6 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 16


Germaine Greer on Thatcher, a saint without miracles

Hagiographers are not what they used to be. Neither Russell Lewis nor George Gardiner, whose books entitled Margaret Thatcher both appear this week*, can provide a single portent or prodigy to bring their legend to life. A saint without miracles is a dull creature, distinguished by dogged orthodoxy and the exercise of blind faith and unremitting self-denial in its observance. For Mr Lewis and Mr Gardiner, this dullness is all that is admirable; indeed Mr Lewis positively boasts (as early as page sixteen) that Dame Janet Vaughan described Margaret Thatcher, as a student, as "a perfectly competent and ordinary young woman."

Both reverent biographers see in Mrs Thatcher a prophet arising out of the grocer's shop in Grantham, laying down her measured bags of rice and lentils, to follow a higher call to preach the ways of righteousness; as a mere chit of a girl did she not go forth to tell the Chevening branch of the Seven Oaks Association that "children should be taught loyalty to their country," "to be prepared, and keep their noses to the grindstone"? Similar sentiments, similarly expressed, form the kernel of the gospel according to Mrs Thatcher. It is this crassness which excites the enthusiasm of Messrs Lewis and Gardiner since only a low-class Tory, blessedly free of guilt-feelings about privilege, can afford to harness the energies of vulgar reaction, turning upon *Margaret Thatcher:A Personal and Political Biography Russell Lewis (Routledge and Kegan Paul £2.95)

Margaret Thatcher: From Childhood to Leadership George Gardiner (William Kimber £3.95)

slackers of all degrees but especially the poor ones, the Savonarola glare of her "clear blue eyes." So they follow her, faithfully recording every unabashed cliche, "liberty not licence," "action not words", along the glory road through Dartford and Finchley to Westminster.

Mr Gardiner differs from Mr Lewis in that his typeface is smaller, his story longer and his enumeration of Tory trivia more painstaking. Both are really more interested in the Tory Party than in Margaret Thatcher, and it is a curious fact that, in both books, the figure of the saint herself is mostly obscured by those of the priests of Toryism who throng about her in both these portraits. Mr Lewis is aware of this deficiency so he struggles to humanise his saint, without sullying her by any hint of passion or fallibility. The result, predictably and probably deliberately, is that Mrs Thatcher is more than ever the pattern of the image of lower middle-class decency.

Mr Lewis it is who tells us of Mrs Thatcher's slipping out of a meeting at the Ministry of Education to buy Denis a bit of bacon. The suggestion that someone less highly paid by the tax payer might be sent upon so menial an errand, was turned aside. "No," said Mrs Thatcher, "I know just the cut he likes." One imagines the hapless grocer, reducing a slitch to shards in search of the rasher that could not be named. Still, St Elizabeth of Hungary occasionally left off kissing lepers and working miracles to stitch at her husband's shirts.

One of Margaret Thatcher's most prized characteristics is her freedom from any taint of intellectualism. We are told that she reads "omniverously" (an absurd suggestion, which ought to be interpreted as meaning "promiscuously") but the only writer mentioned, by either author, is Kipling. What is more, we are asked to believe that Mrs Thatcher is looking forward to retirement so that she can learn book-binding and so repair her battered Kipling with her own hands.

Presumably Mr Gardiner and Mr Lewis are ultimately interested principally in conversions to the Tory faith. The mode they choose of creating an idol, is one time-honoured by Conservatism, given as it is to the Great Man Theory and fatuous concepts of leadership. Not all their forraging in Hansard, interlarded with innocuous party gossip, however, can yield evidence which will fit the case. Whenever the authentic voice of Thatcher is heard, in among her biographers' relentless praises, the whole edifice tumbles to the ground. For example, Russell Lewis writes:

Mrs Thatcher shows her increasingly nimble footwork in this speech. She quoted Dicey (the constitutional lawyer) in her support, and Mr Michael Stewart ... caused loud laughter by pointing out that Dicey also thought it against nature for women to elect MP's. To this Mrs Thatcher replied, unabashed, "women get on all right in the Tory Party."

One effect of these biographies is to identify Mrs Thatcher once and for' all with her own past mistakes. As a valiant female contending for the dizzy heights of leadership in among the shoals of intrigue and the nets of the old school system, she appeared more sympathetic than at any other time in her career. Both Mr Lewis and Mr Gardiner deal cursorily with Mrs Thatcher's expressed opinions on flogging, the miserable Eli million saved by stopping school milk, and the simple administrative blunder of introducing museum charges, but their palliative explanations leave us with only one possible conclusion: Margaret Thatcher is obtuse. In view of her known talents in the fields of constitutional law and taxation, the person who made her Secretary of State for,Education must have been even more obtuse, especially as she thought the chief problem facing primary schools was a matter of Victorian architecture. The ineptness of her handling of the intense public animus aroused by her actions during her term in the Education Ministry causes one to wonder whether she might not have been chosen to lead the Party at this inauspicious time because of her positive talent for unpopularity.

Margaret Thatcher is not only obtuse; she is also industrious, dogged, patient, earnest, reliable and strong. The story of her life is the simple chronicle of an unimaginative and determined woman who worked her way through the Oxford University Conservative Association to selection, won Finchley, did her,

, homework and performed competently in various positions. She has undoubted ability,

and the reader finds himself unwillingly impressed. Most of all she possesses a superhuman tolerance of tedium, and it is this which encourages the reader to nerve himself to bear the tedium of reading on. Well might the House have gasped when she announced in 1966 that she had read every Chancellor's speech since 1946, in preparation for her own. This is omniverous reading with a vengeance. The reader too, gapes and guiltily stifles his yawn.

This is the function foreseen for such books, which finds their only excitement in counting coals and calls the defeat of the Tory Party, at any time and in any circumstance, "a tragedy." They teach the aspiring politician that the uncomplaining acceptance of dullness of all kinds and at all levels, all the time, is the only road to power.

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