The Iron Lady's Centurions

The Iron Lady's Centurions

There are memoirs that pose as histories and histories that pose as memoirs. Peter Stothard’s imaginative The Senecans is a bit of both and a little of neither.

By far the most appealing member of the quartet—and certainly the one with the purest, most disinterested devotion to Mrs. Thatcher—was Sir Ronald Millar, a socially secure product of Charterhouse and Cambridge who had made a well-deserved fortune as a successful actor, playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. An early admirer of the Iron Lady, Millar volunteered his services as a speechwriter and excelled at the job. One of Mrs. Thatcher’s best lines ever, uttered at a time when fainter, wetter Tory hearts were all for caving in, was “The lady’s not for turning.” The line was provided by Millar and, given his theatrical background, was an appropriate play on the title of a 1948 London stage triumph, Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning. Millar comes across at times as naive and a little vain, but never as anything less than a sincere, selfless admirer of Margaret Thatcher.


HOVERING ABOVE all four of them is the overarching shadow of Seneca, whom I first met—cinematically speaking—as a minor character in the 1951 big-screen adaptation of Quo Vadis. Unfortunately, Seneca only made a cameo appearance (played by Nicholas Hannen) and was totally upstaged by a then-youthful Peter Ustinov chewing the scenery as Emperor Nero. In due course this would be followed by references to the most celebrated Roman philosopher of his day in Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars and numerous fleeting encounters in the pages of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Today Seneca would probably only be remembered as a minor footnote to the reigns of emperors Claudius, Caligula and Nero if his modified, popularized brand of Stoicism hadn’t appealed to many early and Renaissance Christian thinkers looking for noble ancient precedents for their own brand of church-based ethics. For them, Seneca was a perfect fit. At least on paper—parchment actually—he was an endless cornucopia of smug high-mindedness, with a Dale Carnegie gloss of handy career tips on how to make friends and influence people. Chip away his philosophic pose, and much of Seneca’s writing has more in common with Lord Chesterfield’s cynical eighteenth-century letters on how to succeed in business without really trying than with anything ethical, much less spiritual.

Perhaps a better comparison would be to Baltasar Gracián, the wily seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit whose Art of Worldly Wisdom is a veritable “how-to” book for those wishing to get ahead in this life rather than the next. Two of Gracian’s maxims are particularly apposite to the political life. The first is also a good description of the very conditional friendship, or situational kinship, that bound Stothard’s Senecans together:

Neither be all, nor give all to anyone: neither blood, nor friendship, nor the most pressing obligation, justifies it, for there is a big difference between the bestowal of your affection and the bestowal of yourself: the closest of ties must still admit of exceptions, and not on this account give offence to the laws of intimacy, for something should always be kept hidden even from a friend, and something concealed even from a father by his son: certain secrets are kept from the one and imparted to the other, and vice versa, wherefore it may be said that everything is revealed, or everything is concealed, depending on whom one is with.

Certainly, this was true of the Senecans, supposedly stout Thatcherites all, but except for Ronnie Millar, all constantly maneuvering and hedging their bets, sometimes against each other.

The other of Gracian’s maxims that springs to mind is one that gives a shrewd description of what it takes to be a leader of Margaret Thatcher’s undeniable magnitude, a magnitude which Stothard seems to diminish in hindsight or never fully understood while he was dazzled by it.

Know how to put fire into your subordinates. The need to act, upon occasion, has made giants of many, just as the danger of drowning has made swimmers; under such circumstances many have discovered a courage, and even a capacity, which would have remained buried in their faint-heartedness, if the emergency had not offered: in danger lies the opportunity for fame, wherefore a nobleman sees his honor threatened, has the energy of a thousand. Queen Isabella the Catholic knew, and knew well, this law, as she knew all the others, of laying responsibility upon her subjects, and it was to such public favor that the Great Captain [Christopher Columbus] owed his name, and many others their eternal glory; men are made great through such challenge.


PERHAPS THE most remarkable thing about Margaret Thatcher, besides her unlikely rise to power as Britain’s first female prime minister, was the fact that for most of her lengthy premiership she held together an impressive pool of talented, ambitious and not particularly scrupulous politicians who neither trusted nor liked each other, and got good work out of them. This was despite the fact that most of them didn’t really like her either. While Mrs. Thatcher probably wouldn’t appreciate being compared to Isabella the Catholic, each was an incredible female leader of men, adept at “laying responsibility upon her subjects.”

As for Seneca, those of us who find him a bit less compelling a figure than Stothard share some of the reservations expressed by the celebrated Roman historian Cassius Dio, born ninety years after Seneca’s death and much closer to his living memory than any modern scholars. To Dio,

[Seneca’s] conduct was seen to be dramatically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the tutor of a tyrant [Nero]; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina [Emperor Claudius’ sluttish consort] and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises—a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame.

Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000 sesterces, and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them.

A pretty scathing condemnation, although David Hart probably would have found the image of those five hundred tables “of citrus wood with legs of ivory,” surrounded by thousands of groveling, gorging courtiers, rather tempting.

Hart and the others called themselves Senecans because they met from time to time, ostensibly to brush up on—or acquire—their Latin by drafting and then comparing their English translations of Seneca’s works. Their meeting place was a broken-down old pub, now shuttered, called The Old Rose on the Highway, a road appropriately dating back to the days of Roman Britain. More importantly, it was within walking distance of Stothard’s offices at the Wapping site of the fortress-like editorial and printing operation set up by Rupert Murdoch, who abandoned the Fleet Street that writers of my generation still fondly remember, in order to break the back of extortionate union printers and their allies, who were bleeding British newspapers to a slow death. Murdoch succeeded, but by the time Stothard was writing his book, the Wapping complex was itself going the way of Fleet Street after a considerably shorter life span. And, unlike Fleet Street, where many of the grand old buildings still remain long after they were sold by their press-baron owners, the Wapping complex is being demolished—and good riddance, too, from an architectural point of view—by the wrecker’s ball. The wreckage goes on even as Stothard weaves his tale of the Senecans, supposedly in a series of interviews with a young, left-wing woman historian (identified only as “Miss R”) with family connections—as it turns out—to Stothard’s own past.


ONE CAN’T help wondering just how accurate the author’s account of these interviews is. Too many of his answers read more like carefully crafted speeches in an old-fashioned comedy of manners, and an awful lot of time is wasted on melodramatically describing the physical demolition going on around him, even as he sifts through the shards of a now-dead political era.

Perhaps Stothard’s intent is deliberately novelistic in approach. At one point, while rummaging through the piles of books on his soon to be vacated office floor, he recommends not a memoir but a novel to Miss R as a guide for the perplexed trying to make sense of the Thatcher years. It is novelist Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, which won the 2004 Booker Prize. For understanding the years of The Senecans, Stothard explains to Miss R, the best fiction “is often better than the best journalism.”

The Line of Beauty begins after the Falklands victory when the “pale gilt image of the triumphant PM” is everywhere. Her recapture of Port Stanley merits an annual public holiday and a reconsideration of how we feel now about Lord Nelson’s long dominance of the skyline.

A Reaganite lobbyist promotes Star Wars technology as David Hart used to do. The rich get rich and “the poor get . . . the Conservatives.” . . .