrs Thatcher as they trooped in to see her after she had won the first round against Heseltine by 204 votes to 152 — just too few to prevent a second round: if she didn’t stand down and allow others to take Heseltine on in that round, he would win and undo all Mrs Thatcher’s achievements by a reversion to Heathism.
The Thatcherites — the true believers — had come to associate pro-Europeanism with defeatism, a failure to be able to believe that Britain was capable of governing itself, and thriving in the world of its own accord. Now, to their horror, they saw the incarnation of their beliefs being deserted by her colleagues, and the options that were on offer to replace her were simply embracing differing degrees of capitulation.
Denis Thatcher had been urging his wife to stand down for 18 months, since she marked her tenth anniversary in office. Now she felt she had no choice: it was resignation or humiliation. Seeing it coming, a group of ambitious ministers coalesced around John Major, who took on Heseltine in the second round along with Douglas Hurd. Moore is clear, too, about Major’s duplicity, how he agreed to sign nomination papers for Mrs Thatcher in the second round of the contest in the hope they would never be needed, because she would have stood down. Her departure from Downing Street was an exhibition piece of the disgustingness of politics and how, in Palmerstonian mode, no one has friends, only interests.
Rats left the sinking ship at Olympic speed; principles were abandoned; the thirst for the ascent of the greasy pole became almost insatiable. Moore writes with great sensitivity and restraint, but the whole thing is pretty revolting. It is rare that a work of biography or history provokes such emotions, but this tale of human delinquency does so, not least because some of the characters then so prominently involved still presume to appear in our public life, and to lecture the British people on what, irrespective of their democratic wishes, are good for them.
Moore’s sensitivity is paramount, too, in his description of Mrs Thatcher’s last years. John Major came to loathe her: unsurprising, considering the way in which he squandered her legacy. Until around the turn of the century she remained a powerful voice from the sidelines. By the 2005 election her husband had died, her mental confusion had increased, and her retirement was now real. At her eightieth birthday party, in October 2005, when the Queen (with whom she had far better relations than some would have us believe) decided it was time to leave, Mrs Thatcher said she would leave too. Her remaining years were lived less and less in the public eye; her ceremonial funeral, unforgettable to those of us who were there, is the fitting end to his superb work.
Enoch Powell, quoted by Paul Corthorn, observed that what was once called Powellism became known as Thatcherism. His book on the Sage of Wolverhampton is welcome because it proves, more than 20 years after Powell’s death, that his influence remains enormous. He was a genuine ideologue, with a properly structured thought-system supporting his views. Mrs Thatcher certainly had a core of beliefs, but she had absorbed many of them from Powell (as she admitted in 1998, when she reviewed my authorised biography of him) and he became one of the bases of her own political project.
Corthorn calls his work a biography, but it is in fact an account of Powell’s ideas from the time when he was in the Conservative Research Department in the late 1940s, and how he developed them during almost half a century in public life.
Powell and Mrs Thatcher led, respectively, the ideological and practical development of Conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century
There is not that much new in the book — at least not to his biographer, or indeed to anyone who has waded through the 1,000 pages I devoted to him in Like the Roman, published after his death, once I had had full access to his papers. Corthorn is mildly critical of my treatment of Powell, which is his privilege, but he should not do so on the basis that I was “actively engaged in the Campaign for an English Parliament”, which was news to me.
I did write a book advocating the democratic benefit of an English parliament, in the light of Scottish devolution and the probability of Scottish independence, but that is not remotely the same thing. (Also, I first met Powell in 1980, when he came to address the Cambridge University Conservative Association, not as he says in 1985.)
However, he correctly points out the key pillars of Powell’s ideology, and that the one underpinning them all was the idea of the nation. Powell knew Britain had taken a kicking in the Second World War, exhausting its money and forcing it to give up India and its empire; he knew how easy it was to move from those facts to a long-term attitude of demoralisation in which one accepts the inevitability of national decline. He understood that with the empire gone Britain had to adjust to its new realities, which is why he argued long before the 1964-70 Labour government did that British forces should be removed from east of Suez.
But he also argued that unless Britain got its economy right, it would have no base from which to get everything else right.
Hence his belief in monetarism and his repudiation of the pointless prices and incomes policies that both Wilson and Heath embraced between 1964 and 1976. His economic thought was of massive significance to Thatcherism: but so were his views on mass immigration and his fear of communalism, which he had seen at work so poisonously in India when an officer on the staff there in the mid-1940s.
Above all, there is no greater contemporary relevance for Powell than the argument over what he called the Common Market, which he first outlined at Clacton-on-Sea in 1969; it could be re-run 50 years later with complete comprehension.
Powell and Mrs Thatcher led, respectively, the ideological and practical development of Conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century. How far its precepts — the indissoluble link, which Corthorn says Powell made and that Mrs Thatcher recognised, between a free economy and free society, notably — survive into the twenty-first remain to be seen.
Achieving Brexit would be a vindication of Powell’s belief in the nation, and would offer a new opportunity for that nation to develop its prosperity in a new direction. All that is needed now is the political leadership, and deep-seated conviction, to drive it on.
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