Saturday, 16 January 2016

"Mrs Thatcher is the point at which all snobberies meet" - why she drove the snobby Left round the twist

Possibly the best chapter in the magnificent second volume of Charles Moore’s three-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher (The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants) is the penultimate one, “What they saw in her”, in which he examines the Left’s reaction to the Member for Finchley during her second term as Prime Minister (1983-87). According to Charles Clarke, who was Neil Kinnock’s Chief of Staff in the ‘80s, “Margaret Thatcher’s greatest strength was our uselessness.” Their uselessness took a very specific form: an utter inability to understand or even to examine the reasons for Mrs Thatcher’s extraordinary electoral success. Convinced of her wickedness, they thought that “they only had to point this out loudly enough and voters would desert the Conservatives.” Moore goes on, “Never… did they coldly analyse why she was winning, in order to ensure that she would lose.”

Instead, they resorted to the sort of premium-grade, virtue-signalling, alarmist bullshit that Neil Kinnock invariably produce as a substitute for sound political or economic ideas: “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.” It would take Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair (another treble election winner) to grasp that the electorate was no longer willing to fall for this sort of posturing tosh, and that most British voters didn't see themselves as victims in need of protection by an obnoxious Welsh gasbag against greedy, marauding toffs.

But it isn’t the reaction of left-wing politicians at the time that’s interesting: it’s the sheer frothing, spittle-flecked rage she engendered in the left-liberal media, academia and arts establishments.  In particular, it’s the jaw-dropping snobbery displayed towards one bossy, opinionated, upstart provincial woman that now seems astonishing. For instance, the Oxbridge philosopher Mary (later Baroness) Warnock, came up with this gem: “Watching her choose clothes at Marks and Spencer there was really something obscene about it.” Obscene? Really? Novelist Alice Thomas Ellis described her in one novel as being like a mouse - “a shop mouse, her head stuck in a yellowed meringue, a mean little mouse bred on cheese rind and broken biscuit, platitudinous parings of a grocer’s mind.” What’s so despicable about grocers' minds? (Ms Ellis thought of Michael Foot as a teddy bear - in which case he’d be the only one in history to have accepted secret payments from the Kremlin).

The odious Jonathan Miller called her “loathsome, repulsive in almost ever way.” A case of pots and kettles? He also said she had “the diction of a perfumed fart”. (Hard to know whether this is accurate or not as I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a perfumed fart speak.) Hanif Kureishi told the Guardian (inevitably) that, because of Thatcher, “England has become a squalid,… intolerant, racist, homophobic, authoritarian rat-hole run by vicious, suburban-minded materialistic philistines.” Under her immediate predecessor Jim Callaghan, of course, it had been a modern version of Periclean Athens. “Suburban” crops up frequently as an insult - not sure why, because Mrs. Thatcher  was, as I mentioned, decidedly provincial. When she and Denis bought a house in suburban Dulwich, they both hated it, and promptly moved back into town. “She reads bestsellers,” Anthony Burgess sneered. (Moore adds: “Few of the wider public regarded this as a crime.”) According to travel writer Jonathan Raban, paintings, books and ideas were “just so much Black Forest gateau” to the philistine PM. But why Black For... oh, I see - because it's the sort of thing common people like. How frightful!

Playwright David Hare thought her influence would wane rapidly after she left office, “leaving nothing behind but the memory of a funny accent and an obscure sense of shame.” Was her accent particularly funny? Never noticed it myself, and I have a pretty good ear. He also wrote, “Her crusade… is exclusively on behalf of herself, and those who share her peculiar temperament and ideas.” (A mere 42.7% of the electorate in 1987.) In many ways, though, Hare has more interesting things to say about Mrs. T than most of her other arty detractors:
“Intellectuals in Britain had always dreamed of having influence with practical politicians, but the bitter irony was that when a prime minister came along who actually did like intellectuals, it was the blowhard right she wanted to listen to - Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman, Hugh Thomas - not, if you like, the usual suspects.”
Good point. And he admitted that the Left - which had spent the ‘70s predicting a revolution - simply hadn’t seen this one coming: “Suddenly, the person who wants change is coming from the right. There was a massive feeling of being wrong-footed. History took a different turn. I had nothing to say.” (Nonetheless, he kept on saying it.)

Of course, she had her supporters in the arts. Barry Humphries thought her “magnificent”. Peter Ackroyd deplored the “patronising snobbery” of her detractors. The left-wing author John Le Carré called her “a totally democratic person. Naturally adversarial. Entirely, in her own way, fair.” Philip Larkin was a fan (the admiration was mutual). Diarist James Lees-Milne called her “the greatest Prime Minister of the century.”

But her establishment detractors far outweighed her supporters. In 1983, the Royal Society decided to grant Mrs. Thatcher, a science graduate, an honorary fellowship: 44 members wrote a public letter complaining that it would be “damaging to the good name of the Society.” They were ignored. But when Oxford University - which she had attended - decided to award her a similar honour in 1985, the proposal was rejected by an overwhelming 738 votes to 319. (Moore tells us that no women spoke in the debate.) Nothing hurt her more while she was in office. Pleasingly, the snub had a disastrous effect on the university’s fund-raising activities, especially in the States, and, as Moore tells us in a footnote, “Her revenge came later. In 1997, when the time came to place here papers in an archive, she gave them to Cambridge.” Excellent!

So why all the hostility? Moore quotes the historian, Professor John Vincent:
“It was because she offered ‘earnest and practical dissent’  to progressive orthodoxy. Mrs. Thatcher is the point at which all snobberies meet: intellectual snobbery, social snobbery, the snobbery of Brooks’s [the whiggish London club], the snobbery about scientists among those educated in the arts, the snobbery of the metropolis about the provincial, the snobbery of the South about the North, and the snobbery of men about career women.”
It’s worth buying Charles Moore’s marvellous book for this chapter alone.

During the 1987 election campaign, David Dimbleby asked the Prime Minister why she seemed so untroubled by the sufferings of the unemployed.  Her reply was priceless: "If people just drool and drivel that they care, I turn round and say 'Right, I also look to see what you actually do.'" I remember roaring my approval at the time - but I was disappointed when she immediately apologised for using "those words". What was wrong with them? Moore writes:
"...the words were of the essence of Margaret Thatcher. First, they expressed fierce antagonism to the left's pretension to any moral high ground. Secondly, they encapsulated her tendency to judge by results and by action rather by words."
And that's why the posturing gasbags hated her. And, of course, still do.


  1. This was a joy to read and thank you for it.

    Oxford's petulant refusal to confer an honorary degree upon The Blessed Margaret (as Norman St John Stevas styled the great lady ) stands in stark contrast to that university's eagerness to establish (with dubiously - sourced, political agenda - laden funds ) an Islamic Centre.

    I need not remark that a university like Oxford simply could not exist in an Islamic state.

    The animus directed at Margaret Thatcher by carping feminists was probably rooted in the fact that the lady was a strong, successful woman of the type they wish to venerate. Sadly for the feminists, Margaret Thatcher had no use for their neo - Marxist worldview.

    1. Yes, thank you very much for that. I am unlikely to read Moore's book for some time (due to a lack thereof)so I found that very interesting.

      Indeed, it is the snobbery that most illuminates the visceral hatred of Margaret Thatcher. She was almost as reviled by the Tory 'toffs' who considered her a provincial upstart, as she was by the Dave Sparts and Arthur Scargills. Both clearly thought she had got 'above herself' - as, indeed, she had, just as her inspiring philosophy urged everyone to do.

      Few people today will admit to having supported her then, or now. I know hardly any, so etched into the shabby fabric of society is contempt for her. To admire Enoch Powell's diamond sharp mind brands you a 'Nazi' but if you really want to fart at the dinner table, admit to having supported 'Fatcha'.

    2. My thoughts turn to Mrs T's ascent to the Conservative Party leadership and the almost co-terminous picture of the younger Sam, a Charles II figure, his room strewn with books illustrating mannerism, standing in his wardrobe with the door shut, to practise his saxophone.