Monday, 15 February 2010

'Thatcher and sons' by Simon Jenkins

In a bookshop my hand hovered over a copy of ‘Atlas shrugged’ which had been strongly recommended to me by a friend, but I veered away, put off by the ponderous size of the book; instead I picked up this book, since it seemed to have tangential relevance to the same themes. I wanted to learn more and think more about ‘Thatcherism’, a political movement which has dominated my adult life. I would say from the start that I have tended to view ‘Thatcherism’ with overall approval, though tempered with reservations and criticisms.

Simon Jenkins is well placed to give a detailed and insightful narrative of the whole movement (if that is the right word), and the level of detail is astonishing. He sweeps from the early 1970s, when the UK was struggling politically and economically, through to the accession of Gordon Brown to power – though the book came out before the current financial crisis. His amusing and persuasive argument is that the dominant political philosophy in this country is unbroken from Thatcher to Brown – hence the title and the cover picture of Thatcher walking along, with eager pupils – Major, Blair and Brown – scurrying after.

He explains vividly the origins of Thatcher’s political views, giving due weight to other key figures, such as Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson and Keith Joseph. Surprisingly he portrays Thatcher herself as a timid and reluctant ‘Thatcherite’ up to her second election victory in 1983. Quite rightly, he points out the many gaps between her stirring, stern rhetoric and what she actually did.

The first revolution that Jenkins identifies is the traditionally understood drive to change the UK fundamentally by privatisation, increasing entrepreneurial incentives, reducing the overweening power of the unions and so forth. Many interesting details and trenchant opinions are embedded in this account, many critical. He points out the self-serving untruths in Thatcher’s autobiography along the way – such as her later assertion that she always believed in a strong defence policy, whereas the truth is that her government had plans for swingeing cuts in defence just before the Falklands war (including selling one of our aircraft carriers to Argentina!).

The second revolution he identifies is far less positive – the massive centralisation of power and increase in bureaucracy that she initiated. Here her central contradiction becomes starkly clear: she believed in revolutionising the state by giving power back to individuals, but because she thought so many organs of government were incompetent and tainted with socialism – especially local government – she then proceeded to gather more power into her hands in order to effect the changes she wanted to see. She could not let go and be true to her theoretical beliefs. She felt she was the only one who saw things correctly, and knew how to change them.

Jenkins’ detailed account of how power was centralised in the Treasury and the number 10 cabinet office – something that went into overdrive under John Major – provides many facts and views of which I had not been fully aware. The argument of continuity of policy under the Labour party government is convincing. The drive for more central control then led to a myriad of ‘targets’ and endless reforms. The increasing waste and incompetence of central government, especially under Gordon Brown’s treasury and John Prescott’s various roles, are bitterly savaged.

By the end of the book, we have a hideously compelling picture of the modern ‘Leviathan’ which hunkers over our lives today, with a bloated public sector, gross waste of resources, infantile targets, endless inspections/ audits/reviews and higher taxes. Jenkins then brings out his proposal for a third revolution, which is to devolve more power to local government. He makes useful comparisons with the structures of local power in many of our European neighbours. He is generally approving of Scottish and Welsh devolution, and sees great potential in the very local structure of civic involvement, down to parishes and town councils. He likes the idea of city Mayors. It is a call to the revival of local democracy and civic pride.

John Vernon

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