Rottweiler that gave a lead to Mrs T
One irascible man helped to give the Iron Lady confidence that her ideas would work
ALFRED SHERMAN was an impossible man. Mean-spirited, spiteful, envious and resentful, he never had a good word to say about anyone else’s intellect and overvalued his own. He had moved to the political Right from the millenarian Marxist Left, without abandoning its sectarian habits of mind. He thought that a firing-squad was too good for anyone who disagreed with him.
Sherman, who died last week, was also prey to temper tantrums that would have disgraced an overtired three-year-old. But for a few years, this improbable figure made a crucial and beneficent contribution to modern British history.
Margaret Thatcher was the first Tory leader to use the word “intellectual” wholly as a term of approval, without any ironic reserve. There was an irony in that, for she was not one. If an intellectual is interested in the play of ideas and ready to follow an argument wherever it leads, that did not apply to Mrs Thatcher. Certainly she was happy to follow an argument, as long as she could win it. As for ideas, she wanted them in her camp as conscript troops, obeying orders.
Yet it was of great importance that Mrs Thatcher should persuade herself of her own intellectual credentials. That gave her the self-confidence to do what she did. Although she had always held strong opinions, she also knew that her views were unfashionable; the sort of stuff one would expect to hear from housewives doing the shopping in Tunbridge Wells while their husbands were expressing similar sentiments at the golf club.
By 1974-75, however, the conventional wisdom that had expressed fashionable disdain for Mrs Thatcher’s housewife remedies was disintegrating in the face of economic breakdown and national failure. She knew that there had to be drastic change, and at that critical moment she was fortified in her conviction by a small group of men including Keith Joseph — and Alfred Sherman. They helped to persuade her that far from being a banal suburbanite, she was at the frontline of economic thinking, alongside Hayek , Friedman and Von Mises .
Sherman made a further important contribution. It arose from yet another unlovely aspect of his character; he was a good hater. That had its uses. When she became leader of the Conservative Party, Mrs Thatcher was in a minority in her Shadow Cabinet. Some senior figures thought that she was propounding voodoo economics. Others gave at best a reluctant assent. As it was vital that she should resist those who wanted her to backslide into Heatho-Keynesianism, Sherman’s relentless outpouring of contempt for the rest of the Tory party was not always unhelpful.
In 1974, even before the beginning of the Thatcher era, Joseph founded the Centre for Policy Studies, with Sherman in charge of the vats of boiling bile. But Sherman was not only a negative influence. He was a considerable debater and his total lack of sentimentality always enabled him to cut through fuzzy thinking. As the late Ian Gow often said: “No conversation with Alfred was ever entirely wasted.”
The CPS became Thatcherism’s think-tank. Though it still does good work, it is no disrespect to the present management to say that it will never again be as important as it was between 1974 and 1979. No think-tank ever has been. That influence could not be sustained.
Once Mrs Thatcher won the 1979 election, it was inevitable that the CPS and Alfred Sherman would become less important in her life. Late at night, in private, Mrs Thatcher enjoyed indulging in wild-eyed radicalism. But not as much as she enjoyed winning elections. During the working day, she understood the need to come to terms with the realities of government. So Sherman, who did not, gave way to rancorous disillusion. He guided the novice Mrs Thatcher and thought that he would continue in that role once she won an election. But she knew that he would not do in government. For him, the disappointment was enduring.
Mrs Thatcher had always been aware of his rebarbative qualities; she would use them to spread alarm and despondency among defaulting speechwriters. She never regarded a speechwriting session as satisfactory until she had tossed and gored several persons, but often, when the late-night drafting was proving fraught even by normal tossing and goring standards, she would threaten the bleary, written-out men that if matters did not improve she would send for Alfred.
He might have been happy with his role as the monstre sacré of Thatcherism, but his was not a personality designed for happiness — or philanthropy. Above and beyond economic efficiency, Hayek believed in free markets because they would liberate human potential and increase the sum of human happiness. No one could have accused Sherman of that.
At a Tory conference Peregrine Worsthorne once offered Sherman a lift. As they walked to the car, Alfred was denouncing the working classes. To a man, they were idle, shiftless, useless: too demoralised by welfare and socialism to be any good for anything.
They arrived at the car, which had a very flat tyre. Neither of them had a clue what to do. Fortunately, a passing member of the working class observed their plight and changed the tyre. He departed. Perry waited for a change of tone: in vain. Sherman merely continued: “As I was saying, absolutely no good, the whole lot of them.”
That said, his encouragement of Margaret Thatcher was far more useful to the working class that he despised than any amount of Tory paternalism. He tried hard not to be, but Alfred Sherman was a good thing.