Image: John Watson

Maurice Saatchi: Conservatives must avoid seeming ‘obsessed with money’

The former adman and Tory peer on his friend Margaret Thatcher and why his party needs to stand up for poorer people
January 25, 2023

“Aside from explaining to all your readers how brilliant I am,” the Tory peer, former adman and close friend of Margaret Thatcher, Maurice Saatchi, says to me down the phone, “is there any other purpose you’ve got in mind?” I can tell I have my work cut out for me. “Do you want me to speak about the Conservative party?” he asks. I tell him yes, among other things. First, though, we’ve got to do the book spiel.

In Do Not Resuscitate, Saatchi, who is 76, imagines he has died of “sudden cardiac arrest” in the House of Lords and is waiting outside the pearly gates (a place “worse than Heathrow Airport”). Before a jury that includes JFK, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe and (of course) Thatcher, Saatchi is forced to defend his life’s record. He talks me through the show trial as though it really happened: “The prosecution did an excellent and brutal job of completely demolishing my entire life, but I did defend myself.” Is the suggestion here that he’s speaking to me from the afterlife? “No,” he says, “I was sent back to deliver this message.” Soon the fourth wall crumbles. “What I’d really like people to do with this book is to buy it,” he admits. “It’s only £20. I mean, that’s a bargain to know whether you’re going to heaven or hell.”

I move on. As founder with his brother Charles of the world’s biggest communications agency, M&C Saatchi, does he have any thoughts on the current state of advertising? “Not really,” he says. There is a moment of silence. “Look, should I just speak about the Conservative party?”

Saatchi, whose first company designed the famous Tory election slogan “Labour isn’t working” in the 1970s, believes the chief problem with the Conservatives today is an intellectual one. “Something has gone wrong with Mrs Thatcher’s idea of the free market,” he says; it has been “taken over by cartels of giant global corporations”. Big companies, he says, are “worse than big government, because at least with big government you can change the boss every now and then.” The Conservative party must not come across as “obsessed with money”; it should be “the party that stands up for people, and for poor people in particular” because “somebody has to do something about the staggering inequality that now exists.” (“The point about money is very important for your readers,” he adds, “who I know are very thoughtful people.”)

Coming from a Tory peer, this is all quite surprising. Does he think Thatcher made any mistakes? “No,” he says. Would he ever consider voting Labour? “No,” he says again. There is another moment of silence. “Look,” he says, “it’s not that I dislike socialism. My wife bought me a 15-foot statue of Lenin, it’s in the garden here. I’m looking at it now.” Cognitive dissonance prevents me from visualising this image. “She knew I was very interested in the Russian Revolution… It was one of the greatest revolutions in the world.”

His late wife—the novelist Josephine Hart, who died of ovarian cancer 12 years ago—is the real reason Saatchi wants to gain admittance to heaven. “That was a calamity,” he says of her death, a little more pensive now. “I strongly advise you not to get cancer.” He regrets not having done more to help, “but I did my best,” he says, alluding to his controversial Medical Innovation Bill, which was intended to enable doctors to use unconventional treatments. The bill was ultimately rejected, but Saatchi hopes a different act it helped inspire has “done some good.”

“Anyway, shall I let you go now?” he begins to chirp up again. “When is this marvellous piece of praise for Maurice going to come out?” Well, Maurice, if you’re reading—here it is.