Comparisons are for the most part unhelpful but there is one point worth thinking over, says a man who served in Thatcher's first cabinetby David Howell / July 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
As the current political turmoil deepens the cry goes up for strong leadership, with Margaret Thatcher’s name inevitably invoked. “Oh yes,” you hear it said, “she would surely have settled things by now.”
But would she, and could she? And is the comparison between her premiership, beginning just under 40 years ago, and the present situation in any way helpful or valid?
One could begin by remembering that Thatcher had supreme contempt for referendums, so would not have been in the position of her beleaguered successor anyway. But that aside the answer is still is mostly No—simply because circumstances over the decades have altered almost beyond recognition. Indeed, one wonders if the comparison is made so often just because Thatcher and Theresa May are both women.
Yet I believe in one respect the lessons of Thatcher’s times could be of real assistance to the present government. To that we will come in a moment.
First, though, the differences and there is one obvious and fundamental one. Thatcher had a parliamentary majority—modest at first but much bigger later on, and May does not.
Thatcher could be sure of getting her way in the Commons. May is a general almost without troops, relying on rapid day-to-day manoeuvres and surprise tactics not to be trapped or surrounded.
The majority is what gave Thatcher her authority and dominance. It was this that allowed her to be sharp to the point of rudeness to all and sundry round the Cabinet table. Not for her the calm and balanced summing up after hearing all the different viewpoints. On the contrary the Thatcher style was to begin with her own emphatic opinion and then see who was unwise or daring enough to disagree.
One can argue as to whether this was strength or dominance and whether it was this which gave her successive and growing Commons majorities, or whether the majorities begat the growing dominance. But either way this was her authority and she certainly used it.
The second obvious point is that the two prime ministers are at different junctures in history. The Thatcher Cabinet team who assembled for the first time that May morning in 1979 mostly sensed that they (we) were at a watershed. There were to be bitter disputes about precisely which way to go, and how fast. Heads would roll and doubters depart. But the era of state economic mastery was plainly coming to an end and an era of market liberation was beginning. Indeed, beneath the frothing surface of politics it was already well underway.
But there was a sea-change in politics, as Jim Callaghan shrewdly observed, and this gave a momentum and purpose to the new government, after an admittedly wobbly start. May is also at a juncture in history, of course, but it is clearly one of a very different kind.
The third point is that in 1979 we lived in a world which in technological terms was as far away from today as can possibly be imagined. No-one in the 1979 cabinet carried a mobile phone, or had even heard of such a thing. Charles Moore reminds us that there were no Desktop PCs in 10 Downing Street.
Fourth, the international context was simpler. In 1979 the United States supremacy still held, supported strongly by Britain and the rest of western Europe. As the first cracks appeared in the Soviet empire the sense of free world victory was to grow. China was just emerging from internal turmoil, the Indian giant still asleep. The rise of Asia, the post-western world and the turbo-boosting of global capitalism, as the digital age clicked in, all lay ahead and still mostly out of sight.
Finally, there was the story, the theme and the narrative.
By speeches, by asides, by argument, by explanation, by insistence, Thatcher began slowly to establish in the public mind that someone of conviction was in charge of the nation’s direction and that this fitted in with history and destiny. It was certainly to the fury of some (and remains so to this day), and the Falklands war plainly helped—although the signs of change were there before that.
If there is a missing leadership element in the present Brexit-obsessed scene it is this kind of perception—that the whole movement by Britain to a new European relationship is an advance, not a surrender, and not a defeat, so long as it is sensibly and gradually managed, in line both with our historical European role andwith an era of global revolution—perhaps an even bigger turning point than the one we faced 40 years ago.
It is the absence of this contextual frame which leaves the scene so wide open for facile talk of Britain becoming a vassal or a colony, (implying, laughably, that the EU is an empire, when it is now anything but), and for the blindness amongst even quite clever people to see that national common ground is emerging and a bridge being built which must be upheld at all costs, rather than torn down, brick by brick on either extreme side.
Most reasonable folk marvel at May’s resilience. Strong leadership in the sense of Thatcher-like dominance may simply not be available to her.
There are other forms of leadership strength. Deploying them could yet convince the divided public, all sides in the Westminster hothouse and even the lofty Eurocrats in Brussels, that a British path forward is at last on offer, compromise though it may be, and that it is in everybody’s interests to buy into it.