COLUMN

A most polite and literate execution

BARBARA AMIEL December 3 1990
COLUMN

A most polite and literate execution

BARBARA AMIEL December 3 1990

A most polite and literate execution

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

The procedure was quintessentialy British or, perhaps more accurately, it revealed the British Conservative party at its most base. The men in the grey suits with hair and spectacles to match finally disposed of the grocer’s daughter. Musing on her fate, after winning three elections for her party and commanding what appeared to be the majority of party constituency support, Margaret Thatcher summed up the situation by telling her cabinet, “It’s a funny old world.”

Mrs. Thatcher’s executioners were impeccably mannered even as the tumbrels were rolled out. On Nov. 13, Sir Geoffrey Howe (a graduate of Winchester public school and Cambridge University’s Trinity Hall), who had just quit his job as deputy prime minister over a conflict on European policy with Thatcher, rose in the House of Commons to give his resignation speech. “The time has come,” he said in exquisitely cultivated cadences, “for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have wrestled for perhaps too long.”

Upon hearing that speech, some of us thought back to the time when Thatcher had, in a quick cabinet shuffle a year ago last summer, shifted Sir Geoffrey from foreign secretary and thereby forced the Howes out of the comfy country estate that went with that office. I predicted then that there would be a “revenge of the wives” as the Howes had to go through the awful business of packing. In Sir Geoffrey’s subsequent actions, one could see the hand of Lady Howe, raising the dagger with glee. One could also hear shades of a similar Conservative occasion when Nigel Birch, former treasury secretary, rose in the Commons in 1963 to pronounce on Harold Macmillan. “Never glad confident morning again!” his eloquent speech began, the opening lines of Robert Browning’s “The Lost Leader.” The Tories are never so literate as when committing a political murder.

Treachery in politics is not new, but one is hard put to remember an act quite the equal of

Treachery in politics is not new, but one is hard put to remember an act quite the equal of this. Nor its attendant hypocrisy

this. Nor the hypocrisy attendant upon it. After her resignation, there was a vigorous outpouring of enthusiasm for her by the very party that had just done her in. There was something awful to behold in the spectacle of all those Tories standing up, waving their order papers, cheering the leader they had just knifed.

All of which is not to deny that Thatcher had seen her time. She is not exempt from the human condition, and her political cycle had clearly passed. Though her style and manner were blamed for defeat, upon analysis none of that holds water. She had always been a strong leader, ready to switch cabinet members or abandon their views when it came to very serious policy differences. When she seemed to be on a winning streak, this was described as “forceful.” When it appeared that the voters had turned on her, she simply became “that woman” or “bossy.” Her great strength in victory became the fatal flaw in defeat.

Still, she was Britain’s first peacetime leader of genuine principle in this century, and all knew it. The Tory establishment turned on her, thinking a new face would give it a better chance in the next general election. Backbenchers were panicking at the low opinion polls caused by the flagging British economy.

But in purely practical terms, by forcing Thatcher out in midterm, they have probably managed to do precisely the opposite of what was intended. This is not to say that the Labour Party may not shoot itself in the foot before the next election, or that a revived British economy will not yet save the Conservatives. It is only to say that the Tories would have been wiser to have made some sort of accommodation with her—perhaps a promise that she would resign after the next election. Many who voted Conservative in the last election were Thatcherites first and Tories second. They will not forget. Also, there will be many nonaligned voters who will find this Conservative spectacle of confusion and betrayal so unappetizing that they may well turn their backs on the party as well. If Thatcher had one major flaw, it was that lack so many great leaders have: she was unwilling to groom successors.

In my view, she was and will be proved utterly right when it comes to her preference for Europe as a free trade association rather than a political federation. As the rest of the world deregulates, decentralizes and rejoices in the differences that freedom and self-determination bring, Europe under the plan proposed by Commission President Jacques Delors seems determined to collectivize and constrict. If any single factor can be blamed for sparking Thatcher’s defeat, it may be the cavalier attitude of the Italians, who at the recent summit in Rome infuriated her by their refusal to discuss trade and tariffs restrictions within the EC. This led to Thatcher’s outburst of anger over the way European policy was going, which in turn led Sir Geoffrey to resign.

The full cultural legacy of Thatcherism cannot yet be assessed. An entire generation of children have grown up in Britain never knowing the horrors of life in the pre-Thatcher years. They have no memory of a country ruled by the closed shop, strikes and economic ruin. They know nothing of a time when it was a matter of national shame to be English and when Britain was called “the sick man of Europe.” They will take for granted the rights that Thatcherism has given them—the right to choose the sort of schools their children attend; the right to a medical system that allows patients to be treated as clients rather than liabilities. She has given ordinary people an opportunity to own their homes and to buy stocks. This is a generation that expects to play a large part in determining its own life.

Because so many voters have known little but Thatcherism, it’s hard to tell if they fully appreciate the changes she has wrought. Still, a large battle over the future of Europe looms. Small examples speak to the much larger problem. As the telephone repairman told me the day after Thatcher’s resignation: “Do you know that the Europeans tried to outlaw our sausages? Not enough meat, they said! No more English sausages, they said. And what about the carrots in the jam made by the Portuguese. Well, you know only fruits are allowed in jam, so the Portuguese had the EC define carrots as a fruit. That’s what we’re up against with that lot, and how are we going to fight it all without Margaret?”