I’ve been reading about Margaret Thatcher, so you don’t have to. Of all the politicians in my lifetime, Thatcher stirred the most astringent antipathy.
In my early days as a columnist, the Conservative prime minister was rechristened Mrs Hacksaw, and that’s how she remained in print and in memory. A rasp made flesh, complete with condescending voice, candyfloss for hair, and dreadful policies whose effects linger still.
One obvious example is the sale of council houses: nice if you were sitting in one and could buy it for a Tory-sponsored song; not so good for those who followed.
Thatcher showed no interest in building new council homes to replace those she flogged off as a sweetener to voters she hoped to turn Tory. A similar approach held sway with following governments and that, children, is how you end up with a housing crisis.
Thatcher was the strongest political influence in my life and those of many others. If you were liberal or left leaning, you knew where you stood: usually in front of the TV, swearing. God, how we hated that woman.
The problem, looking back, is sometimes you can hate your opponent more than you love the one you supposed to be with. That habit lingers still: just because hating Boris Johnson is easy, it doesn’t follow that loving Jeremy Corbyn is a starry-eyed synch.
I’m going to swerve that one for now, and instead look at something Thatcher was skilled in: arguing her case. She loved a TV debate and was happy, indecently eager perhaps, to take part in heavyweight TV interviews or debates.
This is something that emerges in Steve Richards’ book The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May. I asked my wife to buy me this as a birthday present, and that shows what a weirdo I must be. Still, it’s an illuminating read, clear-eyed and surprisingly entertaining.
Having been through Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan, I am now stuck in the middle with Thatcher. And Richards recalls how much Maggie Mayhem loved a TV argument, especially in the early days.
“From the time when she became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 to her election as prime Minister in 1979, Thatcher never shied way from formidable TV interrogators, both in the UK and the US,” Richards reminds us.
She loved popping over the Atlantic to appear on Firing Line, an hour-long interview with the right-wing radical William Buckley. He shared many of her convictions, Richards tells us, but still gave her a hard time.
How different this seems to the leaders of our parties today. Boris Johnson prefers social media puff pieces, tame ‘interviews’ in which an unseen softie inquisitor allows him to tell as many lies as he likes. Where is the hard-headed political journalist to point out those lies? Nowhere to be see, because Johnson avoids big interviews, knowing that he will be tripped up. Much as he is evidently uncomfortable with ordinary voters, especially those in the north, as they have no manners and insult him.
That’s not good enough for a man who wants to be prime minister, but why bother when you have assorted dirty tricks up the sleeve of your ill-fitting suit? Why bother when unnamed Downing Street sources slop out nonsense for the next day’s headline trough?
Jeremy Corbyn is no friend to the hard interviewer either. He’d rather have nothing to do with the mainstream media, but that’s not possible in his job. Instead he does brief interviews, usually on sufferance and sounding tetchy. He also treats journalists and their questions with thin-skinned impatience, typical responses being, “I’ve been asked that question three times already” or even (honestly) “don’t you know it’s rude to shout?”
Those head-to-head leaders’ debates are all very well. But what we need are in-depth interviews with heavy-weight inquisitors. Whatever you think of the dreadful woman, Thatcher would have been up for it.