How ‘Snooty Roberts’ became the Iron Lady
by Gwydion M. Williams
- A nightmare on Downing Street
- Thatcher’s background
- Alternative routes
- An easy struggle
- The American example
- The rat society
In the early 1970s, most people on the Left assumed that capitalism was on its last legs. At the most, it might be able to perpetuate itself by some sort of fascist or authoritarian regime. And everyone had recognised the advantages of state planning; there could be no going back to earlier free-market forms.
Socialists were in an unusually good position to advance their cause, had they known what to do. The trouble was, the key people who could have led an advance messed it up. The Labour Right were quite content for things to carry on as normal, provided that they were in charge. Had they been pressurised, they might have moved. But they were not.
On the Labour Left, far too many people saw ‘reformism’ as some sort of unnatural vice. It was fine to protest about the extreme wickedness of ‘the system’. But there was a great fear that anything that might make it less wicked would also tend to preserve it.
Bennery was, up to a point, a serious reforming left-wing movement. But one of its basic ideas was to pull Britain out of the world market, as a preliminary to the building of socialism. Since Britain has been dependent on world trade since at least the mid-19th century, and cannot even feed itself, this made their reformism less practical than it should have been. To put it bluntly, a Britain run on Bennite lines would have suffered a rapid economic decline. It would have suffered much the same fate as Peru.
A serious alternative was workers control, as proposed by the Bullock Committee This alternative was quietly killed off by the three forces I mentioned above: the Labour Right, the anti-reformist Left and the Bennite Left.
Workers control would have given ordinary workers more control over their lives. A lot of ordinary workers wanted that sort of power. But many people on the Left were far from certain that it was wise to let them have it. There was a widespread if seldom voiced feeling on the Left that ordinary people couldn’t really be trusted, and that it was better for socialism to be built on behalf of the workers by trade union officials and left-wing politicians and bureaucrats.
The working class were denied a chance to run their own places of work. Bennery was never very popular, seeming far too like a repeat of East European snarl-ups. In any case it was not offered. Callaghan and the senior trade union officials offered ‘business as usual’, and then lost control of things in the ‘winter of discontent’. Fed up and confused, a significant section of the working class shifted over to the Tories.
Mrs Thatcher’s main strength has always been her persistence. Other politicians have had grand schemes for changing society, and dropped them when the going got tough. Politicians in general acquired a reputation for having no higher purpose than to stay in office, without doing anything positive with such power as they had. Harold Wilson is a case in point; during all his years as Prime Minister he didn’t really do anything worth mentioning. The best thing you can cite was the founding of the Open University – and it is by no means impossible that the pre-Thatcher Tory Party might have done exactly the same.
Some people regard Wilson as a brilliant politician, because he was good at the day-to-day business of government. This was certainly his view of himself; it comes across in all the books about himself that he has kindly written for our enlightenment. He boasts of how the cabinet he led during his second period in power was the most experienced cabinet ever. He overlooks the fact that it failed utterly and was booted out after the ‘winter of discontent’.
I would regard Wilson as a useless politician, because he totally failed to do anything about the problems of his day. He talked about “the white heat of the technological revolution”, but in practice he let things drift. It would all have been much the same had he not been there.
Thatcher is a politician of another kind. She is in politics to change the world, and is quite ready to risk her power for what she sees as good ends. She was determined to disrupt the post- 1945 consensus, which had come to the end of its useful life. This is not the normal function of a Tory Prime Minister, but since Labour had repeatedly failed to do anything coherent while in office, she got the chance.
Plenty of people were fed up with the pattern of genteel decline, which had followed the winding down of the Empire. Most of these people were not committed to any particular ideology; they simply wanted something to change. An effective Labour party could have turned them into socialists; instead they became Thatcherites.
When something needs to be done, the right person to do it will unexpectedly turn up. It might be someone who would otherwise have been quite unimportant. Had there been no World War Two, Winston Churchill would have been remembered as a minor and unsuccessful politician. Also as a man who dabbled in military affairs but did not understand them; he planned the disastrous Gallipoli landings in World War One, a blunder that cost him his job.
Thatcher had been a competent but unexceptional minister in the Heath government. There was nothing to mark her out for future greatness. Nor is it likely that she would have achieved it, had the Labour Party been able to find a coherent socialist way forward. But as things actually turned out, she was well placed to take advantage of the circumstances that existed in 1979.
Her origins lie well outside the privileged circles of the ruling classes; therefore she feels no class guilt, and very little obligation to those less fortunate than herself. On the other hand, she would always have regarded herself as a cut above ordinary people. Her father’s grocery business employed five assistants; he was a moderately important figure in his home town of Grantham. It’s been said that her attitude at school earned her the nickname of ‘Snooty Roberts’. This is not the sort of detail that can be easily confirmed, but it seems to fit.
Margaret Roberts, as she then was, did very well at school. Quite why she went on to do a degree in Chemistry at Oxford is uncertain. The way she has treated British science funding during her time in power does not indicate that she had any love of science as such. Perhaps it was simply a convenient way of ‘getting on’. She worked for a time as a researcher, but it is doubtful if she would ever have got very far that way.
Then again, it could be her early experiences as a science worker that determined her attitudes. In his review of a biography of Thatcher, Labour MP Tam Dalyell says:
“My suspicion.. is that Mrs Thatcher’s less-than-cordial relations with science originated not at Oxford, but at Manningtree, Essex. There, she became a research chemist at British Xylonite Plastics… Some years ago, I met a manager from the firm, who said: “We got rid of Margaret Roberts, and possibly we did not do British science or Industry a service. She did not fit in with us!” Nor does it seem that she fitted into her next post, in the research department of J. Lyons, in Hammersmith, testing ice cream and cake-fillings. Not altogether surprising that tax law became more her metier.” (New Scientist April 29, 1989, p 61).
Whatever her prospects in science, Mrs Thatcher had alternatives means of ‘getting on’. One way was through politics. She had done well in the University Conservative Club. She made a good impression, and was a Tory party candidate in the 1950 election, albeit in a safe Labour seat. Another was her marriage to successful businessman Denis Thatcher, who was ten years older than she was. Relieved of the need to earn her own living, she was able to drop science and train as a barrister. That could have been her career; instead she got elected to Parliament in 1959.
Thatcher was only a middle-ranking politician in 1975, when fortune again favoured her. Heath had tried to reduce the power of the Trade Unions, and he had failed. He had then tried giving them a major share in running the country, via the tripartite agreements. This also failed; the unions were later to show that they could not co-exist even with a Labour Prime Minister; they were certainly not going to share power and responsibility with a Tory. This impasse led to the Three Day Week, and then to a Labour government.
Heath’s policies had failed; the Tory party wanted him to go quietly – yet he refused to do so. The traditional Tory system, in which unpopular leaders went quietly and new leaders simply emerged, had broken down. Heath had been elected, the first elected Tory leader. Only another election could remove him, and that required a serious candidate to stand against him. Thatcher took a chance, and did so. And she did so well that it was impossible for any other Tory to catch up with her in the second ballot after Heath had finally admitted defeat.
In 1979, power passed to the Tories almost by default. Labour had refused to change the system, and had also failed to make a good job of running it unchanged. Almost any Tory leader would have won under such circumstances.
Thatcher said “There is no alternative”. This was untrue; there was an alternative. But Labour killed it, and having killed it had no real answer to Thatcher.
Commenting on Tony Benn, Thatcher said:
“It is all very well for him to attack class and privilege, but he didn’t have to struggle, nor did his children, with the enormous trust funds his wife’s family set up for them”. (Margaret Thatcher, A Personal and Political Biography, by Russel Lewis. p 16).
Now it is true that Benn comes from a highly privileged background. But can one really say that the Thatcher family had ever really known hard times? They were definitely more secure than the average family. And Mrs Thatcher’s rise to power was helped by a series of remarkable bits of good luck. There must have been thousands of people who were just as clever and hard-working, and who never got such rewards.
Margaret Thatcher comes from a smug stratum of people who grab whatever they can, and then think that they’ve earned it. Less privileged people knew how tough life could be, even before Thatcher set to work. More privileged people had a touch of the ruling-class sense of social obligation, together with an awareness that they had much more than they had ever earned.
If you want to summarise Thatcherism, you could say that it has made Britain more like America. Not so much in superficial matters of dress or accent – though this has also happened – but in the much more basic and important attitudes to life.
George Orwell once said that British society is best viewed as a family . A family . in which different individuals have very different shares of wealth and power, but in which the general obligation to look after everyone is accepted by all.
Thatcher has helped to make British society much harder and nastier. She talks about “family values”. But in practice this means splitting society into a multitude of competing families, each of which looks after its own interests alone.
In American society, there is supposed to be equality of opportunity. Anyone can get to the top. In practice there is a great deal of inherited privilege; the children of the rich tend to stay rich, the children of the comfortably off usually stay comfortably off, the children of the poor mostly stay poor. But a significant minority do manage to move up the social hierarchy, and the popular myth is that anyone can do it. Value is expressed in terms of rising through the social hierarchy. Everyone tries to be a ‘winner’ and winning is largely expressed in terms of cash. Only in America could the question “What are you worth” mean “How much money do you have?”
Britain has always had a more complex set of values. It was recognised that many people who accumulate large amounts of money are pretty worthless and unpleasant characters. Also that some very worthy and useful people remain poor. American values were viewed with suspicion; they had a lot of money, certainly, but also a much more vulgar and violent society.
Competition did exist, of course. But it was looked down upon. People spoke of ‘the rat-race”‘ And it was remembered that a rat race is most usually won by rats.
(In a speech a few months back, Neil Kinnock did refer to ‘the rat race’. He got no immediate response, because many people – especially in the media – have grown so used to the rat race that they forget than other sorts of values are possible. He should try it again. Labour can’t beat the Tories by pretending that it will run a better and smoother sort of rat-race. Or if it can, this would be a victory hardly worth having.)
Thatcherism has embraced American values, the values of a competitive society. But a competitive society must of necessity produce far more losers than winners. Only one person can be Number One in any field of competitive endeavour; only a few can be really successful. But the ‘losers’ are not content to remain losers: they turn to crime as a way of ‘getting ahead’, or else find solace in self-destructive drinking or drug abuse. Some of the ‘winners’ also resort to drink or drugs, to cope with the pressures of ‘winning’.
American society would have disintegrated years ago, if it were only based on the ‘$$$ what are you worth? $$$’ philosophy. In fact, other sorts of values survive – and have even been making a sort of come-back since the 1960s. Of course the 1960s were not a simple affair; at the same time as some groups were rejecting capitalist values, others · were spreading them to new areas. Most notably sex: breaking down old sexual taboos also tended to involve commercialising sex in a more blatant and shameless form than ever before. (The notion that people should be free to do whatever they enjoy doing is logically separate from the notion that they should do it for money or for selfish personal advantage. But in practice they tended to go together.)
The New Right has also had its contradictory aspects. Traditional Christian objections to sexual freedom have been re-affirmed. while equally traditional Christian objections to greed, usury and the rich have been conveniently glossed over. They try to limit the damage to traditional family structures by limiting sexual choice. At the same time they promote competitive money-making, which is at least as damaging to family life and much more dangerous to general social stability.
Thatcher is being inconsistent when she speaks of Christian values and quotes St Francis of Assisi. I cannot see that St Francis would have approved of giving money to the rich and taking it away from the poor. Yet I would not call her a hypocrite. The social stratum she comes from has this inconsistency built in. People are allowed to be greedy and selfish in their public or business lives, and at the same time preserve human values within the narrower circle of the family. And this inconsistency cannot be avoided. To generalise family feelings to the whole of society would lead to socialism. To let market values invade the family home would lead to social disintegration. Indeed, Thatcherism is undermining many of the conservative non-market values that have helped keep British society stable over the past three centuries.
This article appeared, using the pen-name ‘Dan Ackroid’, in July 1989. It appeared in Issue 12 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.