Margaret Thatcher Versus The Intellectuals

The first female PM faced unprecedented vitriol from snobbish cultural bureaucrats

Such is the richness of the documentation of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership that Charles Moore has been obliged to renounce his original intention of describing it in two volumes, and written three instead. Volume Two now deals with the central period, between 1983 and 1987, in both of which years she won smashing electoral victories, her party being returned with majorities of more than 100 seats. The book, of some 800 pages, is so full of facts, many of them new, as to pose problems for reviewers. I have decided, therefore, to deal chiefly with one aspect: Mrs Thatcher and the intellectuals, about which this volume is particularly instructive.

Intellectuals, whom I define as those who think ideas are more important than people, are notorious for getting politics wrong, nowhere more strikingly so than in the case of Mrs Thatcher. Ideas do not have votes, whereas people do. Intellectuals, under which heading I include pseudo-intellectuals, cultural bureaucrats and similar oddities, absolutely hated her, at no time more passionately than during and after the Falklands War, which naturally they were hoping she would lose.

Although the BBC reporters on the spot were (as usual) wonderfully objective, the bureaucrats in Broadcasting House were solidly hostile. I don’t think I ever made her so angry as once, partly as a tease, I said: “The trouble with you, Margaret, is that you are so pro-BBC.” “There’s nobody who hates the BBC more than I do,” she shouted.

The record shows she was right to do so. The BBC ran seven Falklands dramas, all of them anti-Thatcher. Another play, by Ian Curteis, was pro-Thatcher, but when the BBC realised this they cancelled it. The head of plays, Peter Goodchild, told Curteis he objected to scenes showing Mrs Thatcher writing letters of sympathy to the widows of dead servicemen. Instead he wanted a scene in which the Tories discussed the electoral advantages of war. Curteis refused, and the programme was scrapped. Michael Grade, controller of BBC One, claimed the play was not good enough. (It was eventually transmitted after her death as a “historical curiosity”.)

The list of BBC attacks on Thatcher is endless. One series, originally written under Callaghan, was transformed into an anti-Thatcher tirade as Boys from the Blackstuff. Another, a sitcom called The Young Ones, showed students at Scumbag College, and contained lines like “The bathroom’s free. Unlike the country under the Thatcherite junta.” Scripts of Doctor Who were also victims of BBC anti-Thatcher venom. Sylvester McCoy, who played the Doctor between 1987 and 1989, recalled: “Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered.” One script editor, asked what he wanted to achieve, replied: “I’d like to overthrow the government.” The subsidised theatre was likewise full of Thatcher-haters. One play, by Howard Brenton and Tony Howard, A Short Sharp Shock, shows Mrs Thatcher forcing her Employment Secretary, Jim Prior, to drink the sperm of the economist Milton Friedman from a Coca-Cola bottle. Another Brenton play compared Thatcher’s policy in Ulster to Roman tyranny, with plenty of rape thrown in. David Hare, another public-sector playwright, argued that “her crusade is exclusively on behalf of herself”. But voters, he added, would eventually tumble to her “promotion of greed . . . leaving nothing but the memory of a funny accent and an obscure sense of shame”. Dennis Potter saw her as “the most obviously repellent manifestation of the most obviously arrogant, dishonest, divisive and dangerous government since the war”.

The word the BBC and the subsidised theatre used most often about her was “suburban”. Hanif Kureishi told the Guardian: “England [under Thatcher] has become a squalid . . . intolerant, racist, homophobic, narrow-minded, authoritarian rat-hole run by vicious suburban-minded, materialist philistines.” The constant use of “suburban” indicates that much of the abuse of Thatcher was snobbery in various forms. As Professor John Vincent put it:

Mrs Thatcher is the point at which all snobberies meet: intellectual snobbery, social snobbery, the snobbery of Brooks’s, 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 women.

Jonathan Raban said she was “a total philistine . . . to her, paintings, books and ideas were just so much Black Forest Gateau”. David Hare said she had “no sense of personal morality”. Alan Bennett accused her of “bossy sexual ignorance . . . an assertive aunt, a kind of maiden aunt who knows all about marriage”. Mary Warnock, the philosophy don, said: “Watching her choose clothes at Marks & Spencer, there was something quite obscene about it.” Jonathan Miller claimed “she had the diction of a perfumed fart”. Charles Moore, surveying the evidence, remarks that there was a kind of visceral depth to the feeling of the intellectuals about her. As Ian McEwan put it: “It was never enough to dislike her. We liked disliking her.” Many of the songs written about her by pop groups are too obscene to reproduce. One, celebrating the IRA’s attempt to murder her in Brighton, showed a record cover of her with her arms and legs blown off. Another song, from the stage version of Billy Elliot, choruses, “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher, we all celebrate today ’cos it’s one day closer to your death.”

The hatred of the intellectuals climaxed in two public events. In 1983 the Royal Society decided to elect her, as the first scientific prime minister, to an honorary fellowship. There was vociferous opposition, and she barely secured the two-thirds majority needed. Two years later, when she was proposed for an Oxford honorary degree, the opposition was better organised and the proposal was defeated by 738 votes to 319. Women were discouraged from participating in these debates, and no woman actually spoke in either discussion. Indeed, anti-women sentiment clearly played a part, though it is impossible to quantify. Mrs Thatcher was upset by the Oxford vote, though (as she told me) she soon got over it. The net result was disastrous for Oxford, for a number of donors, particularly in the United States, rewrote their wills in disgust. Oxford also lost Mrs Thatcher’s papers, which went to Cambridge, and have proved to be exceptionally numerous and valuable. Some of the organisers of the No vote subsequently repented their actions, and blamed it on “an emotional spasm of the time”.

Oddly enough, when Margaret Thatcher actually had contact with creative artists, as opposed to cultural manipulators, she emerged with credit, and far from being a philistine, showed an original mind. Charles Moore relates a fascinating incident which occurred when she had lunch with Herbert von Karajan in Austria in 1984. Both disliked small talk, and she plunged in straight away with a question about how to run an orchestra. How does a conductor get people playing together when the individual players are in such different relationships with each other, and sitting at different positions? How do you control an orchestra — by force of will or by persuasion? Is a conductor necessary? He was delighted by this line, and responded wholeheartedly. Indeed, he drew the analogy with controlling a Cabinet, and cross-questioned her about her own methods of conducting things. The lunch went on into the afternoon, and everyone enjoyed listening to the ding-dong of the two, arguing. The truth is, she loved an argument almost above anything else.

She had an excellent memory and knew a lot of poetry by heart. Her husband Denis recalled that reciting poetry by her played a significant part in their courtship. When the poet Philip Larkin visited her in Downing Street in 1980, he was impressed by the fact that she quoted from one of his poems, “Deceptions”. This concerns a poor woman’s account of being drugged and raped in Victorian times, and is an unusual choice for a woman like Mrs Thatcher to learn. I have heard her recite Tennyson (twice), Keats, Shelley and even Wordsworth, as well as misremembering bits of The Waste Land. It is true that, T.S. Eliot excepted, she did not learn modern poets, at any rate by heart. But what contemporary prime minister has? Harold Wilson, who had an excellent memory for statistics, told me he did not know a single line of poetry by heart. 

Margaret Thatcher was, in my view, an eternal scholarship girl, always snatching at knowledge, always preparing herself for an imaginary examination. She asked endless questions, and if she liked the replies she whipped out a notebook from her handbag and wrote them down. Far from being a philistine, she was a cultural swot. She was famous in Whitehall for always being on the lookout for items in the government’s enormous collection of works of art which would suitably adorn Downing Street. I once helped her to rearrange some Constable cloud studies at Chequers, and found her enormously keen to learn. She was not exactly an expert on porcelain, furniture, carpets and decorations, but she was continually absorbing information, and knew a great deal more at the end of her tenure than at the beginning.

By trying to portray her as an ignoramus in the arts, the intellectuals simply dug themselves into the mud of ignorance, and thus got things wrong. Julian Barnes remarked fatuously, in June 1987, “The chief function of this election is to turn out Mrs Thatcher and her spayed [sic] Cabinet, whose main achievement in the last eight years has been the legitimisation of self-interest.” Can he really have believed this? Intellectuals are so strongly guided by their emotions, as opposed to their minds, that it is almost impossible for them to judge politics accurately. Even so, their performance throughout Mrs Thatcher’s nearly dozen years in office was unusually dismal.

Charles Moore, in his preface and acknowledgements, gives a detailed and meticulous account of what he has done to create this book. I have read through both of these very carefully, and am immensely impressed by the amount of work he has accomplished. Margaret Thatcher was a first-rate prime minister who was distinguished by her purpose and thoroughness and the amount of detailed concentration she packed into each day in office. It was all hard going, and there is no doubt in my mind that it shortened  her life.

As against this, there is equally no doubt that she transformed the country in many ways, and profoundly. We should all be grateful to her. By concentrating on how she was perceived by the intellectual elite, we can see how foolish it is to look to them for guidance on serious matters. Charles Moore has laid it all before us, elegantly, crisply and clearly. He has so far devoted 18 years of his life to the task, but it has been worth it. A great national leader is being given the biography she deserves.

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