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Margaret Thatcher in The Spectator

Trying to get the mad, broody chicken off her addled eggs

19 August 1989: Even if the poll tax is dropped, people will still feel Thatcher has lost her touch

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

13 April 2013

9:00 AM

A friend who is not normally receptive to left-wing or republican ideas suddenly exclaimed at dinner in my house the other day that he was bored, sickened and disgusted by the Queen and all the royal family, and thought it was high time they were removed. In the mood of the moment, nobody seemed disposed to disagree, although compassionate noises were made from some quarters about the Queen Mother and the Waleses. In the ensuing discussion, everyone observed that they were not aware of having felt this way before, but agreed that they felt it now — that is to say, at about 9.45 p.m. on Saturday, 12 August 1989. There had been nothing to annoy us about the royal family in the news. It traditionally keeps a low profile at this time of year.

There was no reason to attach the slightest importance to this sudden feeling in the company. Apart from the young, whose opinions on most subjects are worthless and two of whom, on this occasion, were in any case French, the company consisted of industrious, successful people in their forties, none of them within twitching distance of the levers of power. Nor did any of the company attach much importance to their change of heart.

Goodness knows how my friend Wallace Arnold would have -reacted, had he been present (he is not the sort of person one has ever yet actually asked to dinner), but my own reaction was to enquire why this change of heart had come about. There seemed to be a general feeling that the royal family had been around long enough; there were too many of them; there was too much about them in the newspapers and magazines; they exercised a generally stultifying influence on the country. More particularly, there seemed to be a feeling among the successful, industrious people in their forties that they had achieved what they had achieved in life without the slightest help from royal quarters, which had never acknowledged their existence by so much as a nod or a wink, let alone a medal for industry or general respectability and taxpaying. Those who did qualify for some mark of royal approval were enjoying an unfair advantage. The whole circus was a faintly hostile irrelevance.


I wonder if similar feelings go any way to explain the almost universal loathing in which Mrs Thatcher is now held in her own party and throughout the upper reaches of the country. It is certainly not that the country has rejected Thatcherism, or thinks that more should be done for the poor, the ill, the mad in our midst. Most aspects of Thatcherism are now firmly rooted in the national consensus. Liverpool, and all who live in it are now the great laughing stock of the country. For all of which we should be grateful. But even as the country has accepted the major tenets of Thatcherism, it repudiates Thatcher with increasing vehemence.

If there is an element of personal disappointment among the motives for this, we must admit it as unworthy and extremely ridiculous, but nobody should be frightened of looking -ridiculous in the search for Truth. It is true that in ten years of power and unfettered discretion in these matters Mrs Thatcher has never asked me to lunch. She has never offered St Peregrine de Worsthorne the knighthood he so richly deserves. She has never even let it be known that she quite enjoyed my last joke but eight about Roy Hattersley, let alone asked us both to help save the nation from modern poetry, universal illiteracy and the Green Death. After ten years it is plain she is never going to do any of these things. It is time for a change. Step forward Sir Geoffrey Howe.

But however much one may convince oneself by scrupulous examination of conscience that one’s own motives are less than totally pure, nobody can seriously suppose that many people outside the tiny circle of her own backbenchers share these lunatic fantasies and subsequent disappointments. Disgust with Thatcher is, as I say, almost universal in the upper reaches of British society, and I refuse to believe that it can be explained by anxiety about the effects of poll tax on the poorer classes, or privatisation of water. At times, it seems to boil down to little more than personal dislike. But she has always been disliked and it has never before persuaded anyone that she was not the best person to lead the Conservative party into the next election.

I think that the reason this dislike has now crystallised into permanent loathing is that people have begun to see her obstinate determination to lead her party to defeat as the greatest obstacle to their future serenity. Poll tax may be the prime cause, and it seems extraordinary that nobody in the Conservative Party realised how unpopular it would prove among their own supporters. But poll tax could be dropped even now at this late stage, and the feeling would remain in the upper reaches of the country that Thatcher has lost her touch: she no longer communicates, like mastodon calling to mastodon across the primaeval swamp, with our typical Sun reader in all his endearingly greedy, halfwitted and revolting tastes and prejudices. She quite simply gets it wrong every time.

Perhaps the last time she got it right was when she sent in an assassination squad to gun down suspected terrorists in Gibraltar. How we all cheered! Good old Maggie, that’s the way to deal with them! The only way to meet terrorism is with terrorism. It is all they understood. That incident may have been the one that convinced me she was not a fit person to run the country, but everyone has had a different sticking point, and everyone has been confirmed in it on numerous occasions since. Perhaps the miscalculation which is most potent of all, and will become more evident as 1992 approaches, is over Europe.

No doubt a majority of the Sun readership, if asked, would declare a preference for being bossed by the British government over being bossed by a bureaucracy based in Brussels, but the truth is that practically nobody gives a fig for British sovereignty. It is something which has no application to their lives or aspirations. The EEC is seen as a great opportunity; the prospect of open frontiers and cheaper booze is all that is left in our spiritually inert age of the prospect of heaven. Nobody but Mrs Thatcher and her cronies cares about the easier movement of drugs and terrorists across frontiers within the Common Market. Those who take an intelligent interest in current affairs would welcome the adoption of a French legal system, based on the inquisitorial rather than the adversarial approach. People are fed up with such of our ancient institutions as are incompetent, unjust, hideously expensive and ultimately cruel, like the law. For every criminal sent to prison for far too long in revolting conditions, two or three get off scot free. The year 1992 offers adventure, change and renewal. Mrs Thatcher threatens to sit on it like a mad, broody hen on addled eggs. The terror is that by behaving like the cat in the adage, Howe will leave it too late to get rid of her before the next general election. Early may fly the Babylonian woe!


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