Why I can never, never let up
Brian Walden is a master interviewer whose subtle probing persuades his subjects to open up where more aggressive questioners might fail. In a fascinating heart-to-heart with the prime minister at Downing Street, he unveils:
• Her hatred of snobbery and snobs;
• Her belief in the essential fairness of the British people;
• Her wish to carry on as prime minister for two more elections;
• Her feeling that she has not yet found a worthy successor;
• Her faith in the values learned from her father;
• Her fears that she would not succeed
The Margaret Thatcher I know is not the one I read about. I find her frank, good-humoured, entirely without snobbery and willing to tolerate a fair measure of leg-pulling, vulgarity and impertinence. I have never met this other Thatcher, the arch-fiend, who has no human feelings and cannot be contradicted.
“What do you think of this constant characterisation of you as an authoritarian virago?” I asked her.
“Well, it is absolutely ridiculous,” she replied. “You cannot have my job and have had a vision, a dream, a will to turn Britain round, to live up to the best of herself, without being more than a chairman of a committee. The view I take is: that a prime minister has a task of leadership. If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? All right, so I give a certain sound.
“Yes, you do have to be very firm and so you may well get this kind of reputation. But, if I might speak up for myself, look what it has done for Britain.
“I do not think I have ever been ruthless. Ruthless is quite different. But if one has a sense of purpose, they call that authoritarianism. It is totally false, but there you are.”
This covered the authoritarian part of the question, but I remained interested in the “virago” bit, the “loud, violent and ill-tempered woman” as the dictionary defines that word.
So I tried again: “I can understand someone who says ‘I do not believe in Thatcher or Thatcherism, but I admit she is a vivacious old thing’. Why can't they say that? Why must they hate you so much?”
That one touched the spot. Though she always denies it, the personal attacks do wound her and, in my opinion, drive her back inside herself, so that her seeming indifference acts as a shield. Her reply came rapidly.
“Success is not an attractive thing to many people - they do not like it. They do not like my success. And, of course, some of them are snobs. They can never forgive me for coming from a very ordinary background. It does not bother me at all. I cannot stand snobbery of any kind.”
Was there also, I wondered, an old-fashioned feeling that a woman ought to be dithery and weak? Wasn't she puzzling to some because she wasn't like that?
“I think that is part of it, because, as you know, the House of Commons is still very much male-dominated and there is something about them, a sort of ‘little woman’ thing. It would be all right if I had gone into what they would regard as one of the traditional professions. All right if I had followed Florence Nightingale. All right, you know, if I had gone into teaching.
“Yes, it is rather patronising. The best compliment they can give a woman is that she thinks like a man. I say she does not, she thinks like a woman.”
Many politicians who speak of compassion would not weep at their own mother's funeral: why did she not copy them and fake some emotion? Why not pretend to feel it, even when she didn't?
She was shocked: “I could not! I could not!” Pretence is alien to her, part of the foreign world of the snobs and patronisers. She wants to persuade, but will use no artifice to do it.
This reminded me that I had seen my old friend John Mortimer on the Wogan programme where he had said something along the lines of: “Thatcher has an enormous majority. Everybody is terrified by her. They cower when she speaks. Why is she always so cross with us?” I thought the comment unfair, but it tickled me.
Her reaction to this remark was surprising. It was the claim that people were afraid of her she found annoying: “Cower! Not true! Cower indeed! Has he ever watched an interview?
‘Am I cross with the British people? Good heavens, no. Why do you think I have been through all this if I am cross with them?’
Tell him to watch an interview. The interviewers do not cower.” She gazed fixedly at me, daring me to cower.
But was she cross with the British people? “Good heavens, no. Why do you think I have been through all this if I am cross with them?”
So why did Mortimer and people like him think she was? “He does not like the policies. He does not like the success and he finds the firmness one needed to carry it through unfeminine, so he tries to attack that. He is probably also quite cross that one still stays fresh after nine years and even more determined than at the beginning.”
Not that she did not feel a certain pity for Mortimer and his ilk, poor things: “I think that some people who have done well, especially under my government, have been almost made to have a guilt complex about it.”
Of course, she reflected, revolutionary doctrines, like communism, usually came from intellectuals and academics: “They have a terrible intellectual snobbery and their socialistic ideas come out of the top drawer. They think that they can destroy what exists and that only they know what those who come from the same human clay want.
“They think they have a talent and ability that none of the rest of the human race has. That is the ultimate snobbery, the worst form of snobbery there is. Only put them in charge and the poor will have everything. So the poor put them in power and discover the rulers have everything and the poor have nothing.”
For a moment she looked sad as she reflected upon the intellectual vanity that leads the top drawer to ruin the lives of the bottom drawer. But she remembered modern Britain possessed one great consolation: “I have given power to the people - because I believe in the people.”
She believed in giving people what they wanted, not what the snobs thought they ought to want. She had always believed in a wider spread of property ownership, because she understood what the vain, clever people did not understand - that you cannot have freedom without responsibility.
“And in enlarging your responsibility, why should you not have your own property, just like the top drawer does? But some academics and intellectuals do not understand that and are putting out what I call poison. Some young people, who were thrilled to bits to get to university, had every decent value pounded out of them.
“Luckily it takes a long time to destroy fundamentally what people feel, and I just got it in time. Had we had another 10 years of that, it would have been gone beyond repair - except that even the Soviet Union is finding the truth of what I am saying.”
Very Well, as she had stemmed the infidel tide and put things right, why did she not take things easy, do what one of her supporters suggested and luxuriate in the “serene enjoyment of placid success”?
“For the same reason that anyone who has been successful does not lie back. Do you think Marks & Spencer would be successful if it were still producing the goods which were successful 10 years ago? Success has to be earned. As Goethe said: ‘That which thy fathers bequeathed thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it’.
“You have to re-earn your success anew every year, so you always keep going. The moment you lie back, you are finished, because you are no longer re-interpreting. I remember the lines of James Lowell:
New occasions teach new duties: time makes ancient good uncouth.
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth.
“You never sit back, because you would lose. Your brain, your personality, it is with you from the day you are born to the day you die. Use it!”
She was animated and firing on all cylinders, so I judged this the moment to introduce policy questions. As re-interpretation was in her mind, what about re-interpreting the poll tax? Some Tories thought it was the only issue that could cost her the next election. So why not muddle on with the rates?
“I will tell you why. People said to me: ‘Well, there are so many losers, there are so many gainers’. But do you really think one determines one's policy on losers or gainers? Do you really think that just because we have got a lot of people who have never paid rates and who are now going to pay community charge, that we say ‘Goodness me, they will be losers’? We cannot do it.
“The fact is the rates situation has been totally inequitable: a lot of people pay far too much and some people pay nothing. You determine your policy on the best thing you can do with equity and fairness, so you have a community charge.”
There now followed an amusing and revealing interlude. I suggested a series of dodges, expedients and compromises. Her eyes sparkled at the chance of a thunderingly good argument, complete with gesticulation, interruptions, cut and thrust. What fun! No, she wasn't going to budge. The community charge would only meet a quarter of local government expenditure. Those who really could not pay would be helped. The national taxpayers made a huge contribution and income tax was a progressive tax.
Then why not, I wondered, take education away from local authorities, since that is what most of their money goes on? That would reduce the poll tax (I kept calling the community charge by its nasty name).
But, no, that would not do either. She had been education secretary and knew the administrative limitations. “The department of education and science could not make all the decisions with regard to schools. It would just not be possible. They would not know the circumstances. It is difficult enough when you have education at county level, it really is.”
Some of her supporters thought the poll tax was fair, but sometimes too onerous on one household. If there are six young adults at home, that is going to come to a tidy sum. Why not put a limit on what any one household had to pay?
“But why? Why? It is a personal charge. Six people in the house means six people have had education. Why should they opt out of paying for education when there are six of them who have had it? Why?”
I decided to put the frighteners on. What about the votes she would lose? Why risk everything for this damned charge? I feared for her. Didn't she fear for herself?
“Are you ever afraid of anything?”
“Why should I be afraid when I have an explanation for what I do? Are you saying it is wrong for a widow who lives alone to pay less than six wage-earners in the house next door? You are against the single person who looked after her parents all her life until they died and who is now living alone in the same house.
“You want all the benefits, but you want to opt out of paying the only local tax there is. Watch it, or you'll end up like the left-wing who tell people they can have all the rights and no responsibilities. Morality for them is how deeply they can put their hand into the taxpayer's pocket, a public auction in which they keep in with their constituents, by spending the money of somebody else's constituents.
“But I trust the instincts of the British people. Fairness is the most deeply ingrained thing in the British character. My opponents can tell all the lies they want, but fairness, that is my aim. I cannot get everything absolutely fair, but I can get it reasonably fair.”
We had both thoroughly enjoyed this passage of arms. I reflected how little her critics understand Margaret Thatcher. She loves a fight and expects you to fight back. The sly courtesy of the old ruling groups she distrusts. Speak your mind, tell the truth and stand your corner. She likes that, because she is a child of her background and feels at ease when the talk is plain. It helps her to think.
While she was in the mood, I asked her why, despite all the money the government spends, she had not got rid of primary poverty?
She wasn't falling for that. She agreed that £54 billion would be spent next year on various aspects of the security and welfare system, and that did not include the health service. But what did primary poverty mean? Eventually we agreed on a definition. However she had another bone to pick with me. “Would you know what the acceptable poverty standard is? It is being revised upwards constantly.”
I said I thought that the poverty standard was a comparative concept. “Oh yes,” she said. “Of course it is. So that the bottom is higher up. You know, there are some people who would rather the bottom were lower down, provided the top were a lot lower down. They hate the top going up and pulling up the bottom.
“Because the top goes up, we are able to distribute much, much more. There are some people who would rather push it down. It is a policy of despair and envy and hatred and jealousy.”
She talked a lot more about poverty, stressing the need for those who are not poor to be generous with their time and money. She showed no regret that so much money was being spent and seemed willing to spend more.
Rather to my surprise, she expressed great sympathy with those who slept rough. She gave an imaginative account of how they came to distrust the welfare bureaucracy and, to my ‘The question is: who can take the banner forward best?’ secret amusement, informed me: “It is very, very difficult underneath the arches.”
Thinking we had had enough sweetness and light on that subject, I tried another line of questioning and brought up a most gratifying gusher of revelation.
“You look fit as a fiddle to me. I am not your doctor so I might be wrong. You might be suffering from all kinds of terrible ailments, but it doesn't look like it. Are you going to run again in '91?”
“Well, I hope so, I hope so,”
“And how about '95?”
“It is not only up to me, Brian. The fact is I have to be reappointed as leader of the party.”
No denial about running in 1995. This was promising stuff and I wanted more. I said, quite truthfully, that I did not want to see her go.
“I do not hang on for the sake of hanging on. I hang on until I believe there are people who can take the banner forward with the same commitment, belief, vision, strength and singleness of purpose.”
Inwardly, I became very interested in these banner carriers and most anxious to know whether they were among the present generation of Tory bigwigs. If not, the banner carriers she had in mind were still maturing, and plainly she would have to soldier on until they were ripe. Another question got me no further forward. Finally, I pressed the right button:
“You are not going to pack up just because you have reached some arbitrary date, are you?”
“Oh no, no, because that would be throwing away everything for which I have fought. What I am saying is the things for which I have fought and believe in passionately are the most important things, and the question is: who can take the banner forward best?
“There will come a time when people will say: ‘Well, she has had a good run and, look, there are these several young people who could be leader’.”
I had got what I wanted. At some unspecified future date the Tory party is going to notice the leadership potential of young ministers. My opinion is that Margaret Thatcher is certain to lead the Tories into the election of 1991 and, if she wins, very likely to lead them into the election of 1995. Those who fancy a bet on the closing date of the Thatcher era could do worse than put a bob or two on 1997.
Poking about to see if I could elicit any other characteristics of the coming men, apart from their adherence to Thatcherite principles, I was readily supplied with one by the prime minister. They will “not be people who constantly compromise”.
This emphasis on personalities had led to the conversation drifting onto leading contemporary political figures, and I was in for another surprise. I spoke kindly of Neil Kinnock, which provoked no interest, and then said I admired David Owen. She at once became enlivened.
“I think he has a very big decision to take. There are basically only two ways in which to run a country - one is the socialist way and one is the conservative way - and I think he perhaps realises that at the back of his mind. He has very little in common with socialism.
“The questions he asks are what I call ‘splinter thoughts from the great stem of the oak tree’ and he just has to decide whether he is going to join the basic stem of the oak tree or not.”
I asked her if she respected Owen.
“I do have respect for him. He has a feel for what is concerning ordinary folk, and that I recognise. He has a feel for crime. He has a feel for defence. He has a feel for these fundamental things. He can spot what ordinary people are concerned about.”
Thinking of Owen put the collapse of the Alliance into my mind. For the moment, many of its former voters seem to have gone to Labour, which is currently very close to the Tories in the opinion polls. A slippage in the polls between elections is not all that significant; nevertheless, dreams of the future depend upon winning general elections. So why was Labour recapturing electoral favour?
“I will tell you,” she said. “The voters do not expect the Tory party to be split. Yes, they expect if from Labour. They do not expect the Tory party to be split, and that is “I have respect for David Owen. He has a feel for what is concerning ordinary folk’ what has happened. But when it comes up to the election the Tory party will not be split.”
Obviously the split - she used the word several times - in the party was admitted and it rankled rather more than I had expected, because further questioning produced a pained rebuke to the Tory malcontents. “They wanted us to have a fundamental manifesto, and then some of them run away from the effect of the fundamentals.”
Her mind dwelt on the difference between her vision and that of traditional Toryism. “I have heard politicians with far more seniority than I sometimes say: ‘The country will not understand that’. It is a way of saying the people will not understand that, and I very often said: ‘You underestimate them. They will understand it.’
“In the hearts of the people, they want those who are genuinely unfortunate to be looked after. Never fear that I don't understand. Those are the fundamentals. I learnt them from my father”
“A great broad principle they will understand.”
There followed an explanation of her reason for being so confident that, whatever their reservations, most people understand what she is trying to do. It took the form of an affectionate and most touching tribute to her father. Her eyes shone as she delivered it. Her ideas are inherited from her father, as is her courage and strength of character. In my view, he has been the moving spirit of her entire life.
“I used to talk with my father many, many times. If I say he was a very clever man who never had an opportunity of education, you will know exactly what I mean. But he had great breadth of vision. I could talk to him about anything. I could talk to him about the great financial matters of the country. I talked with him on the broad values.
“He was not fooled by Hitler. Long before most people, he saw what was happening. He did not say of the dictators: they make the trains run on time. He could analyse a situation. He understood the fundamentals. He taught me to respect people who live decent, honourable lives among terrible things.
“And I know there are terrible things and I am going to get rid of them - for the sake of everybody, but especially the decent people they hurt most.
“This is where you find an echo in the hearts of the people, because they want those who are genuinely unfortunate to be looked after. Never fear that I don't understand. Those are the fundamentals. I learnt them from my father.”
Alderman Alfred Roberts, ordinary grocer of Grantham, had a hard time before he succeeded. But was any man better loved by his daughter?
Seeking a way to round off the interview, I asked her which of her achievements she valued most, a somewhat limp question, which got a better answer than it deserved.
“I believe that our policies have brought out the very best in the British character, a sense of freedom and responsibility, and it is that I am proud of, because it is that which made Britain great.”
I was starting to stand up, thinking it a good point at which to conclude, but she had not finished. She was eager to say more.
“I want to tell you something. I used to have a nightmare for the first six years in office that, when I had got the finances right, when I got the law right, the deregulation etc, that the British sense of enterprise and initiative would have been killed by socialism.
“I was really afraid that when I had got it all ready to spring back, it would no longer be there and it would not come back. And it really did not show for six years, not until 18 months before the last election.”
I do not associate Margaret Thatcher with nightmarish doubts, and on her own assertion she never shows fear. Now she was telling me she had secret fears. To be certain I had heard her correctly, I asked: “You were not 100% sure yourself?”
“Indeed I was not 100% sure. I knew if that enterprise and initiative was still there it would come out. My agony was: had it been killed? By prices and incomes policies, by high taxation, by nationalisation, by central planning? Had it been killed?”
Even though I knew an anti-climactic happy ending lurked just around the corner. I was a little taken aback by this admission of the “agony” going on under the surface. Never at the time had I guessed that she regarded national regeneration as a toss-up.
“But then it came. The face began to smile, the spirits began to lift, the pride returned.”
So that was all right then. But it makes one think. I claim to understand Margaret Thatcher, but I wonder if I do? I wonder if anybody does? How much does this passionate, repressed woman keep to herself? Is the certain sound of the trumpet a necessary outer protection for a deep loneliness within?
Not that she has the time, let alone the inclination, for an introspective grope into her own psyche. After the interview she posed obligingly for photographs, though she had a schedule of meetings for the day which would have killed a horse.
Finally, she bustled away: a unique politician and the choice and master spirit of this age.