Toby Young Toby Young

Margaret Thatcher vs the intelligentsia

On a warm summer evening in 1986, the crème-de-la-crème of London’s literary establishment met at Antonia Fraser’s house in Holland Park to discuss how they could bring about the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. Among their number were Harold Pinter, Ian McEwan, John Mortimer, David Hare, Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd, Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie, who referred to Thatcher in The Satanic Verses as ‘Mrs Torture’. With characteristic lack of modesty, they called themselves the 20 June Group — a reference to the plot to assassinate Hitler that was hatched on 20 July 1944.

‘We have a precise agenda and we’re going to meet again and again until they break all the windows and drag us out,’ said Pinter.

Several commentators have pointed out that one of the reasons Thatcher was able to win so many political -battles is because she was blessed with particularly feeble enemies. They’re thinking of Arthur Scargill, General Galtieri and Michael Foot, but these literary giants deserve a mention. They claimed to be of the left and thought of themselves as heroic dissidents, but their objection to the Iron Lady, in essence, was that she threatened the cultural hegemony of Britain’s upper-middle-class elite by unleashing the forces of social mobility. This was obvious from the language that a member of this set, the opera director Jonathan Miller, used to describe her. According to Miller, Britain’s first woman prime minister was ‘loathsome, repulsive in almost every way’. He objected to her ‘odious suburban gentility and sentimental, saccharine patriotism catering to the worst elements of commuter idiocy’. In other words, he didn’t like her because she was a grammar school girl — a ‘Northern chemist’.

Such snobbery was unlikely to turn the mass of the British people against her, yet it was equally apparent in Paradise Postponed, John Mortimer’s 11-part jeremiad against Thatcherism, broadcast in 1986.

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