Ferdinand Mount

Mrs Thatcher’s triumph

12 May 1979

Mrs Thatcher’s triumph
Text settings

There was never a more disenchanted victory. The moment the size of the Tory swing was known, the doubts began, not least among those hundreds of thousands who had voted Conservative for the first time in their lives. Would the unions allow Mrs Thatcher to govern? Would the promised tax cuts be blown in betting shops and strip clubs, instead of fructifying in the pockets of the people? Would investors once again be fatally attracted to the hustlers and twisters? Was there any way of bridging the growing gulf between North and South? Did the British people as a whole have any stuffing left in them? Could any government muster the zest to halt the de-industrialising of Britain? Was this to be yet another false dawn, a surrender to a fresh set of illusions?

This wary reaction is partly the legacy of the successive convulsions of failure, partly the legacy of Mr Callaghan’s scepticism. For nobody has taught us better than our late and now lamented Prime Minister to distrust the pretensions of government and to expect little and receive less. And it is precisely this atmosphere which favours an incoming government dedicated to reducing its own role — in contrast to 1970, when people still believed that governments could cure economic ills without unpleasant side-effects.

It was a famous victory, the greatest swing since the 1945 general election. Even that swing was exaggerated, because there had been no election for ten years. This time, a party which had been divided, dispirited and bereft of policy or purpose (and in October 1974 recorded its lowest share of the popular vote in living memory) has been returned to power with a comfortable majority, a huge popular vote and a clear sense of direction. The Tories won over three million votes more than they had in October 1974. Had the constituency boundaries not been biased against them, they would have had a majority of nearer 100.

If it is wrong to minimise the scale of the victory, it is even worse to trivialise the reasons for it. The feeling that ‘it is time for a change’ was neither vague nor unthought-out. There is no doubt that a great number of voters identified strongly with Mrs Thatcher’s policies; and that is why it is indisputably her victory. Not because she is charming or popular, or a persuasive speaker, but because people want what she wants.

James Callaghan and his colleagues are now consoling themselves with the explanation that it was all the unions’ fault. As the voters stepped inside the polling booths, they were suddenly reminded of the lorry drivers with axe-handles, the rats in Leicester Square and all the other horrors of last winter. Had it not been for the bloody-mindedness of the union leaders and their failure to restrain their members for a few more months, we are told, Labour would have been saved.

This is a shallow and dangerous delusion. The revulsion against the Labour government goes back further and deeper. For three years, by-elections have shown a strong and steady swing to the Tories. Concordats are not enough. People expect more of their governments than the ability to pay hush money in a dignified and timely manner. The Labour party must not conceal from itself its failure to identify Labour with any of the modern popular causes: lower taxation, home ownership, choice and quality in education. People wish to be what they call ‘free’. And Mrs Thatcher is the only British politician, not just in this election but for a long time, who has been able to talk about freedom without embarrassment or ambiguity.

She may grate upon refined susceptibilities, but voters know what she is talking about. She dominates this parliament, not because she fought a dazzling campaign — she didn’t — but because she has singlehandedly wrenched Conservative policy, against the instincts of a consensual Shadow Cabinet, in the direction of an individualist and populist Toryism. On the eve of the poll she quoted André Gide: ‘All this has been said before but it’s so important that it must be said again.’ She may have called him Gheed, but how often is the old pederast quoted in Finchley anyway?

And what matters is that she did say it again — and again and again, until there could scarcely be anybody in Britain who was ignorant of the fact that she stands for less government and lower taxes and for people ‘standing on their own two feet’. This clarity, this emphaticness is valuable in itself, for one of the things that has weakened the public faith in politics is the predominance of convictionless, wind-blown politicians. Here is somebody who believes in something or a set of somethings and who by her very conviction liberates her opponents to think and talk about the things that they believe. Whether Margaret Thatcher succeeds or fails as Prime Minister, there can be no doubt that as leader of the opposition she has gingered up the argument.

Will she succeed? Easily the most significant appointment to her Cabinet is that of Mr John Biffen as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Mr Biffen is the resigning type; he abandons office easily and if he thinks the government is spending too much money, he’ll be out before you can say ‘minimum lending rate’. At the same time, Mr Nigel Lawson, the No. 3 in the Treasury team, can be relied on to expostulate volubly at any sign of financial imprudence. Not that anyone doubts that Geoffrey Howe’s heart is in the right place; he has always been a secret monetarist; but among his many amiable qualities is a preference for the quiet life.

To those like Mr Enoch Powell who continue to argue that the new government will perform a U-turn within six months, one can only say that this particular Treasury triad — Howe, Biffen, Lawson — is the most economically literate Treasury team since the resigning triad of Thorneycroft, Birch and Powell himself. And it is important to note she has placed another triad of sympathisers in the industrial departments: Keith Joseph at Industry, John Nott at Trade and David Howell at Energy. She has carefully kept the paternalist subsidisers and interveners well away from the economic departments. The soft eggs — Whitelaw, Carlisle, Jenkin — are all engaged on humane missions. But the best thing to be said about this Cabinet is that it is the most experienced Cabinet to come in with a decent majority and a mandate for change since 1951.

In both 1964 and 1970, the leading figures in the Ministry were woefully short of experience, particularly the chastening experience of failure. But half Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet were with Mr Heath in the Götterdämmerung of 1974. And some of those who were not there to say boo to Ted are men of independent judgment with nothing much to gain by staying mum, like Angus Maude and Christopher Soames. In fact, the number of ministers capable of answering back at this Cabinet table looks somewhat above average, although a fatal solidarity always tends to set in round that green baize.

At first sight it may seem odd that Mrs Thatcher has brought in Peter Walker while keeping out Ted Heath. To use the distasteful language of the trade, why hire the monkey and not the organ-grinder? But that is precisely the point. Mr Walker’s energy and enthusiasm are as large as his capacity for political thought is small. Point him in the right direction and he’ll do you proud. He has been both anti-EEC and pro-EEC in his time; as Agriculture Minister, he can move butter mountains or leave them be as required. And in trade negotiations he will have Mr Nott’s sceptical zest at his side.

But here one begins to enter caveats, riders and other unpleasant things. Try as I may, I still cannot fully appreciate the virtues of Lord Carrington. I have tried rising early and repeating to myself while shaving: ‘Immense experience... aristocratic charm... shrewd head for business… much respected in Foggy Bottom and on the Quai d’Orsay.’ But it’s no good. I just can’t help recalling that Lord Carrington was both Energy Secretary and chairman of the Conservative party during the three-day week and the February 1974 general election. Not his fault of course. Could happen to anyone. Anyway, he may turn out to be the most splendid, loyal and discreet Foreign Secretary — even better than Dr David Owen.

Mrs Thatcher’s judgment may itself be judged by those Shadow Cabinet members she has dropped or downgraded and by her refusal to give in to the sentimental clamour for ‘a job for Ted’. One of the most tiresome conversation games for the past few months has been to think of a post for Mr Heath which would be senior enough to satisfy his amour-propre but which would not give him a chance to interfere with the general direction of policy. No such post exists. Whatever Cabinet post he had been offered, it would have given him a seat on numerous Cabinet committees in which he would have opposed the new emphasis — Europe, industrial support, Northern Ireland, Scotland.

At the outset anyway, Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet seems to have the kind of sober, wary but resolute aspect which suits the times. If and when it falls flat on its face, the banana skin will have to be cunningly placed. In fact, bogging down seems the greater risk than confrontation or collapse. I feel more confident of Jim Prior’s ability to achieve some kind of working relationship with the trade unions than I do of the new government’s chances of getting substantial and lasting reductions in expenditure past the entrenched bureaucracy. Equally, I feel much more confident of the chance of comfortable relations with both the European Community and the United States than with the prospects of reducing the agricultural surpluses and correcting the Community’s bias towards bureaucratisation.

British governments are always in danger of doing too little rather than too much. But the omens are not to be sniffed at. A cautious half-glass of good ordinary claret may safely be raised to the future.