Cecil Parkinson: Underestimated – but unbowed
Even among Mrs Thatcher’s original shadow Cabinet, there were those who simply did not believe that she would be capable of dealing with the problems of a declining country. To a man they were wrong.
Each underestimated the determination of Margaret Thatcher. She did not regard the manifesto on which she had been elected as a set of pledges designed merely to win an election and to be abandoned when the going got tough.
The atheist spring that began just over a decade ago is over, thank God. Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.
So what was all that about, then? We can see it a bit more clearly now. It was an outpouring of frustration at the fact that religion is maddeningly complicated and stubbornly irritating, even in largely secular Britain.
I’ve been scratching my head for the past half hour trying to work out how I would react if I were a Conservative MP and a BBC reporter stuffed a microphone in front of me and told me that Arthur Scargill had just died. I know I wouldn’t punch the air, but a syrupy tribute?
I think not. It would go something like this: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Scargill was a charismatic leader to his followers but one whose legacy was to destroy the industry he loved, and all for his own ego.
Over the past few years a new trend has emerged in British journalism. Our trade has become over-run with reporters or columnists who are not quite what they seem. They pretend to report objectively on events. In practice the true loyalty of these campaigning reporters or columnists is not just to their readers.
Sometimes covertly, sometimes furtively, they also further the agendas of political parties and interest groups.
In 1975, when Keith Joseph dropped out of the race for the Tory leadership and his campaign manager stepped into his place, almost no one took it seriously. She was ‘precisely the sort of candidate… who ought to be able to stand, and lose, harmlessly’ said the Economist. Only one publication in Britain backed her then, and our endorsement is reprinted in our supplement. The values she represented are the ones The Spectator has championed for decades: small government, low taxes and personal freedom.
The day Mrs Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition was a nightmare. Her victory over Mr Heath meant that I had to do a cartoon featuring her for the next day’s Daily Telegraph. But her arrival had been so swift that I barely knew who she was, and had almost no idea what she looked like. I had a problem.
I don’t remember getting the photographs from her file in the picture library to draw from. My memory begins as I sat at my desk and looked through them.
A doctor providing geriatric care once told me of the damage Mrs Thatcher had done to the NHS. He used to employ a simple test to find out whether his elderly patients had become seriously gaga. He would ask them who the Prime Minister was: as their minds weakened so the only name they came up with was Winston Churchill. But after Mrs Thatcher had become Prime Minister even the most confused of his elderly patients gave the right answer.
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.
It is worth pointing out yet again that Mrs Thatcher really was very brave last Friday. It would have been no disgrace to her if, once she had realised how narrow had been her escape, she had felt weak and — as did a few of the Tory wives in the Grand Hotel — had sat down and cried. There would have been nothing cowardly in cancelling what remained of the Conference in honour of the dead and injured.
‘Délégation Royaume Uni. Salle 4’ announces a scruffy piece of paper projected onto the black and white television screens of the Centre Charlemagne. The journalists hurry upstairs for the latest from Mr Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s press secretary. Mr Ingham is not conspicuously communautaire. He tells us who spoke in the session — Mr Lubbers, Herr Kohl, Mrs Thatcher and ‘Mr Papandreou — I always call him Mr Papadopoulos’.
A little rejoicing is now in order, but only a little. We may rejoice that the Falklands war did not end in a bloodbath at Port Stanley, that the Argentinians did not stage a last doomed defence of the islands’ capital. We may rejoice at the performance of our armed forces who have conducted themselves with great skill and courage and with as much humanity as is possible in war. We may rejoice that they achieved their objectives, for to have lost a war against the Argentinians would have been an unthinkable disaster.
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.
If I start with a reference to the sorry condition of the Tory party, I hope readers will not immediately turn to another page. If only the Tories can take a fairly cool look at themselves, it will quickly be apparent that the condition is not as serious as all that; and that it is certainly capable of repair. Housman’s ancient ‘three minutes of thought’ will suffice to show that there is only one direction in which the Tories can go.
Politicians can be divided into two categories; those whose public face is different from their private face and those for whom they are the same; put another way, those who feel it necessary in public appearances to put on an act, and those who manage to remain themselves. Among the latter are (or were) such disparate characters as Jack Kennedy, Willy Brandt, Jo Grimond, Edward Heath, Neil Kinnock; and among the former Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Harold Wilson and Arthur Scargill (if you don’t like that list, you are welcome to make your own).