Saturday 13 April 2013

The battle over Thatcher's Britain flares up again, after twenty-two years


Even as a little boy I knew, as everyone did, that Harold Wilson was a devious schemer, but when he died and I heard two analysts discussing him on the Radio 4 lunchtime news I felt sorry for him for the first time. The conservative pulled his reputation to pieces, amusingly, and then Anthony Howard, from Wilson's camp, agreed with most of what the other man had said. Howard felt that Wilson had left behind nothing to remember him by. I felt sorry for the man, but thought it a verdict eminently deserved and an inescapable conclusion. Far from it. Very soon the BBC had woven what is called now 'a narrative' in which Wilson was congratulated for the race relations, sex equality and unfair dismissal laws his governments brought in, which were huge extensions of state power into people's lives. He became a pioneer of the modern age. 

By the way, I see some people are inventing the idea that nothing Mrs Thatcher did would not have happened anyway but she is important because she was a woman. This, as people who remember her well know, is the reverse of the truth, but it makes her a feminist heroine even though she said, 

'I hate feminism. It is poison.'

This is why Glenda Jackson in her attack on Margaret Thatcher was absolutely right in her desire to try to 'stop people rewriting history'. (Miss Jackson said in the House, on the day it reassembled to commemorate Lady Thatcher, that she 'was not a woman - not in my terms'.) That is what is going on in England now - a battle, in some case a literal battle fought by rioters and looters, to decide how history will judge Lady Thatcher and her conservative ideas.

Richard Vinen's excellent book, Thatcher's Britain, seems to vindicate much of the critique I made of her at the time. I have no doubt that unemployment created more hardship than inflation. I failed to see that inflation was a great evil and that it could be squeezed out, though this happened everywhere, not just in the UK. I also am sure that North Sea oil was a chief reason why the Conservatives stayed in power throughout the 1980s.

Vinen is on the left of centre and he does not understand Tories, but he is very astute. Please read Thatcher's Britain, people, but I feel it misses the point that Margaret Thatcher restored England's belief in herself and released a huge amount of energy in the country which had been sent to sleep by social democracy. He makes the point well that she was a very pragmatic politician and that things were surprisingly liberal in her time. People talked all the time in the late 1970s of Britain being in terminal decline and if things were not really quite so bad as they said, this is almost beside the point. People thought very differently in 1990. The statistics are less important than the perception.

Vinen's theme is that what Mrs Thatcher's government did is very different from left-wing legend. Her administration's policy on AIDS is one example. That AIDS did not lead to any noticeable morally conservative backlash is a very remarkable fact, the dog that did not bark in the night, and, I think, regrettable. However, the Conservatives went out of their way to discourage one and pushed condoms instead. Although, as with so many things, Britain in the 1980s was going along with the international zeitgeist. Writing histories of countries in the 1980s is a slightly artificial exercise as so many things happened in the same way at the same time in different countries.

I recommend this book, which is so good because it was written before the thirty year rule made the papers available. The papers often inhibit historians from thinking and seeing what the Americans call the big picture. 

For more on Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and other Prime Ministers click here.


  1. Vinen's book is indeed a good one, I agree. Jenkins Thatcher & Sons puts a quite different perspective and I have a book called Rejoice (can't remember the author) waiting for me for months in the UK about Thatcherism too. All are interesting in presenting different angles, issues and trends. None doubts her considerable achievements, yet all agree that the costs were high. The really interesting question is whether there was any alternative and what we might learn from the experience of growing up with her.

  2. I recommend 4 great books which I have with me in Bucharest: No Turning Back by Paul Addison, When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett and Britain since the Seventies by Black and The transformation of British Social Life 1950-2000, Rosen. Peter Jenkins's and Hugo Young's books written in the 1980s are also very useful and Alan Clarke's wonderful history of the conservative party.

  3. There's no re-writing of history, because there was no single history there to begin with.. and I'm amazed Anthony Howard (RIP) forgot to mention the Open University as Wilson's undeniable legacy. Big picture, man, big picture.

  4. That was what Wilson said was his greatest achievement I recall shortly after he retired. After 8 years as PM.

  5. Yes. More substantive as Macmillan's premiership, about the same as Heath's..

  6. I thought you were being ironic. More than Heath's certainly. Home abolished retail price maintenance and therefore - a tragedy - lost the 1964 election. Macmillan's achievements were huge from decolonisation to universities and immigration reform.

  7. don't think the Robbins Report being accepted by Home means the resulting universities can be chalked down to Macmillan, exactly but you are right about decolonisation.

  8. Anonymous 13 April 12:41, "There was no single history there to begin with". True of history. That is why it is continually re-written. It is never possible to thoroughly and honestly sort it out.