Dave would love to be just like Margaret Thatcher, but only in one respect: her ability to win three straight elections outright.
But he’ll never match Lady Thatcher in this respect because he’s unlike her in every other. One demonstrable difference is that he isn’t a real statesman – in fact, he isn’t a real anything other than a power seeker. Margaret Thatcher wanted power too, but not for its own sake. Power was for her but the vehicle; the good of the country, the destination.
Unlike Dave, she had convictions and the courage of them. Mind you, I for one am not entirely sure Lady Thatcher’s convictions, honest and commendable as they were, were entirely Conservative or indeed conservative. Her policies, and above all her instincts, were more Whig than Tory, and instincts always provide a more accurate clue. It was the former Tory leader Lord Hailsham, among many others, who postulated that conservatism wasn’t so much a philosophy, much less an ideology, as an attitude to life, some sort of intuitive predisposition.
That’s why it’s spurious to separate, as many like to do, political conservatism from social or cultural kinds. If we accept, as I do, Hailsham’s definition, they’re all branches of the same tree, and apple blossoms aren’t going to grow on an oak.
For example, it’s hard to imagine a true political conservative preaching, as John Major once did when he was still prime minister, the social delights of classless society. Nor should a man get a free ride when claiming to be a social liberal but a fiscal conservative, which presumably means he loves the welfare state but would rather not pay for it.
On the other hand it’s usually possible to guess a man’s political views without ever bringing up politics during, say, a dinner-table chat. For example, it’s highly unlikely that a staunch political conservative would express enthusiasm for pop music, conceptual sculpture, garden cities, vegetarianism, same-sex marriage, facial metal or body art, and it’s impossible to imagine that in writing he’d ever choose BCE and CE over BC and AD.
Neither is it probable that someone on the left of the political spectrum would dismiss out of hand any music amplified by electric or electronic appliances. Nor can one easily imagine any kind of conservative sporting a tattoo (other than a naval one), say ‘ACAB’ on his knuckles. Such telltale signs may of course mislead, but not often.
Lady Thatcher was the only successful and honourable politician who deviated from Hailsham’s definition without in any way compromising her integrity. Her political and especially economic instincts were Whiggish, or perhaps, to use a more up-to-date term, libertarian, but she had learned to fit them seamlessly into the framework of the Tory Party. That meant conforming to a large extent with its ethos and style, and she managed to do so perfectly organically, defying Lord Hailsham.
That’s why Lady Thatcher was confused, as Robin Harris recalls so amusingly, when introduced at a party to a young man sporting an open-neck shirt and jeans. When told that he was about to become the next leader of the Tory Party, Lady Thatcher couldn’t believe her ears. She smiled at Dave and asked: ‘So you want to become a Conservative MP?’
You see, Lady Thatcher had found a way of reconciling her Whiggish instincts with the Conservative style. But it never occurred to her that conservatism could also coexist with cheap, unprincipled populism expressed not only politically and rhetorically, but also sartorially. Most of her cabinet colleagues might have been intellectual and moral nonentities, but at least they dressed like Tories.
It’s not as if Dave, who likes to be photographed with his shirt hanging out of his denim trousers, feels uncomfortable wearing proper prime-ministerial clothes: the chap was practically born in a Savile Row suit. But precisely because of that he wants to come across as someone born pre-tattooed.
That makes perfect sense to Dave, and in a way one can sympathise with him. He wasn’t going to become prime minister the way Maggie Thatcher had, was he? By showing the mind and character of someone who could lead his party to victory and his country out of the doldrums? Of course not. And since his hunger for power was ravenous he had to rely on tasteless tricks. No wonder Lady Thatcher was confused.
If you want to know why the Tories – and Britain – were so much more successful under Maggie than under Dave, just compare their human qualities. Or for that matter their attire. Lady Thatcher was hardly ever photographed wearing casual clothes, never mind those associated with pimply adolescents raised by a single mother on a council estate. She wanted to be popular because she made peoples’ lives better, not because she pandered to their lowly tastes.
Dave, on the other hand, wants to become popular with the underprivileged by pretending to be just like them. Alas, they see through the pretence. They also realise that in parallel he only pretends to be a statesman.