The late John Hoskyns, head of Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit from 1979-1982, was the last person on earth to be afraid of the Iron Lady. In the summer of 1981, he sent her a memo entitled “Your political survival’, which addressed her in terms other men would have flinched from. “You lack management competence,” he wrote, tearing into her style of leadership. “You break every rule of good man-management … you bully your weaker colleagues … You criticise colleagues in front of each other … You give little praise or credit, and you are too ready to blame others when things go wrong.”
Thatcher reacted with cold fury, but Hoskyns was unabashed. Another story tells of his arriving for a meeting with the PM only to be intercepted by Ian Gow, her personal secretary. “Our girl is tired,” said Gow, trying to bar his path. “I’m tired too,” muttered Hoskyns. “It goes with the bloody job. I’m going in.”
Such irreverence to the “Great She-Elephant”, “She who must be obeyed”, “Attila the Hen” is rare enough, but this isn’t the main thing to remember Hoskyns for. Far more interesting – and relevant to now – is the work he did with fellow conservative Norman Strauss in the mid-1970s to diagnose the exact sources of Britain’s economic malaise, and come up with clear policies about how the country could haul itself out of it.
We are now facing a cultural crisis in Britain as urgent as the economic one of the 1970s
Until that time he had been a computer systems analyst running his own company. But in the early 1970s, as the three-day week, double-digit inflation, a declining GDP and crippling industrial action began to accelerate, he turned his mind to politics. Why, he asked himself, was Britain in the state it was? What exactly had gone wrong? Why did it have the longest working hours, lowest rate of pay and lowest production per head of any major country in Northern Europe? Why – a former industrial superpower and winner of two world wars – were we now falling so far behind?
The questions began to obsess him: “It was,” he wrote, “such an absolute Everest of problem-solving that I wouldn’t leave it alone, I couldn’t think about anything else.” He thus set to work on a diagram to map out all the causes and effects.
The diagram took an entire year to complete. It was really a “why?” diagram, Hoskyns explained:
Why did things happen? In other words, you look at a problem – what are the causes? And of course, there are often many causes. But then you look at the causes and you realise that they themselves are the result of other problems and other causes. Almost everything turned out to be a precondition for almost everything else.
“What the diagram really said,” Hoskyns later explained to author Clare Berlinski, “is that if you’re going to change anything, you’ve got to change everything … because actually, in terms of logic, the causal connections are such that you cannot say, ‘Let’s just do that’, because – you can’t! Because actually, there are five other things that are causing that.”
When the Wiring Diagram was completed – a vast flow chart of interconnected ailments, some of the arrows moving in both directions – Hoskyns showed it to Thatcher. She laughed at its complexity and said it looked like the map of a chemical works, but she was intrigued. Hoskyns and kindred spirit Norman Strauss were encouraged to produce “Stepping Stones” a policy document on what had to be done. Only a revolution, Hoskyns and Strauss concluded, would be enough to fix things. “And you don’t have revolutions for fun,” Hoskyns added to Berlinski. “They’re very uncomfortable … a lot of people get hurt, and – you shall have a war. It’s going to be very unpleasant, and we’re going to be hated, and the better the things we do, the more hated we will be.”
You can find, if not the diagram, the resulting “Stepping Stones” report online, and some of it’s a bracing call to action. “Low risk” approaches to the crisis, the report said, would leave the government in “office without authority” – sound familiar? Solutions, it went on, could “only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable … What is necessary is a series of interrelated policies which can, however narrowly, nudge the entire social and economic system off the decline course and onto recovery.” As to those “interrelated policies”, we now know what they were: the reining in of Union powers, privatisation, monetarist economics, tax incentives and so on. The Thatcher revolution was born.
It’s now 2020, nearly 50 years after “Stepping Stones” was written, and we’re facing, it might be argued, a cultural crisis in Britain as urgent as the economic one of the 1970s. Statues have been toppled by the mob, with a London mayor threatening to rewrite our cultural landscape. We have a supine, guilt-ridden police force, and schools and universities frantically rewriting their syllabuses to bow the knee to an organisation which – by its own description – has a Marxist agenda: the list could run on and on. Yet in this drift to the hard left, you sense, as Hoskyns did, that everything is connected, that all these problems feed each other, that it’s one organism, in fact, that stands behind them all.
The perfect moment then for a new wiring diagram, to connect all the debilitating causes (and effects) of our time: the training of teachers, the teaching of history, the massive over-representation of the liberal left in our universities. The reluctance of conservatives to serve on quangos. How research grants are awarded. How Arts Council policy is made. How staff are recruited at the BBC, and the exact nature of the bias this leads to. The faulty logic behind the assumption that Britain is a uniquely racist country, and how this spills out into violence against statues and people. The dubious reassignment of police staffing and funds to deal with online hate offences. The admission – by the Met in 2018 – that upwards of 90% of burglaries and thefts go unsolved. And the sense that all these things are perhaps myriad symptoms of the same disease.
In Dominic Cummings’ fabled group of “weirdos and misfits”, it’s to be hoped at least two of them have the right analytical nous to do it – produce a new Wiring Diagram for our time, and better tomorrow than later. “The truth is,” the Stepping Stones report said, “that there is never a convenient time for strategic thinking. Strategy can be defined, for practical purposes, as the careful thinking we wish we had done two years ago, but don’t have time to do today…” Tactics in themselves were not enough, for these too had a tendency to fragment: “the strategists have at least a tendency to win, while the tacticians are almost certain to lose.”
Boris has sometimes been a tactician of flair, yet strategy and its accompanying cultural victories have seemed – so far – to belong ineffably to the other side. Time now for a rethink, for something more radically assertive, and to remember Hoskyns’ words again: “It’s going to be very unpleasant, and we’re going to be hated, and the better the things we do, the more hated we will be.”
You can’t help wondering, though, what other choice there is. Or as Mrs. Thatcher herself, Wiring Diagrams aside, might well have put it: “There is no alternative.”
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe