Maggie: the ins and outs

10th October 2003 at 01:00
A richly detailed work charting the high point of Margaret Thatcher's political career draws praise for scope, if not subject, from Tim Brighouse

MARGARET THATCHER VOLUME II: The Iron Lady. By John Campbell. Jonathan Cape pound;25.

What have the death of JFK, the resignation of Margaret Thatcher and the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on 911 got in common? In all three cases, we can remember exactly where we were when the news broke. For me, the three intensely vivid experiences form a sandwich. The first and last were occasions of shock and tragedy; the meat in the middle, when Maggie was finally "out, out, out", was a long-anticipated delight.

John Campbell quotes the artist Tracey Emin, who recalls walking through the Elephant and Castle in London on resignation day. "I looked up at the buses, and people were banging on the windows and going 'Yeah'. And I noticed people were jumping up and down in the streetI People looked so happy. I felt absolute jubilation."

It wasn't so for everybody. A secretary in Didsbury recalled being in a pub when the news came through on television. "Everyone shouted 'Hoorah'. and I stood up and said, 'How dare you? She's the best thing that ever happened to this country.' I felt very sad."

Such is the polarity of view induced by someone who stood on the steps of Number 10 in 1979 and quoted St Francis of Assisi: "Where there is discordI " It's difficult to be neutral and dispassionate about Margaret Thatcher, for, like all great leaders, she aroused passions, and for good or ill she touched us all.

For me the Thatcher Years - for that's how we think of them - coincided almost exactly with what I thought at the time was the peak of my life's work, more than a decade as chief education officer in Oxfordshire. Like so many of my generation, I had been attracted to teaching and public service because I wanted to pay the state back for what it had invested in my education and to make our society and the wider world a better place. And Margaret Thatcher was a prime minister who was said to question whether there was such a thing as society.

However misunderstood and misrepresented that "no such thing" quotation might have been, it came to embody her attack on the state acting collectively on behalf of the domestic wellbeing of its citizens, whether individually or in families. After all, she embraced liberal economic theory - the doctrines of Friedrich August von Hayek and Milton Friedman - and from 1987 she gave all her energy to its realisation. This seemed to call into question the life's work, even the sense of vocation (and a vocation was something that, perversely, she would respect) of people like myself, who were devoted to the public services that she, apparently, was seeking systematically to dismantle.

This book, devoted to her years as premier, is the companion volume to The Grocer's Daughter by the same author. Published in 2000, the first book covered her years on the front benches as education secretary and then shadow. So it is not surprising that there is relatively little about education in Volume II. But it is, perhaps, an omission that there is no mention of the 1980, 1981 and 1986 education acts, which introduced parental choice and governing bodies, paving the way for the radical reforms of 1988.

Educationists would perhaps find Volume I more instructive as it covers the period when Mrs Thatcher presided over the biggest expansion ever of the comprehensive schools she subsequently (and, perhaps, even then) despised.

Then, too, she launched A Framework for Expansion - the most ambitious education White Paper ever, with what turned out to be stillborn plans for investment at all levels, including under-fives' education.

By the time she became prime minister, in the era covered in this volume, she had put all such heretical thoughts from her mind. Indeed, she seemed to have precious little time for education. She had a range of differently remembered ministers - Carlisle, Joseph, Baker, MacGregor, Clarke - who took as much care of it as possible, given her tendency to meddle randomly in the detail. In this tendency, as in so much, she set an alarming and persistent precedent. But her lack of involvement in strategy and her inclination to invent policy on the hoof meant the first overloaded national curriculum was not her preference. She would have chosen to focus on the basics of English, maths and science and leave the rest to the schools.

She was foiled once more over grant-maintained schools - again because of a lack of attention to strategy. The promotion of GM schools was undermined by the simultaneous introduction of local management of schools, which, to most headteachers, seemed to provide all the freedom they needed. Mrs Thatcher was quickly silenced by colleagues when she spoke of being determined to encourage all schools in their struggle to break free. They knew the department could not cope with too many GM schools.

Her heart's desire was an American-style "voucher" system, but she failed to realise - as the pro-voucher lobby continues to do - that in effect parental choice coupled with local management and an array of school-based admission criteria produces all the doubtful benefits and the great unfairness of a universal voucher system. Unless, that is, the aim is to privatise all schools.

The Thatcher Years, whether you loved them or hated them, are with us still. The privatisation of major public utilities coupled with the abolition of industrial training boards means we lack skilled technical workers - plumbers, electricians and engineers - whose training is no longer financed by the private sector as it was by the public sector. In accepting that individuals will have many career changes in a lifetime, we have overlooked training needs.

John Campbell, whose pedigree as a biographer-historian is beyond question, provides a balanced account of the premiership with many startling insights hidden at the time. It will be a fine Christmas present. I shall give my review copy away to my lonely Conservative friend; I can't bear to have it on my shelves. You see, I'm not neutral. But I'm glad I've read it.

Tim Brighouse is commissioner for London schools

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