Thatcher's way with words (1982)

22 July 2022

8:15 PM

22 July 2022

8:15 PM

This piece is taken from The Spectator’s archive 40 years ago this week. At the time, Charles Moore was the magazine’s political columnist, aged 25 (he became editor two years later). Here, he writes about the importance of Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric, one year before her 1983 election win.

Those who are paid to survey the wicked world of politics make their easiest money from pointing out the disparity between ‘rhetoric’ and ‘reality’. We, whose only reality is rhetoric — if by rhetoric is meant the production of words — note, half-waspishly, half-priggishly, that public figures do not always do what they say. They talk in terms of idealism and altruism when they act out of ambition and vanity. They try to seduce the public with promises they know cannot be fulfilled.

Such observations are sadly true, and would be shocking if they were not so obvious. But it is more interesting to look at the matter the other way round. Does rhetoric make certain actions possible? If the rhetoric was different, could the actions possibly be the same?

If you think rhetoric makes no difference to reality (except to obscure it) you have to explain the phenomenon of Mrs Thatcher. She has been in charge for more than three years. She is just coming to the end of one of the strangest and most wearing parliamentary sessions in recent history. She has scarcely any secure economic successes to her credit. Yet she is more unassailable as leader of the Conservative Party than she has ever been, and more confident that her version of politics can succeed than ever before.

Now, after all, is the time traditionally set aside by governments for undoing the work of the previous three years. This is the run-up-to-the-election, when realism dictates that an acknowledgment of defeat is the only way to secure victory. Spend in the marginals, ‘massage’ the unemployment figures, anything so long as it makes the ruling party indistinguishable from its opponents.

Not this time. Sir Geoffrey Howe, not the type to go out on a limb, has been calling for a great extension of private choice. Both he and Mrs Thatcher want education vouchers. Denationalisation and the privatisation of local services are being pressed with renewed vigour. Stronger, more closely controlled management of nationalised industries is believed to have paid off already, and more is being prepared. The aims of 1979, far from being quietly laid aside in the light of ‘changed circumstances’, are being restated for a second Tory rule more radical than the first.

This assertion of faith is particularly odd when the Government’s central strategy has so far produced so few rewards. At many margins the position is better — lower high-income and capital taxes, more parental choice in schools, a control of the growth of bureaucracy, a weakening of the privileges of the unions; but such things only impress the more or less converted. The main impression is still of a government which has supervised record unemployment and been powerless to stem social deterioration as expressed in riots and violence. Even with the crucial support of victory in the Falklands it cannot be the mere facts of the Government’s record which make the Tories confident they can win again. It must be something someone said.

To see the importance of political language in all this, one has only to imagine a victory for a Prior or a Whitelaw in the leadership battle in 1975. Given the tide of opinion then rising, such men would surely have adopted policies not very different from those Mrs Thatcher has come to represent.

But whatever the policies, the Prior/Whitelaw political language could scarcely be more different from that of Mrs Thatcher. It is conservative in that it has a prejudice in favour of the status quo, but liberal in that the status quo it defends is morally ‘progressive’ and politically collectivist. It is cautious in that it distrusts innovation and public attention, rash in that it elides utterly opposing concepts out of disdain for ‘over-intellectualism’. It is a decent voice, but a tried one. It thinks of itself as ‘pragmatic’. By this it means that we should be resigned to defeat.

Such language could not have sustained the shocks of the past three years. Last year, especially, ‘commonsense’ would have decreed that the Government’s approach was not working, and anyway the opinion polls were too grim. It would have insisted that ‘ideology’ was destroying the economy, and that we should be ‘One Nation’ (higher public spending), and boost the economy (higher public borrowing).

‘Commonsense’ perhaps came close to winning. It was not until last September that Mrs Thatcher gave herself a clear majority in her own Cabinet. But throughout last year, Mrs Thatcher refused to use that language. She embarked on the Tory leadership with a completely different language, a rhetoric not merely new, but full of anger at the existing one, deliberately insufferable, deliberately harsh. And when the hard times arrived, her way of talking lost much of its appeal, but none of its relevance. It pulled her through.

As soon as she came to power, Mrs Thatcher had to rely on the rhetoric she was constantly inventing (and having supplied to her by academics and journalists) to fend off the encroachment of ordinary governmental attitudes. She used public pronouncements for the reverse purpose of her Wet colleagues. For a Whitelaw or a Pym, the point of appearing on television is to throw the public off the scent and return unmolested to normal duties. For Mrs Thatcher, it is a way of putting the public on the right track and rousing their emotions and suspicions.

Throughout the Falklands crisis, for example, Mrs Thatcher kept the public rhetoric at a very high level (‘Failure? The possibilities do not exist’), making the compromises her ministers hoped to engineer much more difficult. Even in the fullness of victory, she employs the same technique. The other week she made union secret ballots government policy by an off-the-cuff answer at Question Time.

Given her intentions, she surely has to speak the way she does. It is important to be the figure she now is, the waxwork voted ‘most hated and feared’ by visitors to Madame Tussaud’s. Every time her colleagues squirm with embarrassment at her public appearances (those decidedly odd-looking eyes, the emphatic repetitions ‘… it would be wicked, wicked, wicked …’), she is getting her message across.

Indeed, the myth of Mrs Thatcher leads people to credit her with imagined innovations. It is now being said that she is filling the highest posts in the Civil Service with her favourites. It is no more true than with most Prime Ministers. She merely has a larger than usual number of departmental heads retiring. Last year, Mrs Thatcher had only the grim satisfaction of believing that she was telling the truth. The trouble was that she was telling the same sort of truth as the Final Warning from the Gas Board tells you. The effect was depressing, for herself as much as for anyone else. The kindly light was scarcely making any headway against the encircling gloom.

It took the sudden appearance of the Falklands crisis for Mrs Thatcher’s rhetoric to become the words that British people really understood and wanted to hear, and for Mrs Thatcher herself to develop her way of talking into the natural expression of the feelings her instincts had always supplied but her ideas had never clearly represented. The result is that it is not only easier, but politic to speak Mrs Thatcher’s language. The poor Dean of St Paul’s assailed on the BBC for the unpatriotic opinions of which he is, presumably, privately proud, twisted and turned to prove that he too had wanted to send the Task Force.

Having added the scalp of Ray Buckton to that of General Galtieri, Mrs Thatcher is thought to be in danger of hubris. The ASLEF dispute, after all, went to show that the Social Democrats, the TUC, everyone respectable apart from Michael Foot, are Thatcherites now. She certainly cannot afford much boasting with Ulster, the police and the economy itself all in desperate shape. But hubris surely involves laziness and complacency, which Mrs Thatcher lacks. She believes in ‘… conviction, action, persistence, until the job is well and truly finished’. Even if she wins more laurels, she will not rest on them. Her rhetoric would not allow it.

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