Presented at Court

December 1, 1996 Topics: HistorySociety Regions: Western EuropeEurope Tags: Soft Power

Presented at Court

Mini Teaser: This book is a record of disappointment in love.

by Author(s): John O'Sullivan

George R. Urban, Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996)

"One of the problems with kiss-and-tell books is that they tend to be written by those who were kissed once and never got over the experience." When Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister, some such formula was suggested to her for a speech dealing with a spate of indiscreet memoirs by former ministers. And if she were reviewing Mr. Urban's account of his appearances at her "court", she might well be tempted to revive it.

For this book is a record of disappointment in love. The tale is an old one-a version of Faust in which Margaret and Mephistopheles merge. Mr. Urban, a high-minded intellectual specializing in culture and the Cold War, falls for the Iron Lady from afar. He is introduced and experiences a meeting of minds. Bliss! Asked to help with drafting speeches, he is soon invited to discuss high policy at Downing Street and Chequers, and is eventually admitted to the (moderately vast) circle of occasional outside advisers to the Prime Minister. Then-rejection! Mrs. Thatcher fails to take his advice on important questions. He smarts, they bicker, and before long he is back in his ivory tower lamenting that she never really understood him or the imperatives of History. Kissed once, he never got over the experience. Accordingly, the picture of Mrs. Thatcher that this book gives is a mixture of the amorous and the actionable. But it tends ultimately to be a hostile one.
Mrs. Thatcher's willingness to listen to opposing views and to expose her own views to criticism in turn is generously acknowledged. Her personal kindnesses to friends, allies, and subordinates are amply described. And her political courage, range of knowledge, quickness in argument, and other personal qualities are warmly, indeed lavishly, praised. Passages like this one are littered throughout: "'In that interview with Walden', I went on, 'you came out magnificently.'

"The PM looked pleased but remained unsmiling. . . . 'I'm so glad to hear you thought so. That's praise indeed.'

"'That's what everyone thought', I said, 'the interview was a triumph.' [Italics in original]

But they tend to be balanced by countervailing passages like this one:

"Alas, the line between advisers and courtiers has always been a thin one. So it is now. There are courtiers in her environment (I shall not name them). . . ."

Whew! What a relief. For-full disclosure-I have been on occasions a sort of intellectual valet to Mrs. Thatcher (one, moreover, to whom she is still a hero) and a friend and occasional ally of George Urban, who pays me a kind tribute in this book.

But there is a pattern to these reversals of emotional fortune. The flights of flattery occur most frequently in the earlier parts of the book when author and subject are in general agreement on the topic of the hour-resisting the Soviets. As communism collapses and German reunification and "Europe" (where the two differ) become the pressing questions of the day, Mrs. Thatcher appears in an increasingly unflattering light. She becomes "dogmatic", "subservient" to Ronald Reagan, "haranguing" over Europe, and the purveyor of "Alf Garnett" and "saloon bar" prejudice over Germany. (For the benefit of American readers, I should explain that Alf Garnett is the British precursor of Archie Bunker and that a saloon bar harbors very different prejudices to a salon.) Mr. Urban tries to arrest this decline. He requests and is given a one-on-one interview in her crowded schedule (on the day of an Anglo-Italian summit and only a week after the Brighton hotel bombing) to put the case that the Prime Minister should wander around European capitals giving a series of major speeches on how to shape a united Europe. Alas, in vain. On such occasions and at larger seminars at Chequers, Mr. Urban discovers that she is much less open to argument, tends to listen to "courtiers", is in the grip of outdated nationalist prejudices, and as a result disagrees with him. The final vignette is of Mr. Urban at a cocktail party, trying in a kind way to correct the ex-Prime Minister on such matters as Koestler's Darkness at Noon and the role of national self-determination in European politics, but naturally getting nowhere until he "gently" removes himself from her circle.

This account, of course, supports in the end the conventional left-liberal/Tory "wet" view of Mrs. Thatcher as mad housewife. If that were not so, the book would hardly have won cover blurbs from Hugo Young and Neal Ascherson, whom Mr. Urban would almost certainly have included in his gallery of weak sisters on the occasions, described here, when he was advising the Prime Minister on how to tackle media feebleness during the Cold War. But the fact that it comes from someone who had access to the Prime Minister and who apparently recounts conversations and debates verbatim gives it unusual plausibility. Hence the fuss it provoked in the British media upon publication. Mr. Urban was telling us what Mrs. Thatcher is "really" like.

But was he? Reviewing this book in the London Spectator, Sir Charles Powell, who was an infinitely superior servant in Mrs. Thatcher's Downing Street (Head Butler to my Boots), pointed out that Mr. Urban's official dealings with the Prime Minister were extremely modest: help on a few international speeches and attendance at two Chequers seminars with other academics to subject the Prime Minister's thinking to expert criticism. His other meetings generally took place at lunches and dinners organized by the Center for Policy Studies, the think tank that Mrs. Thatcher used for ideological refreshment when the caution of Sir Humphrey and her "wet" colleagues was getting her down. At the Chequers seminars Mr. Urban was present to challenge her views, at the CPS to arm her with new arguments against the Leviathan she uneasily headed. But he did not know the Prime Minister all that well, and he accordingly misunderstands her behavior on both sets of occasions.

A story that went around Downing Street in the mid-eighties will illustrate the point. A new specialist adviser, summoned to meet the Prime Minister, went in nervously to find that she was really interested in his subject. In the ensuing cross-examination, he gave a poor account of himself. As the corpse was being removed, Mrs. T. was heard to say: "Why do people take everything I say so seriously?"

Mr. Urban takes everything that Mrs. Thatcher ever said to him very seriously indeed. (He apparently rushed home, wrote it down, and has been illuminating the manuscript ever since.) It never occurs to him that she might have been testing an idea, giving her forensic skills a workout, relieving boredom by provoking a row, or simply blowing off steam at the end of a frustrating day. Yet towards the end of many days, she did all of those things-with the result that some of her more fiery views are now quoted out of the context that they were opinions or policies she was about to discard reluctantly in the light of better information. She spoke with such freedom because she felt that those around her could distinguish between her considered opinions and her expressions of frustration at the intractability of things, and also that they would respect her confidences in any event. In the main, they did both. It is a pity that the one man who did not grasp this distinction was also the one man keeping a diary.

A similar misunderstanding underlies his account of the Chequers seminar at which Germany was the subject of discussion. Along with some of the other historians invited, he has protested that the minutes of the meeting, written by Charles Powell and leaked by an unknown hand to the German press, reflect Mrs. Thatcher's suspicious questions about the German national character rather than the mollifying answers given by some of the other participants. (Others support the Powell account.) One partial explanation is the Rashomon effect: even participants remember events differently, or as the Russians say: "No one lies like an eyewitness." What magnifies this effect in Mr. Urban's account is that he has no grasp of the purpose of official minutes in Whitehall. They are meant to point to a conclusion rather than merely record the proceedings. And the plain purpose of the Chequers minutes, as Powell pointed out in his review, "was to demonstrate to Ministers and senior officials that [Mrs. Thatcher's] views had been thoroughly aired but worsted in debate." But Mr. Urban begins by misunderstanding the Chequers minutes in particular-and Mrs. Thatcher in general-and ends by retailing these misunderstandings as History.

Misunderstandings have consequences. Mr. Urban's status as an inside-dopester has won him an audience he might not otherwise have enjoyed (vide Young and Ascherson) on larger questions. He describes the British Prime Minister as isolated in her shrill saloon-bar nervousness of German power, defeated by the historic inevitability of reunification-and today as equally shrill, isolated, and doomed in her opposition to the historic inevitability of European unification. This account is either wrong or questionable on every count save one, namely that British opposition to German reunification "met with unambiguous failure", and Mrs. Thatcher herself agrees with that-the passage in quotation marks comes from her memoirs. But was she isolated? Both President Mitterrand and Mr. Gorbachev were also opposed to German reunification and flirted briefly with the idea of trying to halt it. The Poles were nervous, in part because Chancellor Kohl, for electoral reasons, delayed final recognition of the Polish border. And many Germans, including the mildly socialist leaders of the East German uprising, wanted a slower anschluss than in fact occurred. Only Chancellor Kohl and, to its great credit, the Bush administration, seeing that German unity would benefit the West, consistently acted to ensure that it would happen with deliberate speed and least risk to European stability. (I write as someone who at the time thought Mrs. Thatcher's policy mistaken-a missed opportunity to trade British support on reunification for German willingness to enlarge the European Community.)

Nor was Mrs. Thatcher's shrill suspicion of the German national character (changeable, untrustworthy, etc.) unknown elsewhere. The French, other Europeans, and the Germans themselves endorse European unity as a means of tying Gulliver down precisely because they are all afraid of what an over-mighty Germany might do left to itself. This fear is exaggerated-on present demographic and economic trends Germany will have an economy of about the same size as the French economy by mid-century, which will make it one of four approximately equal economies in the EU-but it illustrates that the iron link Mr. Urban sees between anti-Germanism and Euro-skepticism is in reality extremely fragile. There is a general nervousness about Germany that leads some, like Chancellor Kohl, to advocate a tight European straitjacket, and others, like Mrs. Thatcher, to fear that the straitjacket would be a German one constricting the freedom of other countries and to call instead for a permanent U.S. presence on the continent.

It is still uncertain which response is the wiser, but, on the evidence of this book, Mr. Urban enjoys no special insight into History's verdict. Even in his own account, Mrs. Thatcher clearly has the better of her disputes with him on such topics as Gorbachev's moral character as a reformer and the fate of the Thatcherite reforms of the British economy (now generally conceded to have produced a permanent improvement). And what are we to make of his considered judgment that "her gender was the key to Margaret Thatcher's fame"? The Falklands War, the installation of missiles in Europe, the pioneering of privatization, the defeat of the miners' strike and the destruction of labor union power, the partnership with Reagan that blocked Brezhnev, Chernenko, and Andropov but did business with Gorbachev, the warning to Bush not to "go wobbly" over Iraq-would all these have gone unnoticed if Mrs. Thatcher had been a chap? Really, George, "one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that. . . ." Mr. Urban can complete the quotation.

There are signs scattered throughout the book that Mr. Urban is uneasy about writing it. His excuse is that others have given their versions of events, and that removes any obligation of confidentiality from him. He complains further that the important role played by him and other outside advisers is given short shrift in Mrs. Thatcher's own memoirs. He is merely setting the record straight.

Alas, these arguments can hardly have convinced George himself. He was admitted into the charmed circle on the understanding that he would respect its privacy. There was no suggestion that this obligation was mutual since he had no secrets to keep. Indeed, he benefited from the "leaks" to the press that suggested to the world he was helping shape prime ministerial speeches and, by extension, official policy. Such outside help was only rarely needed. Most of the time Mrs. Thatcher relied on official advice, especially on foreign policy (which anyway was only a modest portion of her responsibilities). The influence of outside advisers is inevitably modest. It will be even more modest in the future if they write books about it.

Essay Types: Book Review