The Thatcher Government in 1988 had a curious quality about it. By many measures it was impressively strong, dominant even. Yet signs were beginning to show that it was already somewhere on a downward sloping curve, perched in a high place perhaps, but in decline.
It is not surprising that contemporaries struggled to see where things really stood, because it is not much easier decades later. There was talk of dictatorship and miracles, but these were twin impostors. What was not difficult to see was that an enduring realignment had taken place and that there was more to come.
INTRODUCTION: THE GREAT DICTATOR?
MT notes for her Party Conference speech, Oct 1988
"The Japanese refer to it as our economic miracle - / and who are we to argue?"
At the start of 1988, in fact at its finish as well, there was no obvious end in sight to Thatcherism. Labour was still struggling to recover from its shattering election defeat the previous year, the third in succession. The Alliance had imploded as the attempt to merge its two component parties triggered bitter arguments, ending the twelve year leadership of David Steel and propelling David Owen deep into the political long grass. The Conservatives enjoyed solid poll leads for much of the year, often into double digits, while talk of economic miracles and of political realignment was commonplace among the public, politicians and commentators. For image-makers of all kinds, portrait photographers as much as cartoonists, MT was now more Gloriana than Victoria: the fabulous figure of the Virgin Queen – all-powerful, dazzling and dangerous – had displaced the stodgy bourgeois matron of the early 1980s.
What you might call "miracle talk" appears in the 1988 files in a number of forms. There are letters from members of the public, passed to MT for encouragement’s sake. There are efforts from part-time speechwriters to harness the mood and more subtle treatments that avoided the word but invoked the idea. And there is one that appealed to MT personally, which she allowed herself to use in her conference speech, the praise coming from overseas, and therefore permissible: “The Japanese refer to it as our economic miracle – and who are we to argue?”. She used the same device in her speech to a State Government dinner in Sydney on 4 August. For a woman with a superstitious sense that one should never tempt fate, lest nemesis follow, even this oblique form of miracle talk was quite a step.
The government experienced a large number of parliamentary problems during 1988, in the first half of the year especially, as backbenchers rebelled again and again on controversial measures, including many with manifesto authority. One can easily find detailed explainations for these events, yet surely there was something more behind them, a shared root in the far from commonplace, in fact almost unprecedented, type of leadership Britain was now receiving. A significant and growing section of the Conservative Party was beginning to reject what its leader had become, as much as what she was doing or saying. When MT met the Executive of the 1922 Committee on 26 Jan 1988 she was warned by her PPS that they one of the things they wanted to raise with her was the “the problem of a large majority in the House of Commons and an inadequate Opposition leading to the Government being perceived as dictatorial and insensitive to criticism”. Unsurprisingly, when this point was indeed made to her face, MT made an indignant response: “great deal of opp [opposition] H. of C., T.V”. But it was not only critics who saw this quality. Interviewing MT in April for the Sunday Times, writing with insight and sympathy, Brian Walden conjured up the sense of an almost overwhelming power, describing her as “the choice and master spirit of the age”. (We publish the full transcript of this interview for the first time, a chatty semi-private conversation in parts.) Writing with little or no sympathy, but not completely without insight, Joe Haines later in the year simply called her “The Great Dictator”.
Spring-summer 1988: REVOLTING PARLIAMENTARIANS
In a letter to MT looking ahead at the year to come, written in November 1988, Willie Whitelaw endorsed a remark of hers to ministers at the Eve of Session Dinner that second years in Parliaments are always tricky. Large legislative programmes always tend to be frontloaded, controversial measures dealt with early, while the electoral honeymoon has faded.
The first year had been hard enough. In fact the earliest difficulty in 1988, arose not from the government’s own programme, but a free vote on an important question of Commons procedure – whether or not to televise it. MT strongly opposed the proposal and let her view be known. The betting was that the motion would likely be lost on a close vote, but to general surprise it was carried relatively easily by a majority of 54. In the files is a list of Conservative MPs who backed it, with the ministers among them carefully marked for her to study - eight of them in the cabinet, Howe and Hurd among them, Lawson not. Many saw the vote as a slap at MT, Labour having personalised the issue in debate. Disaster was predicted from the measure, by officials as well as politicians - MT's Principal Private Secretary even worried terrorists would exploit it - although arguably it worked to MT’s advantage personally. Although she found the presence of the cameras uncomfortable. some of her most memorable set-piece speeches were those she delivered in the Commons after the arrival of television. But her argument was not that television would be bad for her, rather that it would encourage grandstanding among MPs and that the reputation of the Commons would suffer.
There followed a series of rebellions over benefits, including the introduction of charging for dental and eye checks, then a major one on the poll tax – Michael Mates's amendment to ‘band’ the charge, in April. MT took these very personally; relations within the Conservative parliamentary party were fraying. She grumbled about meeting Conservative members of the Social Services Select Committee after it issued a report critical of the government and ducked them altogether a few weeks later. After the defeat of the banding amendment her PPS, Archie Hamilton, warned her that Mates himself and one of the other leading rebels were due for drinks the following month and strongly urged her to go ahead with the engagement. “Just …” was her answer, The strength of feeling on the topic in No.10 is suggested also by a personal note Charles Powell sent her after the vote: “Well done! A respectable result, thanks to a strong will. And a great relief to those who care”. This was the kind of thing she sometimes received from senior officials after fighting off the Soviets or battling with the EC, not her own backbenchers.
There are also signs that personal relations within the government were under strain. Regular Monday lunches at No.10 with ministerial colleagues were revealingly difficult to arrange – for example, care had to be taken with seating plans, which MT studied in advance and sometimes altered in person, a surprising use of precious Prime Ministerial time, a touch reminiscent of President Carter's habit of personally allocating slots on the White House tennis court. “Too many juniors” she wrote on one lunch proposal, although part of the point of these meetings was to get to know her team, and those were the people she knew least well. Some more senior ministers were sending their excuses for these lunches.
One tiny, easily snuffed-out rebellion features in the files, the sequel to an event familiar from Alan Clark’s diary account of confronting MT over the sale of Canadian seal furs, to which he was deeply opposed on grounds of animal welfare. (When MT riposted that he wore leather shoes, he replied “but you wouldn’t want your ministers wearing plastic shoes, would you, Prime Minister?”). Clark did not get his way on this matter and MT's PPS was sent along to the backbench committee meeting to which his climbdown was to be announced to make sure he sang from the hymnsheet. One senses a certain satisfaction in Hamilton’s report of Clark’s humiliation to MT: “It was notable that there was very little interest in the subject under discussion, and that most of the Members present at the beginning of the meeting had left long before it ended”. Hamilton scribbled down the exact words of Clark's timeworn excuse for the withdrawal of his scheme: "Bombed by legal opinion".
On 6 May Wicks told MT that the Chief Whip wanted “a general discussion about the state of the Parliamentary Party”, focussed on “future rebellions”. The gist really was that there was very little he could suggest, beyond a few modest bribes. Rebels were becoming deeply recalcitrant, their views baked in - perennial backbench virgins and ex-ministers with nothing left to hope for, usual suspects of one variety or another. Problems also existed in the Lords. We release MT’s detailed notes for a private pep talk to the Association of Conservative Peers, in which she cordially thanked them for their efforts, but reminded those inclined to oppose the government that its measures had manifesto authority.