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Margaret Thatcher inspired a generation of Tory journalists. And they, in turn, inspired her.

By Andrew Gimson
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The idiotic idea that Margaret Thatcher’s leadership represented a complete break with the Tory past can only be entertained by those who know nothing of, or choose to ignore, the admiring reception given to her by many Tories of highly traditional outlook. She was not, as some of her more gormless admirers and detractors suppose, a mysterious being who descended from the heavens, or from Grantham, and created a new doctrine called Thatcherism.

Her genius was to see that ideas which had been around for a long time could, if pursued with sufficient courage, industry and judgment, offer our nation a way out of the humiliations heaped on it during the 1970s.

If I had to offer one example of a traditional Tory who welcomed Thatcher, and supported what she was trying to do, I would name T.E.Utley.  This is in a sense unfair to the many other journalists, on the Daily Telegraph and on other papers, who saw that she could be the leader to reinvigorate British conservatism.

But Thatcher herself did describe Utley, after his death in 1988, as “quite simply, the most distinguished Tory thinker of our time”. Anyone fortunate enough to possess a copy of A Tory Seer, the selection compiled by Charles Moore and Simon Heffer of Utley’s articles in the Times, Telegraph and Spectator, can see how true that was. Here was an Anglican High Tory who knew how to place the dramas of the day in a longer and wiser perspective.  Utley had been blind since childhood, yet saw more deeply than most sighted people into politics.

Frank Johnson used to tell, to great comic effect, his story of introducing Utley to Thatcher. In this account, Johnson and John O’Sullivan, two of the younger members of the Telegraph staff who had become entirely disillusioned with Edward Heath as Leader of the Conservative Party and hoped Thatcher would replace him, decided to hold a dinner at the Reform Club so that Utley, a senior colleague whom they revered, could get to know her. But Thatcher held forth at such length that Johnson and O’Sullivan eventually wearied of her rhetoric and slunk away, leaving Utley, who as a blind man was unable to escape, to carry on listening to her.

It will be noted at once that this is a disrespectful story. But Toryism and irreverence often go together, and certainly did in those days on the Telegraph. Michael Wharton, author of the Peter Simple column, has described in his memoirs the astonishing scenes of drunkenness night after night in the Kings and Keys, the pub next to the paper’s offices.

Johnson, the most brilliant parliamentary sketchwriter of modern times, died in 2006, so I turned to O’Sullivan, who is happily still with us, for confirmation that the dinner took place as described.

O’Sullivan, who afterwards worked for Thatcher at Number Ten, said there had indeed been a dinner at the Reform, arranged by Alfred Sherman, an ardent early Thatcherite who was a founder of the Centre for Policy Studies and also wrote for the Telegraph. But O’Sullivan denied that he and Johnson had been in any way bored by Thatcher, let alone that they had slunk away from the dinner, which was held early in 1975 during her leadership challenge to Edward Heath.

According to O’Sullivan, Johnson began the dinner by asking: “What are you going to do when the leadership election is over, Mrs Thatcher?”

Thatcher replied: “Well, Frank, I shall be leader of the Conservative Party.”

Johnson did not take this assertion seriously: “No, really.”

Thatcher stuck to her guns: “Well, Frank, if I didn’t think I could win I wouldn’t have entered the race. I don’t like losing battles.”

Even many of Thatcher’s supporters did not, at this stage, believe she would win. On the morning of the first ballot, in which she prevailed by 130 votes to 119, the Telegraph suggested in its news pages that Heath was pretty much certain to survive. And although it voiced severe criticisms of him in its leading article, and especially of his lurch towards “inflationary financial policies out of tune with the party’s deep instincts”, here too it assumed that Thatcher would fail to beat him, and that the best which could be hoped for was that he would “seriously reappraise the policies of his late administration”.

So events which in retrospect look clear at the time seemed highly uncertain. But there was, and had long been, a body of opinion on the Telegraph that was favourable to what came to be known as Thatcherite ideas. Maurice Green, editor from 1964-74, was a long-standing supporter of free-market economics. So too was Colin Welch, the paper’s deputy editor, who in turn encouraged O’Sullivan and Johnson.

In the great flood of articles about her since her death, I have noticed no attempt to trace her often intense engagement with Conservative journalists. She loved arguing things through and urging her supporters in Fleet Street to stand up for what they believed. When she met Welch at a Telegraph drinks party, she told him he should be writing books and pamphlets attacking socialism, just as the late Colm Brogan had done.

Welch was able to tell her that although Brogan was in poor health, he was in fact still alive. Thatcher expressed her delight at this news, and said how Brogan’s books had inspired her when she was a young parliamentary candidate.  Brogan duly received a hand-written letter from Thatcher, in which she told him how much she admired his work, and what an inspiration it had been to her.

For if one of her great contributions to the Tory party was the moral seriousness instilled in her during her strict provincial upbringing, another was her no less provincial thirst to discover and put to use all the best arguments by the best brains.  For the avoidance of doubt, let me confirm that I use “provincial” as a term of praise. She understood the instincts of middle England because they were her own instincts. She had the courage, one might say the innocence, to do what politicians with an overwhelming desire to sound sophisticated would not have done.

Bill Deedes, who succeeded Green as editor of the Telegraph and remained in that role until 1986, was a boon companion of Denis Thatcher on the golf course, and became famous to a wider public as the supposed recipient of the “Dear Bill” letters in Private Eye. But Deedes was not inclined to try to stamp his authority on the paper, or to allow those of his leader-writers who were ardent supporters of Thatcher to give her the paper’s all-out support.

These were years of often intense frustration. As Stephen Robinson says in his marvellously readable life of Deedes, there was a “permanent battle within the leader-writing conference, with the Thatcherites pushing Deedes as far as they could, knowing that he would have to justify too much praise for her to Hartwell [Lord Hartwell, the paper’s proprietor, who was not keen on Thatcher]”.

So just as there was a struggle at Westminster, with the Wets trying to force Thatcher to make concessions, so there was an unresolved struggle in Fleet Street.

But in both cases, the disagreement was more often about whether it was prudent to stand and fight for certain causes, than whether those causes were themselves right. In the end, the argument was most often about courage, and whether courage could successfully be applied to the problems the Government faced.

In a brilliant piece published in the Spectator on 9 August 1986, Utley pointed out that Thatcher was only doing what others had failed to do: “Her two major achievements – the control of inflation and the reduction of the trade unions to size – were simply the climax of a series of unsuccessful attempts by Labour and Tory Governments alike to cope with what were increasingly seen as the two most important evils from which the country was suffering.”

Utley began that piece by saying, “There is no such thing as Thatcherism.”  This was not, as some may think, an attempt to diminish her. It was an attempt to reclaim her for the great Tory tradition which had become submerged by what in another article Utley called the “sophisticated timidity” shown most Tories even in his youth (he was born in 1921): the “belief that the whole art of politics consists in concession, that the only thing which a really grown-up politician can do is to decide what he loves best and then consider how he can preside most elegantly and judiciously over its destruction”.

I have joined ConservativeHome too late to take part in the first wave of tributes to this extraordinary woman. But I can think of nowhere better to work out how the Tory tradition which she championed with such unremitting devotion can now be carried forward. 


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