The idiotic idea
that Margaret Thatcher’s leadership represented a complete break with the Tory
past can only be entertained by those who know nothing of, or choose to ignore,
the admiring reception given to her by many Tories of highly traditional outlook.
She was not, as some of her more gormless admirers and detractors suppose, a
mysterious being who descended from the heavens, or from Grantham, and created
a new doctrine called Thatcherism.
Her genius was to see that ideas
which had been around for a long time could, if pursued with sufficient
courage, industry and judgment, offer our nation a way out of the humiliations heaped
on it during the 1970s.
If I had to offer one example of a
traditional Tory who welcomed Thatcher, and supported what she was trying to
do, I would name T.E.Utley. This is in a
sense unfair to the many other journalists, on the Daily Telegraph and on other
papers, who saw that she could be the leader to reinvigorate British conservatism.
But Thatcher herself did describe
Utley, after his death in 1988, as “quite simply, the most distinguished Tory
thinker of our time”. Anyone fortunate enough to possess a copy of A Tory Seer, the selection compiled by
Charles Moore and Simon Heffer of Utley’s articles in the Times, Telegraph and
Spectator, can see how true that was. Here was an Anglican High Tory who knew
how to place the dramas of the day in a longer and wiser perspective. Utley had been blind since childhood, yet saw
more deeply than most sighted people into politics.
Frank Johnson used to tell, to
great comic effect, his story of introducing Utley to Thatcher. In this
account, Johnson and John O’Sullivan, two of the younger members of the
Telegraph staff who had become entirely disillusioned with Edward Heath as
Leader of the Conservative Party and hoped Thatcher would replace him, decided
to hold a dinner at the Reform Club so that Utley, a senior colleague whom they
revered, could get to know her. But Thatcher held forth at such length that
Johnson and O’Sullivan eventually wearied of her rhetoric and slunk away,
leaving Utley, who as a blind man was unable to escape, to carry on listening
It will be noted at once that
this is a disrespectful story. But Toryism and irreverence often go together,
and certainly did in those days on the Telegraph. Michael Wharton, author of
the Peter Simple column, has described in his memoirs the astonishing scenes of
drunkenness night after night in the Kings and Keys, the pub next to the
Johnson, the most brilliant
parliamentary sketchwriter of modern times, died in 2006, so I turned to
O’Sullivan, who is happily still with us, for confirmation that the dinner took
place as described.
O’Sullivan, who afterwards worked
for Thatcher at Number Ten, said there had indeed been a dinner at the Reform,
arranged by Alfred Sherman, an ardent early Thatcherite who was a founder of the
Centre for Policy Studies and also wrote for the Telegraph. But O’Sullivan denied
that he and Johnson had been in any way bored by Thatcher, let alone that they
had slunk away from the dinner, which was held early in 1975 during her
leadership challenge to Edward Heath.
According to O’Sullivan,
Johnson began the dinner by asking: “What are you going to do when the
leadership election is over, Mrs Thatcher?”
Thatcher replied: “Well,
Frank, I shall be leader of the Conservative Party.”
Johnson did not take this assertion
seriously: “No, really.”
Thatcher stuck to her guns: “Well,
Frank, if I didn’t think I could win I wouldn’t have entered the race. I don’t
like losing battles.”
Even many of Thatcher’s supporters
did not, at this stage, believe she would win. On the morning of the first
ballot, in which she prevailed by 130 votes to 119, the Telegraph suggested in
its news pages that Heath was pretty much certain to survive. And although it
voiced severe criticisms of him in its leading article, and especially of his
lurch towards “inflationary financial policies out of tune with the party’s
deep instincts”, here too it assumed that Thatcher would fail to beat him, and
that the best which could be hoped for was that he would “seriously reappraise
the policies of his late administration”.
So events which in retrospect
look clear at the time seemed highly uncertain. But there was, and had long
been, a body of opinion on the Telegraph that was favourable to what came to be
known as Thatcherite ideas. Maurice Green, editor from 1964-74, was a
long-standing supporter of free-market economics. So too was Colin Welch, the
paper’s deputy editor, who in turn encouraged O’Sullivan and Johnson.
In the great flood of articles
about her since her death, I have noticed no attempt to trace her often intense
engagement with Conservative journalists. She loved arguing things through and
urging her supporters in Fleet Street to stand up for what they believed. When
she met Welch at a Telegraph drinks party, she told him he should be writing
books and pamphlets attacking socialism, just as the late Colm Brogan had done.
Welch was able to tell
her that although Brogan was in poor health, he was in fact still alive.
Thatcher expressed her delight at this news, and said how Brogan’s books had
inspired her when she was a young parliamentary candidate. Brogan duly received a hand-written letter
from Thatcher, in which she told him how much she admired his work, and what an
inspiration it had been to her.
For if one of her great contributions to the
Tory party was the moral seriousness instilled in her during her strict
provincial upbringing, another was her no less provincial thirst to discover
and put to use all the best arguments by the best brains. For the avoidance of doubt, let me confirm
that I use “provincial” as a term of praise. She understood the instincts of
middle England because they were her own instincts. She had the courage, one
might say the innocence, to do what politicians with an overwhelming desire to
sound sophisticated would not have done.
Bill Deedes, who succeeded
Green as editor of the Telegraph and remained in that role until 1986, was a
boon companion of Denis Thatcher on the golf course, and became famous to a
wider public as the supposed recipient of the “Dear Bill” letters in Private
Eye. But Deedes was not inclined to try to stamp his authority on the paper, or
to allow those of his leader-writers who were ardent supporters of Thatcher to
give her the paper’s all-out support.
These were years of
often intense frustration. As Stephen Robinson says in his marvellously
readable life of Deedes, there was a “permanent battle within the
leader-writing conference, with the Thatcherites pushing Deedes as far as they
could, knowing that he would have to justify too much praise for her to
Hartwell [Lord Hartwell, the paper’s proprietor, who was not keen on Thatcher]”.
So just as there was a struggle at
Westminster, with the Wets trying to force Thatcher to make concessions, so
there was an unresolved struggle in Fleet Street.
But in both cases, the
disagreement was more often about whether it was prudent to stand and fight for
certain causes, than whether those causes were themselves right. In the end,
the argument was most often about courage, and whether courage could
successfully be applied to the problems the Government faced.
In a brilliant piece published in
the Spectator on 9 August 1986, Utley pointed out that Thatcher was only doing
what others had failed to do: “Her two major achievements – the control of
inflation and the reduction of the trade unions to size – were simply the
climax of a series of unsuccessful attempts by Labour and Tory Governments
alike to cope with what were increasingly seen as the two most important evils
from which the country was suffering.”
Utley began that piece by saying,
“There is no such thing as Thatcherism.”
This was not, as some may think, an attempt to diminish her. It was an
attempt to reclaim her for the great Tory tradition which had become submerged
by what in another article Utley called the “sophisticated timidity” shown most
Tories even in his youth (he was born in 1921): the “belief that the whole art
of politics consists in concession, that the only thing which a really grown-up
politician can do is to decide what he loves best and then consider how he can
preside most elegantly and judiciously over its destruction”.
I have joined ConservativeHome
too late to take part in the first wave of tributes to this extraordinary
woman. But I can think of nowhere better to work out how the Tory tradition which
she championed with such unremitting devotion can now be carried forward.