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John Sergeant, Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy (London: Macmillan, 2005, £20.00, 368 pages, ISBN 1405005262)Richard Davis, Université Charles de Gaulle (Lille III)


As its title suggests, the central theme of John Sergeant’s Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy is that Margaret Thatcher’s long-term impact has been catastrophic: holding back the unfortunate John Major, producing and then exacerbating and series of enduring divisions within the Conservative party. By leading to successive landslide victories for the Labour party against a seemingly terminally ill Conservative opposition, Sergeant argues, she has weakened British politics and the entire democratic process.

The book is divided into two parts on either side of the pivotal moment in November 1990 when Mrs Thatcher was forced out of office by her own party. This also marked a high point in John Sergeant’s own long and distinguished career as a high-profile journalist. As Mrs Thatcher came down the steps of the British embassy in Paris having just learnt that she had lost the first round of the leadership contest for her party and government it was Sergeant who was broadcasting live to the UK and who was ideally placed to announce this scoop. Mrs Thatcher’s fall, however, was not the end of the Thatcher story and the second half of the book focuses on her “fatal legacy.” As Sergeant argues, “Mrs Thatcher’s power to influence events did not end with her resignation. She was to have an extraordinary Indian summer to her political career; and even now it is impossible to understand the present state of British politics without a clear grasp of the part she played after her departure from Number 10” [4-5]. The term “post-Thatcher” is, therefore, not one that is appropriate. As John Sergeant underlines, it was exactly the failure to turn the page on the Thatcher years, to achieve closure (to use the sort of modern jargon that is so happily absent from this book) that has made her such an important figure in recent British history. Enoch Powell once argued that “all political lives [...] end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” For Mrs Thatcher, however, this truism was resolutely refuted. Not for her a dignified retirement from the heart of political power and activity. Having left the centre stage, she was not, as Sergeant points out, to play the role of a Stanley Baldwin or a James Callaghan, leaving the new captain of the ship of state (and of party) the freedom to take the helm without interference.

That Margaret Thatcher should be held responsible for the difficulties, and to a lesser extent the failures, of John Major, her successor at the head of the Conservative party and government, that she should have left behind her deep and still unhealed divisions within her party, and that the present Labour Prime Minister should freely admit to his admiration for her is, of course, nothing new. Arguments over whether or not we should consider Tony Blair and New Labour as the heirs of Margaret Thatcher continue to rage. John Sergeant’s expresses surprise at the “extent to which he (Tony Blair) was prepared to acknowledge Margaret Thatcher’s strengths, and [...] that he wanted to emulate her.” Yet in recent years, many readers have become more and more accustomed to seeing Blair play just such a Thatcherite role. In same vein, Tony Blair’s “revelation” that he consulted Mrs Thatcher, particularly over international issues, that she was “very supportive [...] very kind personally [...] very good about advising me how to take the military advice on board, and how to use it” [16], is something that has been recognised before and hardly the scoop that this old press hand wants us to see.

The interest in reading this book is not, therefore, in the account that it gives of the events themselves. Instead, the very real interest lies in the insights that the author is able to give. He has had access to a remarkable number and variety of particularly candid sources prepared to speak out on this most controversial of political figures. We can almost hear the voices of these key players coming off the pages. Sergeant admits that many of the most senior members of her governments had “become friends who would be ready to help with their comments” [9]. The greatest value of this book is then in the direct and personal access which the author has had to some of the key actors in the story.

What we get from reading this book is, above all, the great sense of the Iron Lady’s own “deep sense of betrayal, and her determination neither to forgive nor forget” and the deep-seated dislike that she still generates today. Sergeant’s own lack of sympathy for his subject, despite a certain admiration for her achievements and successes, is also clearly visible throughout. Already in his introduction he gives the reader a taste of his “less than reverent approach to the subject” [2] admitting that his “party piece [was] very definitely not a Conservative party piece” [3]. We have no record of Thatcher herself who was obviously unwilling to accord the author the benefit of her own views in person. These, however, have been laid out at great length elsewhere as she has sought to justify past choices and establish her place in history. We also have few genuinely convincing voices from the Thatcher camp. We are told that the author spent an hour interviewing “Norman” [43] Tebbit but we still come away with the feeling that the author’s own lack of sympathy for his subject is reflected in his choice of sources. We get Lord Carrington’s view that Mrs Thatcher’s interventions in the Conservative party leadership elections after her departure were “always with disastrous results” and Chris Patten’s damning conclusion that “she destroyed the Conservative party” [10-11].

Other books have told this (well-known) story from more orthodox angles. However, while other authors have given more reliable, and no doubt more balanced, accounts and narratives of these fascinating events, what John Sergeant gives us is an unashamedly gossipy version from an insider in the “Westminster village” of “Westminster dramas in close-up” [11]. If, as Sergeant argues, “politics without emotion is not politics at all,” then we certainly have real politics here. Why did Thatcher and Heseltine not get on? The answer is simple: “the plain fact is that they didn’t fancy each other; in fact they did not even like each other” [41]. Later on we hear Thatcher telling Frank Field on the eve of her resignation that Michael Heseltine is simply “a very bad man” [136]; few authors have chosen to focus on Margaret Thatcher’s sex appeal to certain Conservative MPs [18]. Sergeant himself admits to initially finding her “almost sexy” [42]. The book abounds with such intimate stories: how Mrs Thatcher forced Nigel Lawson to change his shoes before setting off for a ceremony at Buckingham Palace or how, on board the plane on its way to Russia, she humiliated the Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe in front of the press over his choice of sweater. All this may seem trivial but Sergeant is always quick to follow up such seemingly light-hearted stuff with something more serious; to show the reader how these moments in fact reflected a deeper malaise at the heart of the Thatcher government and the various relationships that made it up.

John Sergeant’s book is a particularly useful source of inside information on the record of Margaret Thatcher’s troubled relationship with the rest of Europe. We learn from one of her political secretaries that “she had a tremendous belief [...] that England was better than other countries [...] A phrase she used all the time about the European countries was, ‘We either beat them, or rescue them.’ Britain had neither been beaten, nor did it need to be rescued” [28]. In particular, she comes across in this book as intrinsically anti-German. The interviews given by Douglas Hurd and Charles Powell highlight her failure to establish even a reasonable working relationship with the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. This, of course, tells the reader little that will come as a great surprise but it is, nonetheless, of interest to see just how much plain, old-fashioned prejudiced played a role at the heart of one of her government’s key policies. Sergeant is less incisive on the specifics of policy towards Europe. Was she essentially a pragmatist seeking the best possible deal for her country or was she simply a nationalist, not only ideologically opposed to but also unable to grasp the whole idea of Europe and fundamentally opposed to its realisation? Instead, he is content to give us the opposing views: that of John Major that she knew perfectly well what she was signing up to when she agreed to the Single European Act or that of Lord Parkinson, the ever-loyal Thatcherite, that she had been “taken for a bit of a ride” [59] over this question.

In other areas, Sergeant is more willing to give the reader his personal opinions. For example, his view of Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary Peter Morrison is scathing: a “tall, overweight, former public schoolboy. Often red in the face from too much drink [...] he was never in the top drawer of senior politicians” [118]. Sergeant places much of the blame for the lacklustre campaign to retain the leadership of her party in 1990 at his door. It is precisely when he begins to recount the events that lead up to Thatcher’s defeat and the way in which this great political drama was acted out that Sergeant is at his best. Clearly, he is in his element here. Once the Iron Lady had been fatally wounded and then toppled, the knives came out and the recriminations began. Sergeant, the old Westminster hand, evidently enjoys himself most of all here in his role of raconteur (he begins his book on board a luxury liner enjoying himself in exchange for the occasional after-dinner speech). Interviewing Norman Tebbit, the author sets the scene by adding: “I could almost hear the swish of the bicycle chain as he laid into those who had brought down Mrs Thatcher” [130]. Tebbit’s regret that she had not faced down her opponents inside the cabinet, those he refers to as “the rats” [130], calling on them to come out openly for or against her had hardly diminished more than a decade later. Cecil Parkinson supports this view that she could have forced all but the staunchest of her opponents inside the cabinet to come into line. Yet other accounts given by Sergeant tell a different story: how Thatcher appeared uncharacteristically shaken and uncertain, physically and mentally diminished compared to her heyday only a few years before; that, worn out by eleven years in office, she had, in effect, almost naturally come to the end of her time.

Having won the battle to ensure that Michael Heseltine should not succeed her, Margaret Thatcher’s new existence is the core of the second half of the book. Out of office, she seems to have been more than a little bewildered. Ever the workaholic, she was at a loss looking for something to do. Sir Bernard Ingham describes how, having had no other interest than politics, trying to come to terms with her fall from power was “like somebody coming off heroin” [203]. Charles Powell tells how she telephoned him to ask how to find a plumber (he recommended she look in the yellow pages). Again, Sergeant excels in drawing on such seemingly mundane stories to make his point. Three pages further on he tells us how Douglas Hurd, then Foreign Secretary in John Major’s government, was irritated by Thatcher’s phoning him up to give him instructions.

More importantly, Sergeant gives over the greater part of the book to how Mrs Thatcher, from the sidelines, continued to cast her shadow over her successor as Prime Minister and over her party. Accusations from Kenneth Clarke (rather courageously made to her face) that she was playing the same role as Ted Heath had during her years as party leader sent her “ballistic [...] absolutely ballistic” [193]. Yet, however she may have rejected such accusations, it was exactly this seemingly irresistible inclination to interfere with her successor’s government and leadership that set them on a collision course. Sergeant shows just how difficult it was for Thatcher and her supporters to accept that their party was in someone else’s hands. Indeed, this book clearly shows the pain felt by the Thatcher camp at their uncomfortable position. What comes over most of all in the latter parts of this book is precisely this sense of frustration and bitterness at being out of office, without a direct role inside the Conservative party leadership, and her disillusionment at seeing her policies and whole approach being diluted by the mild-mannered John Major. Although not himself a politician, Dennis Thatcher’s opinion that John Major was “a ghastly prime minister [...] that the Conservatives would have been better served had they lost the 1992 election,” and that “the whole situation in the Conservative party today (2003) springs from that night when they dismissed the best prime minister the country has had since Churchill” [333], tells us good deal about the thinking, and the state of mind, of the Thatcher camp and of the Thatcher household.

Sergeant is also surely right to emphasise the degree to which this bitterness lead Mrs Thatcher to get her own back and the disastrous ways in which she intervened in the selection process for the party leadership, first when John Major made his famous “put up or shut” challenge to those her termed “the bastards” in his party and then, once he had stood down in 1997, in the succession of leadership elections that ensued in the years of the party’s electoral debacles. Again, Sergeant gives the reader a simple story that sums up the role played by Mrs Thatcher in this process. Her former political secretary John Whittingdale tells how many of the new intake of Tory MPs admitted that Mrs Thatcher was “why we came into politics. She is our inspiration.” The meetings that followed (audiences with the admired ex-leader were apparently never refused) where “They all sat round, with her like a teacher in the middle, and they had a political discussion” [263] shows just how her ambition to play the back seat driver to her successor was real.

The title of this book reflects the author’s primary interest in Margaret Thatcher. Yet it is John Major who is as much at the heart of the last 150 pages. Indeed, it could be said that it is not simply Margaret Thatcher, but her relationships with all those she came into contact with, that is the essence of this book. The Thatcher-Major relationship is particularly keenly observed. John Major’s “sensitive nature” (“one of the most sensitive prime ministers ever to inhabit Number 10” according to the author [196]) meant that Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to continue to play an influential role in the affairs of the Conservative party would be particularly damaging. All this was reinforced by the fact that John Major genuinely cared what she thought of him and by the undeniable gulf that separated his more modest stature at home and abroad from Margaret Thatcher, the international political superstar. John Sergeant gives the reader a detailed account of the fundamental differences between the two and the frictions that inevitably emerged between them. He also highlights the fact that while Tony Blair could “benefit from comparisons made between him and Mrs Thatcher,” Major “continued to be lumbered with her legacy,” something which made all this doubly troublesome for the Conservative party.

John Sergeant’s Maggie: Her Fatal Legacy gives the reader an excellent account of Margaret Thatcher’s time in office and of her impact on events and governments since. In itself this is a good read. Specialists of the subject may find little that is new in this record of events but the real value lies in its insights into Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and ex-Prime Minister. It is John Sergeant’s own opinions and, even more importantly, those he gives us through his interviews with such a large number of Thatcher’s supporters and opponents inside and outside the Conservative party that constitute the real value of this book. Some of these, from those who worked closest to her during her years in office and after, add to an already extensive archive of opinions and analyses of Mrs Thatcher, her personality and policies. Some of the impressions are not altogether new; others, by their remarkable frankness, add to and complete an already well-defined impression.

At the end of 2005, a year which has seen yet another general election defeat for the Conservatives, and as Mrs Thatcher celebrates her 80th birthday and the Conservative party elects its latest leader (the 5th since 1990), the shadow she cast for so long may finally be fading. Her “fatal legacy” may even be coming to an end. Yet it is a tribute to Margaret Thatcher that she continues to fascinate, fifteen years after her removal from 10 Downing Street. As the author argues, for him (and for the reader of this book) her big attraction was that she “provided an endless stream of stories: she was invariably good copy” [18]. As this book shows, she remains just that.

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