Tuesday, 23 April 2013


For the last three months or so, I've been spending my Tuesdays at the University of Chichester, where I've been teaching a course on post-War British culture. Today was the last session.

It's been enormous fun. I'm extremely grateful to a splendid group of students for making me feel welcome, and to Hugo Frey - the head of the History department - for inviting me in the first place. I think I'm going back next year, when I trust it will be a pleasure all over again.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Still angry after all these years

A week on, and millions of words having been devoted to the subject, is there anything left unsaid about the late Margaret Thatcher? More pertinently to me right now, is there anything else I want to say about her, given that I've written well over 100,000 words about her and her influence?

Well, here's one thought that I haven't seen expressed. She was born in 1925. That puts her smack in the middle of the Angry Young Men generation of the 1950s. Kingsley Amis and John Braine were born in 1922, Alan Sillitoe in 1928 and John Osborne in 1929.

The archetypal Angry Young Man in fiction is a lower-middle class, provincial, grammar-school educated, Oxbridge graduate who marries above his social station and rails against the establishment and the old boy network. Which sounds familiar, somehow.

In 1977 Kingsley Amis had dinner with Thatcher and wrote to Philip Larkin about his impressions of her: 'I thought her bright and tough and nice, and by God she doesn't half hate lefties. All in all a tonic.'

Monday, 8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher

To mark the passing of Margaret Thatcher, here’s an extract from my book Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970s:

With Keith Joseph ruling himself out of the running, even before the race had started, Thatcher decided to rule herself in, on the grounds that ‘someone who represents our viewpoint has to stand’. In November 1974 she announced that she would be challenging Edward Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

She was not an obvious choice, partly because she, following Joseph, had begun to espouse the unfashionable cause of monetarism, and partly because the policies she had pursued in her previous incarnation as education secretary under Heath had led to her being dubbed by the Sun ‘the most unpopular woman in Britain’. In retrospect, given the controversy she subsequently attracted, this was something of an overstatement. Her supposed offence was absurdly innocuous – under pressure from the Treasury, the statutory provision of free milk for schoolchildren was ended on her watch – but the tabloid sobriquet ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’ had a pleasing enough ring, and it lingered long in the memory.

An entry in Kenneth Williams’s diary in January 1972 captured some of the reaction to her time at education, as well as offering a foretaste of future protests: ‘There were barriers at Downing Street and mounted police. It depressed me very much. The bawling long-haired youths shouting “Thatcher Out!” and carrying coffins expressing sentiments like “Maggie Dead” etc was the spectacle of only another form of fascism.’

Mostly, though, Thatcher was an improbable candidate for the simple reason that she was a woman. That was, for the media, the overriding issue, and coverage of her tended to be couched in terms of her appearance, with a particular focus on her headwear. When she was education secretary, the Sunday Telegraph had described her as being ‘sometimes rather pretentious and given to the smart hat and neat pearls favoured by suburban ladies coming to Tory conferences for the first time’, and the image still dominated the declaration of her candidacy.

‘Try to forget her plummy voice and her extravagant hats and her Dresden-shepherdess appearance,’ advised the Daily Mirror. ‘She is the toughest member of the Shadow Cabinet, and even if she doesn’t win the battle for the Tory leadership she may yet be responsible for bringing down Ted Heath.’ But even Enoch Powell, who had as good a claim as any to be her trailblazer, had trouble forgetting these things, insisting that the Tories couldn’t possibly elect her: ‘They wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent,’ he shuddered. It was an image of which she was well aware, describing herself defiantly as ‘a middle-aged lady who likes hats’.

It was noticeable that when she did emerge as Heath’s successor, in February 1975, it was the handful of women Labour MPs who were the first to celebrate the achievement. ‘I am very pleased,’ said Gwyneth Dunwoody, while Joyce Butler went further: ‘Absolutely splendid. I am delighted. It is time we had women in the top jobs.’ And Shirley Williams added, ‘I cannot help admitting privately, as a woman, being pleased to see that in the Tory Party, of all parties, a woman has broken through.’

Thatcher’s victory in the 1975 leadership contest was no great endorsement of monetarism. Indeed it is doubtful how many of those who voted for her in the first ballot (when she defeated Heath), let alone in the second, when she saw off all other challengers, understood or believed her deeply held, if newly acquired, convictions on economics. The support was instead predicated on her courage in volunteering to bell the cat: ‘She’s the only man among them,’ was the phrase going around Westminster.

‘Suddenly Mrs Thatcher stands out among the Tory dwarfs like a life-size Snow White,’ editorialized the Daily Mirror before the first ballot. ‘A very tough Snow White.’ But it warned that if she became leader, the Conservatives would be taking on an image that was ‘Dominatingly middle-class. Suburban. Anti-union. Even more Southern English than it is now.’ It was precisely this image that excited those who sought hope in Thatcher’s election. The Daily Mail leader column that welcomed her arrival put it in the context of the great enemy of the right: ‘The majority of the British people do not want socialism. They do not want Bennery.’ The only question was whether this bold experiment of having a female leader might misfire and inadvertently hand the future to Tony Benn.


Saturday, 6 April 2013

Nearly Classless

Yesterday I submitted the revised text for my forthcoming book, A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s. Doesn't mean it's quite finished yet, but it's nearly there, two years after I submited the first proposal. It's very long.