Monday 25 February 2008

Portillo on Thatcher disappoints

I was disappointed by Portillo on Thatcher. I started watching with a sense of anticipation that we'd get some incisive reminiscing and analysis from him and from his interviewees, largely fed by a Radio Five interview earlier in the day which made it sound a lot better than it actually turned out.

First of all, there was a minor irritation that he talked about “us” all the time as if the Conservative Party represented all of Britain, which we know it doesn't – largely because of Mrs T. At times I wondered if I was watching a party political broadcast. We got about fifteen minutes of puff about how well David Cameron is doing in moving on from her legacy and modernising the party. If you call modernising not having a single policy position to stand on, I suppose you might have a point.

But mostly I was disappointed because I think the portrait of her downfall and the aftermath is just plain wrong, and I'm surprised because I thought Portillo (nowadays) was more intelligent than that. Partly it's because biography is always a thin form of history, but largely it's because even the biography refuses to acknowledge feet of clay. Patten and Clarke both said that the party's problems since Thatcher's downfall all stem from the brutal way in which they got rid of her, and Portillo clearly agrees with this. But as Ming Campbell pointed out while sharing Radio Five with Michael Portillo, removals of leaders are always brutal. The party performed with perfect logic – Thatcher had become an electoral liability – it was obvious that with her in power they would lose, and so they acted to remove her. And they succeeded in getting themselves re-elected. That's what parties do. Portillo recounts the moment at the subsequent party conference (I think) when he thinks the party suddeny realised what they'd done – thrown out a leader who'd won them three elections. The rose tinted view of the loyalist, I think. The MPS who retained their seats after she was ousted always knew exactly what they'd done.

Portillo and his interviewees found it impossible to understand why she went for the poll tax the way she did. They could not see that it was part of a pattern in the way she conducted herself and her relations with colleagues. They pointed out that she was very good at doing what was possible rather than necessarily what she wanted to do – which is true, but they alluded to her combative nature without noticing the gradually increasing effect that had on her choice of battle and choice of allies. Though there were many who tried to argue her out of the poll tax, she'd steadily got rid of genuine dissent with the cabinet and the government, and the consequences of that in terms of group think must eventually show.

They also discussed how she conspired against John Major thus exacerbating the split in the party between Thatcherites and everybody else, but they were still unable to bring themselves to blame her – it was still in their eyes the way she was removed that was the problem rather than the lady herself. They actually said on the programme that she was divisive for Major, but still could not acknowledge that that was culpable behaviour. John Patten made one of the programme's few really insightful remarks when he said that by that time Thatcherism and Euroscepticism were absolutely one and the same thing. Somebody – it might have been David Mellor – said that she arrived at the only time in the twentieth century when the country was ready for her, when there was a sense of crisis around, and battles had to be fought. But Portillo failed to move on from that to the point where the battles have been fought and the country wants to be at peace. And Margaret Thatcher had to go on fighting battles regardless.

The problem the party faces is that there is still a very solid rump of people, both MPs and members, who believe that Margaret Thatcher had all the right answers and are determined to follow her prescriptions, and her manner, to the last. That and the fact that the country contains more voters who hate her than who like her. I think that until the conservative party actually realises that, and genuinely puts some distance between them and her they will have a hard time. This programme suggests that that point has still not come, because although plenty was said about her failings, Portillo and his chums still could not bring themselves to say that she stopped being the solution and became the problem.

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