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The best books on Margaret Thatcher

recommended by Simon Heffer

Staring at God: Britain in the Great War by Simon Heffer

Staring at God: Britain in the Great War
by Simon Heffer


Simon Heffer, journalist, historian and friend of Margaret Thatcher, recommends the best books to read to gain an understanding of the United Kingdom's first female prime minister—and explains why she was the most influential British leader of the modern era.

Interview by Benedict King

Staring at God: Britain in the Great War by Simon Heffer

Staring at God: Britain in the Great War
by Simon Heffer

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Thank you for creating this reading list of the best books on Margaret Thatcher. You knew her quite well; was there anything remarkable about meeting Thatcher in the flesh that you couldn’t have understood from seeing her as a public figure on television, or discussed in the press?

No, not really. What you saw was what you got. The one thing that everybody says, which is true, is that she was very good with what the Labour party patronisingly calls ‘ordinary people’. She came to our house for Sunday lunch on about half a dozen occasions from the late 1990s until she became too infirm. Whenever she came here we would ask two old treasures, Vera and Edna, in from the village to help wait at table and she would always say, ‘Now, the ladies will want their photographs taken with me.’ And she would go into the kitchen. I would obediently follow with a camera. She’d stand by the Aga with Vera and Edna and I’d take a photograph of the three of them.

And, of course, they were in absolute heaven. The other day my wife went round to Vera, whom she hadn’t seen for ages, just to see how she was and she’s got this silver frame with her and Edna and Mrs T in a place of honour on her sideboard. It had clearly been one of the great moments of her life. Mrs T would say to them, ‘I hope he’s paying you enough, dear.’ They absolutely loved her. They thought she was wonderful.

On another occasion, in 1994, my wife and I were invited to the opening of the new stand at Towcester Racecourse by Lord Hesketh. He sat me next to Mrs T. We had taken our son with us because we had no one to leave him with. He sat on my wife’s knee for most of the first course and then I took him for a while, so she could eat. I put him on my knee and Mrs T gurgled with him and played with him and then she started to cut my food up for me, saying to my son, ‘Daddy’s got to eat, too, you know.’ So I held the baby in one hand and forked everything else into my mouth with the other.  She was brilliant.

Mrs T wasn’t grand, but she knew that her coming into some people’s lives was a big deal for them and she wanted them to be happy. One of the things that is truthful about her portrayal in the latest series of The Crown is the picture of her cooking small dinners for various people in the flat in Downing Street.

“Mrs T wasn’t grand, but she knew that her coming into some people’s lives was a big deal for them and she wanted them to be happy”

I was thinking of her the other day when Des O’Connor died. She wrote a piece about the Maastricht Treaty in The European that caused huge trouble with John Major. This would have been in 1992, probably, and the paper was owned by the Barclay brothers. She asked me to write the article for her. So I wrote it and took it round to Chesham Place, where she worked after leaving office. We were going through it when one of her secretaries came in and said, ‘Major’s said something this afternoon. It’ll be on the news at 5:45 on ITN’—in about five minutes.

She said, ‘We’d better watch the news.’ So she got up and put the television on. There were lots of adverts that went on and on and on she was getting very impatient, and said, ‘Do we have to have all these advertisements?’

And I said, ‘But, Mrs T, it’s what we believe in. It’s the free market.’

Oh, I suppose you’re right,’ she said. And then, just as the adverts ended and the news was about to begin, up came a trailer for Des O’Connor Tonight. She looked at me and said, ‘Who’s Des O’Connor?’

‘He’s a popular entertainer, Mrs T. I think you gave him the OBE.’

‘Did I?’

When did you first meet Margaret Thatcher?

I first met her in 1986. I was 25, the US Air Force had just bombed Libya, and Mrs T had—somewhat controversially as it turned out—given permission for the US planes to take off from bases in the UK.

Were you already at The Daily Telegraph then?

I was. I joined the Telegraph in February or March, 1986. She turned up for lunch at the Telegraph in May or June ’86, just after the bombings in April. She and Max Hastings, who was then the editor, had a huge row about this. She just steamrollered him. The atmosphere was very bad. It was after that that Bill Deedes wrote to her suggesting that I might work for her. Anyway, she had good reports of me. I was approached to be director of the Conservative Research Department about a year before she was defenestrated, which I turned down for all sorts of reasons.

My first one-on-one with her was just before the ’87 election. I went in to have a long chat with her, which was all fine and dandy and then, about a week later, I was asked back to interview her, which I did with a colleague, George Jones. The only time we had a bit of a barney was when I asked her why she hadn’t reformed the welfare state in the eight years she’d been prime minister.

She said, ‘Mr Heffer, have you seen what I’ve done? I have privatised…’ she got out the list. ‘I have tamed the trades unions…’ It was only a question!

Anyway, we always got on very well. Until she became an ex-prime minister, I always called her ‘prime minister’ and she always called me ‘Mr Heffer’. And then, suddenly, when she was out of Downing Street, she started calling me ‘Simon’ and I called her ‘Mrs Thatcher.’ But she said, no, I must call her ‘Mrs T.’ All her friends called her Mrs. T. And that’s what I called her until the day she died. I never called her ‘Lady Thatcher’ or ‘Lady T’—always Mrs T.

That was her way of developing intimacy with younger people, I think. She was wonderful. My children remember her vividly. They’re grown up now, but I’ve got pictures of her sitting on the sofa next to my two sons at various ages, when she came here to have lunch with us.

“I never called her ‘Lady Thatcher’ or ‘Lady T’—always Mrs T”

The last time I saw Denis would have been March or April 2003. He died that autumn. He was just about to go to hospital. I asked him what he’d like to drink. He said he’d have a gin and vermouth. I got a large tumbler and started filling it with gin and asked him to say ‘when’. It was quite near the top when he said ‘when’. Then I put the vermouth in. It went down amazingly rapidly.

He was 87 and I thought, ‘I hope I’m doing that well at his age.’ Then I asked him if he’d like another one. Denis said, ‘Yes, that’s so good of you. A little less vermouth this time, please.’ And he drank it again. I told my seven-year-old son, Johnnie, who was there, that he would be able to tell his grandchildren in 80 years time, that in his father’s house he saw Sir Denis Thatcher drink a pint of gin and vermouth before lunch and still behave like a gentleman. Happy memories!

Let’s move on to your selection of Margaret Thatcher books. First up is Charles Moore’s three-volume biography. It’s kind of obvious why you might read this; it’s the official biography. But what are its merits as a book?

It’s beautifully written, obviously. Charles is a very fine writer. And he had complete access, not just to everything—all the papers—but to everyone who ever met her.

I wonder whether he’ll do a second edition in a few years’ time. I think there were some cabinet papers he was unable to access under the 30-year rule. That’s the only thing that’s missing from the book, simply because when he was writing the first volumes not everything was out. Everything’s out now. It’s certainly one of those rare books that, if more information arises, it should be updated.

“Charles has covered everything and he has done it in an incredibly readable and interesting way”

It’s very thoroughly researched. And I can’t imagine that there’s very much anyone would want to know about Mrs Thatcher that’s not in it. These days, to have a monumental three-volume life like that is pretty unusual. But, unlike a lot of those multi-volume politicians’ lives, it isn’t boring.

For example, Martin Gilbert’s life of Churchill in eight volumes is unutterably tedious. It’s the sort of thing I’d like to see used as an alternative to custody for young offenders. I’d make them read all eight volumes, rather than going to chokey—that would teach them a lesson they wouldn’t forget. But Charles’s book isn’t boring. If you’re not interested in certain questions, such as foreign policy, he does go on a bit about that. But he has to; she was an international figure.

The first volume covers her early life through to her initial period as prime minister. Volume two covers her at the peak of her powers: the five years between the Falklands War and her 1987 general election victory. And the third volume covers her final term in power and the decades that followed.

No one is ever going to need to write another book about Margaret Thatcher. It’s as simple as that. Charles has covered everything and he has done it in an incredibly readable and interesting way. I knew her for 27 years and she comes out of the book absolutely accurately. He has given a true and faithful account of her character, her personality, her views, her dynamism and her absolute refusal to be kicked around by anybody.

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Mrs Thatcher had a real understanding of her massive responsibilities towards this country. This is something that her present successor does not have. She really understood how crucial it was that this country function properly. And she understood that, as a stateswoman, she had the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that everything went well here. You see that in things such as her reaction to the invasion of the Falkland Islands—‘I’m not going to let some jumped-up fascist from Argentina go in there and oppress our people, even if we have to strain every possible sinew to prevent it.’

I went to the Falkland Islands six or seven years ago and she is regarded as a god-like figure there because of what she did. They know they wouldn’t be living there in those circumstances if she hadn’t acted as she did. That was something that came up out of the blue, but she also understood that this country had become profoundly anti-democratic in that it was run largely by trade union leaders.

I was 18 or 19 during the Winter of Discontent and I remember the despair I felt as a young adult, that a lot of men were coming in and out of Downing Street from their trade unions telling me exactly how my country should be run and what they were prepared to put up with when, not only did I not vote for them, but most of their members hadn’t either. She understood this, the wrongness of unelected over-mighty subjects running the country and she was determined to face them down.

She was also determined to deal with what she saw as the illogicality of a nationalised industry. Nationalised industries just ensured that the people in charge had no experience of industry whatsoever and also ensured that it had to be funded by the taxpayer. She understood that when you privatise something you tend to call people in who know what they’re doing, and you can also raise money from the private sector, from private individuals, to run and expand these companies. I know it’s not perfect, but the idea that British Telecom would have developed in the way that it has in this technological age, if it had stayed in the public sector, is inconceivable.

“She brought that totally un-hypocritical sense of virtue, energy and hard work into her view of political life”

She understood these things. People say that she had to take orders from Keith Joseph, who in turn took them from Enoch Powell. Well, up to a point. But she had all the right instincts. I saw her being parodied in The Crown the other day as this little provincial woman, who was trying to follow her father’s example. Well, frankly if more people in this country had followed Alderman Alfred Roberts’ example, we’d be a damn sight better country now. She brought that totally un-hypocritical sense of virtue, energy and hard work into her view of political life and that, to my mind, was her ultimate achievement.

But, anyway, Charles brings all that out in the books and if you read them you will—slightly dangerous thing to say—know everything you need to know about her. Above all, Charles has presented to the world a completely honest and accurate account of Margaret Thatcher.

Oddly enough I have read all three volumes and I agree that it’s immensely readable. I think Moore ends the final book by saying that the key thing about Margaret Thatcher was that she ‘gave it everything she could’ and that was the central theme of the whole book, at least with respect to her character.

On the question of her portrayal in The Crown, one of the things that struck me about the first volume of the biography—slightly to your point about Alderman Roberts—was how, actually, she was bred to politics and very comfortable with it from a very early age, and not in a particularly provincial way. She met local grandees when she was a teenager, she was head of the Conservative Association at Oxford, she was a parliamentary candidate for the Tory party very young and so the idea that she was ever this intimidated, provincial mouse is completely daft. She also met and married quite a rich man, so she could read for the bar with the luxury of having plenty of money behind her.

Yes. She knew what she was doing. I often wonder whether she or Enoch Powell was the greatest person I’ve ever met and knew well. It’s a toss-up. Of course, people would say that it has to be Mrs Thatcher because she became prime minister. That’s true, but the weather was changed by Enoch. It was he who gave her a revelation about how an economy is run and she would not have been what she was without him. He was described as being John the Baptist to her, which I think is probably fair. Anyway, we’ll come on to that later.

Let’s move on to Robin Harris’s book. I think he was Margaret Thatcher’s speech writer and helped her write her memoirs. But what does he add to this story that is not in the official biography? Charles Moore focuses very much on her private decision making processes, rather than discussing the broader social and political landscape. Does Harris do more of that?

Robin spent years with her, day after day. Charles didn’t. And Robin knew her better than anybody who will ever write a book about her. Charles does capture her perfectly. But if you want the absolute character verification of Mrs T, you read Robin’s book.

Robin first met her when he was in the Conservative Party Research Department in the late 1970s and saw her regularly right through the 1980s as prime minister. When she went into internal exile after November 1990, he was with her every day, working in her private office. He was so close to her that he knew what she was thinking. When he drafted her memoirs for her it was a completely synthesised process because they more or less became each other.

“Robin’s is the best single-volume biography, without question”

The other reason that I put Robin’s book in, as well as Charles’, is for people who can’t bring themselves to read three massive volumes—although they’d be wrong to think that way. Robin’s is the best single-volume biography, without question. And it’s more intimate than Charles’s. Of course, he writes about policy and everything, but he does so in a more instinctive way than Charles does and he does so with the benefit of having been there. And if you are at the side of somebody for years, as he was, you must give a slightly more nuanced picture of her, which I think he does.

Robin is a very clever man. He’s a highly intelligent, highly educated man, who was ‘present at the creation.’ And then he followed the story through. That’s the advantage of his book—it’s based on immersion in the life of Mrs Thatcher. It’s a more spontaneous book.

Why didn’t you choose Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs among your five books? Are they not much of a read? Politicians’ memoirs often aren’t.

I don’t think they’re objective. They’re a good enough book, but everything that’s in them is in Charles’s work. It’s never occurred to me that they’d be worth reading, which is an awful thing to say. They give the impression of being written by a committee, which they were. When they came out in 1993, ’94, they were the first statement of what she had done—the Old Testament.

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I review books all the time by politicians and so few of them are worth reading. Oddly enough, there are only two political memoirs that I’ve read that I thought were really brilliant. Both will surprise you. First, Jim Prior’s memoirs, which had the the most boring title in the world, A Balance of Power. He attacks Thatcher, which is fair enough; they didn’t get on. But he spends an awful lot of time in his memoirs saying what a complete fool he had been. He’s always saying how he made yet another mistake or did something else wrong. It’s so refreshing. When he’s covering his period working as Ted Heath’s permanent private secretary, he’s constantly saying, ‘I mucked something else up at this point,’ and, ‘I got this wrong,’ and, ‘Oh Jesus, why did I do this?’ It’s just really heartening.

The other one is by John Peyton, a junior minister in Ted Heath’s government and then Mrs Thatcher’s. He wrote a book about his life called Without Benefit of Laundry. Apparently it was an Army phrase—it referred to the practice of very junior officers having to do their own laundry. That book, too, is about the sheer absurdity of political life. But most political books are truly bloody awful and all about justifying themselves. Mrs T didn’t have as much to justify as some people did. Much of what she had done already justified itself by the time she wrote her memoirs. But they’re just a boring read.

Let’s move on to One of Us by Hugo Young. I don’t know if Hugo Young would have known Margaret Thatcher personally, but this book is an unsympathetic view of Thatcher. Why is it worth reading this if you want to understand her?

I’ve recommended it on the know-thine-enemy principle. Charles is quite even-handed, despite being very pro-Mrs T. And, obviously, Robin is pro-Mrs T. But this shows you what the North London intelligentsia really thought of her and why they hated her. And if anyone wanted to understand—years later—the failings of anti-Thatcherism, this book brings them out absolutely perfectly. Hugo did know her; I’ve been at press conferences with him when he was talking to her. But he didn’t know her well. She wouldn’t have trusted or liked him. But, in this book, he never really comes up with what the alternative was to Thatcher’s programme.

One thing that really motivated me to be a supporter of hers is that I will never forget this country on its knees in three feet of snow and six feet of rubbish in February 1979. It was just completely paralysed. I went up to Cambridge that October. It’s amazing how my generation was affected by it. Of course, there was a Fabian Society and a Labour Club at Cambridge in my day. There was even a little Liberal Club in those days. But the Conservative Association was the most active and powerful political association in the university. And most of the people who ran the Cambridge Union were Conservatives. Our generation had been so profoundly affected by the incompetence of governments and the tyranny of trade unions that we knew something had to change.

“Hugo’s view of Britain was the direct opposite of Mrs Thatcher’s. Hugo thought it was all over for Britain and that we were completely finished”

People like Hugo just didn’t seem to get that. They lived in great splendour in Islington and would go down to the Guardian in their sedan chairs and live an existence in which many of the realities of life didn’t really impinge upon them. It’s very easy to be grand and idealistic and say, ‘Oh, the poor miners.’ Yes, the poor miners. I was very sorry for them. I’m sorry for anybody who loses his job. Mrs Thatcher offered re-training schemes. There were regeneration schemes. There were enterprise zones. She did make an attempt to do things better. But she encountered the same problem that the national government encountered in the 1930s; the economic revival had to start somewhere. After 1931, after the slump, it started around London and in car factories in the West Midlands. It didn’t start in the places where the old industries had lost their export markets and their products were no longer required.

Her revival of the economy obviously started in London. I remember being a young man in London in the 1980s, going home at the weekends from Liverpool Street station to see my mother, and tripping over very drunk young traders lying in the gutter, with empty bottles of champagne next to them. I’m not exaggerating. The train home on a Friday from Liverpool Street to Essex was called ‘The Vomit Comet’ because that’s what it was. You had endless numbers of very young men whose capacity for alcohol did not exceed their income and they were blowing it all on booze.

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There was a boom in wealth, and a very ostentatious boom, in the south of England and it took a long time to go north. But that wasn’t her fault. That happened in the 1930s as well, when Ramsay MacDonald was prime minister. Anyway, Hugo Young constructs the typical anti-Thatcher argument. I never thought much of his stuff at the time and, looking back now, I just think he was monumentally wrong. But, if you want to understand the whole phenomenon of Thatcherism, which is not just what she did but also what everyone tried to prevent her from doing, you have to read Hugo’s book.

Does he land any telling blows in the book, or are there aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s programme that ultimately failed that he was particularly prescient about?

He had terrific contacts in the Conservative Party. He was very good at portraying her absolutism and the way that her relationships with colleagues would degenerate if those colleagues didn’t accept, not her word, but what she believed was the will of the people. That’s why she fell out with Geoffrey Howe. And, of course, Hugo got Europe monumentally wrong. He rejoiced in our membership of the EU. But what he didn’t understand was that she became part of a 47-year campaign to get us out of the European Union.

She understood that a lot of people in the country didn’t like being in Europe and were not benefiting from it and didn’t like being told what to do. And she didn’t like being told what to do. That was fine for Hugo because Hugo’s view of Britain was the direct opposite of Mrs Thatcher’s. Hugo thought it was all over for Britain and that we were completely finished.

That, if you like, has been the argument between Remainers and Leavers ever since. You either believe in this country or you don’t. She did and he didn’t.

I read some of the passages on Europe in One of Us. He sees UK membership of the EU as this immensely inevitable process that she was seeking to frustrate. But, actually, reading it in the wake of Brexit, it really doesn’t read well for him at all.

I think what she instinctively knew was that all empires fail. There was evidence of that during her reign because the Soviet bloc collapsed. Hugo was taking a very ahistorical point of view by saying that this empire, uniquely, was inevitably going to be a thousand-year Reich—my words, not his. And it was balls. It was never going to happen.

Inevitably, the same will happen one day with America. When you’ve got 71 million people voting for Trump, the idea that Joe Biden is going to sow sweetness and light with unimpeded ease, is rubbish. There’s something about very big polities that have different cultures in them, that means they don’t last. It was true of our empire, it was true of the Soviet Union, and of all those empires that fell in 1918, and it will be true of America.

That’s probably quite a good moment to move on to Enoch Powell because I wanted to ask you about his views on the US in relation to his influence on Mrs Thatcher. At least ostensibly, it seems to be an area where they might have had profound disagreements. But, anyway, tell us why you’ve chosen Freedom and Reality in particular, which is a collection of his speeches that were published in 1969, which would have been the year after his highly controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and the year before Heath was elected prime minister.

These are the Dead Sea Scrolls of Powellism. This is Powellism, red in tooth and claw. It’s got the Birmingham speech in it and other speeches on immigration which, by the way, are really worth reading for people who believe Powell was a racist, because Powell doesn’t talk about race once. All he talks about is immigration and he doesn’t specify who’s doing the immigrating. So, it’s useful for that reason.

But this, if you like, was the blueprint of Thatcherism and that is important for two reasons. First of all it’s got his arguments against the George Brown National Plan of 1964-65, in which he says there’s an indissoluble link between a free country and a free market and that, if you write to people who are running enterprises, and ask them what they will be doing in five years time, they’re going to write back to you and say that they haven’t got a clue because it depends how the market moves between now and then. And so he said the plan was fundamentally ignorant of business and the way money is made.

“Powell’s Freedom and Reality was the blueprint of Thatcherism”

He also says things like, ‘You don’t tax a loss, you can only tax a profit, so we need rich people. We need to create money. If you are a Labour adherent and you want to welfare state, then you have to accept that that welfare state has to be paid for and, it’s only paid for by rich people and rich companies.’

He also talks extensively about monetarism in this book. He says it’s no good governments blaming trade unions for inflation. Inflation is caused by printing money and, if the growth in the supply of money exceeds the growth in GDP, we’re going to have inflation, because there will be too much money chasing too few goods. It’s as simple as that.

And, of course, this was all proven very quickly when Heath grew the money supply by, I think, 30% in 1971-72. In 1974-75 we had inflation of nearly 25%. So Powell was proved right. The IMF agreed with him, which is why they stopped Healey spending money in 1976 and introduced massive spending cuts.

So, I would go back to the John the Baptist analogy. Virtually anything that Mrs Thatcher did is in Enoch Powell’s Freedom and Reality. He advocates privatisation and monetarism. He advocates an end to incomes policies. He repudiated planning. He repudiates the state, in fact. She was hugely influenced by this. The day that my book on Powell came out in 1998, Charles Moore, very kindly, got her to write a review of it on the leader page of the Telegraph, which was a wonderful thing of him to do, because I think it sold about 10,000 copies just on the back of her writing that. And she said, ‘I learned it all from him’.

It was Powell who, in 1964 after the defeat of the Home government, took Keith Joseph into the Institute of Economic Affairs, the IEA, and introduced him to Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon, who were very close to Enoch, and said, ‘Give him some of your pamphlets. He’s a clever man with a mind that is tilting towards us.’

“He was the greatest political influence on her, probably, apart from her father”

And Keith Joseph, on Enoch’s suggestion, took all these IEA pamphlets home, read them, and realized that Powellism, as it was then known, was the way forward. By the time you get to 1974, Powell had left the Conservative Party, but Mrs Thatcher remained in awe of him, not least because she knew that when she and Keith Joseph set up the Centre for Policy Studies, they were doing it based on a Powellite platform.

And, of course, in the end, she became completely Powellite. At the very end of that book is a speech he made in the spring of 1969 at Clacton-on-Sea, about why Britain shouldn’t join the European Economic Community, as it then was. If you’d read that speech out during the referendum campaign in 2016 you would have hardly have had to change a single word, because it was a semi-religious statement of the case against Britain joining the Common Market and it was the argument for leaving the EU, once we’d joined. It dealt purely with sovereignty, with the issue of the lack of democracy, and the inability of people to vote in a general election and thereby to affect the future of their country in matters connected to Europe.

These are the arguments that Mrs Thatcher set out in her Bruges speech. I went to Bruges with her that day. I read the speech on the plane going over and I remember just saying to the journalist next to me, ‘Enoch wrote this 20 years ago. This is Enoch.’

Anyway, he was the greatest political influence on her, probably, apart from her father.

She served in Heath’s cabinet, I think for the duration of that government, 1970-74. Was she close to Enoch Powell in the 1960s, or was she just quietly sympathetic, or was she actually not converted at that stage?

She was very sympathetic. She was working in the shadow government in the 1960s with Keith Joseph and Keith had introduced her to Enoch’s thought. I know that. And she didn’t get on with Enoch very well. It wasn’t her fault. Enoch didn’t think women belonged in politics. I remember him saying this to me in the early years that I knew him—I met him first in 1980. I remember him saying to me in about 1985, when she was still prime minister, ‘Well, I still find it so hard to believe. It’s not a job for a woman. She shouldn’t be doing it.’

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He reluctantly came round. He was hugely impressed by her response to the Falkland Islands crisis. And they had a sort of love-in at that stage. But then she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement and he was livid. They didn’t reconcile after that until she was in retirement. When Enoch died, Pam, his widow, used to go around and see Mrs T about once every three or four months for a cup of tea or lunch together. Mrs T talked about Enoch a lot and she didn’t bear grudges. She knew he’d be very unhelpful to her on a number of occasions, but she would always say what a great man he was and what a terrible loss to the party his departure had been and, ‘if only he’d stayed.’ I’m sure if he’d stayed in the Tory Party, she’d have had him back in the shadow cabinet and would have made him Chancellor of the Exchequer or something.

But Freedom and Reality is a Powellite blueprint for Thatcherism and, if you want to understand where she came from, she came from Keith Joseph, but he came directly from the ideas in this book. She picked them up—denationalisation, monetarism, leaving things to the market. That’s exactly what she did.

One of the speeches in there is called ‘The Delusive Myth of Britain’s World Role’. But Mrs Thatcher always seemed very keen on that idea of Britain punching above its weight—or am I wrong about that?

No, she was. He made that speech when he was shadow defence minister. He says that there was no point in Britain being east of Suez. The point of being east of Suez was India. He took the view that, once India had gone, we should be realistic about where we were. This also ties in with his anti-Americanism. He believed, with some justification, that one of the main aims of American foreign policy from Versailles onwards had been to dismantle the British Empire.

He first came across Americans at the Casablanca Conference in 1943. And he was horrified by the Americans he met because he thought they acted like they owned the world. But he thought, ‘But we own the world—what’s going on?’ The catastrophic moment for him was 20 February 1947, the night that Clement Attlee got up in the House of Commons and said that Britain would be leaving India on 15 August. Enoch was horrified because he wanted to be Viceroy. That was his principal ambition. He told me, ‘I walked the streets of London. I couldn’t sleep. I kept walking around Westminster, thinking ‘what has he done?’ And at that moment I realised that, if that was what was going to happen, then the whole British Empire was over. All our pretensions to be a world power were gone.’ It was a delusion.

“Enoch wanted Britain to be strongly defended, but to exist in Lord Salisbury-style ‘splendid isolation’”

Obviously Mrs Thatcher was old enough to remember when we had had an empire, but because she wasn’t anti-American she had a different view about co-operating with America. Enoch didn’t want to co-operate with America. He wanted Britain to be strongly defended, but to exist in Lord Salisbury-style ‘splendid isolation,’ not getting involved in other peoples’ fights. That was why he was always quite keen on being friends with the Soviet Union. Not because he shared their ideology, but because they were a bulwark for stability in the world, which I suppose, to an extent, they were.

But Mrs T very much took the view that, with the Americans, we could do anything. Enver Hoxha used to say, when things were getting rough in Tirana, ‘Never forget that, together with the Chinese, we Albanians have a quarter of the world’s population.’ And I always think that, to an extent, that’s the way Mrs T saw us and the Americans, but that’s probably being very unfair.

Let’s move on to Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

This is not just one of the great libertarian texts of all time—and Mrs T was to an extent a libertarian, certainly in economic matters—but it’s one of the great counter-cultural texts of all time. Hayek, when he wrote it, was a professor at the LSE. The Beveridge Report had come out two years earlier and it was the year of the 1944 Education Act. He sees the state growing and growing and imposing its will and influence in all sorts of areas.

Now, I can’t remember whether she read The Road to Serfdom. But if she didn’t read it, she was given lectures on it by people like Harris and Seldon. The IEA’s whole raison d’etre was based on The Road to Serfdom. Ayn Rand said that the difference between the welfare state and a totalitarian state is “only a matter of time.” That’s not a phrase that Hayek uses, but it’s exactly what he’s arguing in The Road to Serfdom. It’s not just about the illiberal nature of a state that tells you what to do—as in our current circumstances with the Covid crisis, where you can’t come and see me in my house. And you and I can’t sit down in a pub and have a drink together because the state has told us we can’t.

“This is not just one of the great libertarian texts, but it’s one of the great counter-cultural texts of all time”

Ironically, this is where Hayek thought welfarism was leading. Hayek believed—and Mrs Thatcher believed all this, as well—that socialism was about control and liberalism, in its true sense, was about letting people fend for themselves, to make their own decisions and go as they wished. And it’s absolutely crystal clear that Mrs Thatcher based her whole approach to government on that Hayekian principle. Oddly enough, Enoch didn’t like Hayek. Enoch thought he was an unduly rigid foreigner who didn’t understand our ways and customs. But actually, they agreed on most things, although they came to it from different angles.

They both thought the state was dangerous and that public spending was not a good in itself. But I think Enoch felt that Hayek was trying to share his limelight on economic questions. He got a bit primadonna-ish and didn’t like the idea of it. But The Road to Serfdom like Freedom and Reality is a blueprint for large areas of Thatcherism. And so, if you want to understand Margaret Thatcher and the origins of Thatcherite thought you have go back to these two.

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You could go back to Adam Smith, which is what Enoch did. Enoch learned his economics from Adam Smith and Hayek was a great admirer of Adam Smith, of course, but Hayek tried to put it in terms that are relevant to the mid-20th century, at a time when he realised, in a way that I think Churchill didn’t, that a Labour government was probably going to turn up sooner rather than later and that there would be demand, after the privations of war, for welfarism on a quite excessive scale. He just wanted to warn people about where welfarism gets you. It creates control and a dependent relationship on government. And, as Mrs Thatcher realised, you don’t help people by paying them to do nothing. You help people by finding jobs they can do.

I remember Ralph Harris saying to me—and he got this from Hayek—’If you pay people to be unemployed, you’ll have unemployment. If you stop paying them to be unemployed, jobs will turn up.’

You mentioned earlier that you had asked Mrs Thatcher, which she clearly didn’t appreciate, why she hadn’t reformed the welfare state. Was she touchy on that subject because, actually, it was something she was conscious that she had not been able to tackle, or tackled inadequately?

She was touchy because she knew it was something that, as part of her programme, she ought to have done. She also knew that with three million people unemployed, you couldn’t just cut them off at the knees and say, ‘Well the state’s not going to help you.’ But I think she had a view that, had she been able to stay in power for 20 years, which I don’t think she ever dreamed of doing, the time would come when there would be high levels of employment. Then she could have started to reform the welfare state. It would have attracted the same criticism that David Cameron got when Iain Duncan Smith was doing it in the coalition government.

I think she was also aware of the huge sentimental value of the National Health Service and that that was an argument she was never going to win. But, of course, she did try to bring huge economies to the National Health Service. And I think she rather enjoyed it when people got cross with her, particularly if they were in the medical profession. I remember in 1984 she introduced—or the DHSS introduced—a limited prescribing list. There were lots of branded drugs that cost five times as much as their generic equivalent—where the patent had expired. She pointed out that the government’s medical officers and scientists had said that the generic drugs were the same as the branded ones, and generic ones should be prescribed instead. The British Medical Association, the BMA, went completely bonkers, for the simple reason—though they called it clinical freedom—that a lot of these drug companies were giving huge backhanders to general practitioners. They were giving them computer systems, which people didn’t really have in the early 1980s. Doctors were taken away for golf weekends with their wives—or other people’s wives. The treats were enormous, and they all stopped, of course, when the limited list came in. The BMA sent out a spokesman to say that people were going to die because of this. But no one died because they all got the same drug as they were having before. No one had on his or her death certificate, from that period, that death was a result of a doctor being unable to prescribe the right medicines.

I think she enjoyed humiliating these people, particular white-collar trade unions like the BMA. She found that amusing. But she knew there was a limit to which she could go. So, she brought some sort of internal market into the health service and abolished area health authorities in the early 1980s. She looked for places where there was a duplication of bureaucracy and overspending and tried to cut those but, actually, breaking the fundamental vow of ‘a health service, free at the point of use’ was never going to happen.

Hayek started writing The Road to Serfdom in the 1930s, I think. He was terrified of both communism and fascism. Partly as a result of that, he has this very tight identification in his argument between personal freedom and economic freedom and you can totally see why that was very persuasive throughout most of the 20th century. I was just wondering whether, with the emergence of China as a capitalist, but highly authoritarian state, Hayek’s work is less immediately relevant on that account. Or would you argue that it is perennially important and can be used to criticise the kind of authoritarian capitalism that we see now?

I don’t know how far the Chinese economy is capitalist. Nor do I know how long the present model of the Chinese economy will be able to survive and grow without greater liberties being given to people. Singapore has an authoritarian capitalist system, or it did when I last went there and Harry Lee was still prime minister, but there’s obviously infinitely more liberty in Singapore than there is in China. There has to be proper mobility of labour and there has to be the means of spreading ownership, which you don’t have in China.

“I think Hayek will ultimately be proved right everywhere”

I think Hayek will ultimately be proved right everywhere. Incidentally, one reason I think Enoch didn’t like him was that Enoch did believe in a national health service. His father had been very ill in the late 1920s and they had had a real job finding all the money to pay for his care. That had a big effect on him. And I think for both him and Mrs Thatcher, the National Health Service became a bit of a no-no.

Secretary of State for Health was the only Cabinet post Powell held, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was. And he did it very well. It convinced him that there had to be some sort of state provision in a properly humane society. I think when he said that Hayek didn’t really understand how Britain worked, that was something at the front of his mind, that Hayek didn’t understand that we had to have a national health service, because we weren’t a brutal country like the Austria that had invited Hitler in. Of course, it would be extremely unfair to blame Hayek for any of that. He had left Austria in 1931, but I think Enoch thought there was a middle-European mentality, that didn’t understand the British way of life.

But Hayek’s fundamental idea about the importance of the individual, of the free market economy, of allowing people to do as they wish without the state intervening, was absolutely fundamental Thatcherism and, of course, remains fundamental to the libertarian ideas that are held by the heirs of Mrs Thatcher today.

Where do you think her most enduring legacy lies?

I think almost certainly in dealing with the trade unions. We’ve had very little industrial action since. The country’s never been held to ransom since. There’s been the odd strike, of course, but people’s lives have not been damaged, nor has the productivity of the country. Trade unions now have virtually no power at all. They’re like friendly societies. Even the Labour party don’t take them seriously—well, Corbyn did, but he wasn’t serious either. But I don’t think you’ll see Keir Starmer paying much attention to the trade union movement. And in that sense she really shifted the consensus. Blairism was a tribute to Mrs T and how far she had moved the goalposts.

In international terms, her effect on bringing down the Berlin Wall and her relationship with Gorbachev were very important. It’s just a shame that he’s been replaced with another form of tyrant, but at least it’s a tyrant who has, as yet, not moved too far beyond the boundaries of his own country.

“Blairism was a tribute to Mrs T and how far she had moved the goalposts”

Inflation hasn’t really existed for the last 20-odd years and I think that’s another of her legacies, that we understand the need to control the supply of money—although how that’s going to evolve from where we are at the moment, I don’t know.

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I think she changed thinking quite dramatically. How far she was responsible for the notion of us leaving the EU is debatable. That all started with Enoch. She just jumped on the wagon. But she jumped on the wagon in a very sincere way. The fact that, in the late 1980s, we at last had a prime minister who saw that there were things wrong with the European Union gave great momentum to people like Nigel Farage. I’ve known Nigel for 25 years and I know how inspired and motivated he was by Mrs Thatcher embracing the anti-EU cause. He was a Conservative at the time. But when John Major rowed back he left and joined UKIP and took UKIP over.

I don’t give Dominic Cummings any credit at all for us having voted to leave. It was Nigel who did it. The Conservatives who were going to be convinced had already been convinced. They’d been convinced by a combination of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher. It was the white working class Labour voters who had not been convinced. Nigel spoke directly to them and they came and did it. So, part of her legacy is that we’re not in the EU anymore, or soon won’t be. But she wasn’t the main actress. There were others who were very strongly involved, both before her and after.

Interview by Benedict King

December 7, 2020

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Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and a Professor at the University of Buckingham. He has been deputy editor of both the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph and a columnist for the Daily Mail. He is the author of a number of works of history and biography, as well as two books on English grammar. He has a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, awarded for his biography of Enoch Powell.

Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and a Professor at the University of Buckingham. He has been deputy editor of both the Spectator and the Daily Telegraph and a columnist for the Daily Mail. He is the author of a number of works of history and biography, as well as two books on English grammar. He has a PhD in history from the University of Cambridge, awarded for his biography of Enoch Powell.