The Fall of Thatcher - and a troublesome Scot

The fall of Margaret Thatcher - chapter one in the Conservative civil war over Europe. So goes the analytical shorthand to explain the fall of a Prime Minister who, as she reminded cabinet colleagues asking her to go, had won three elections at a romp.


But an hour in the company of Sir Malcolm Rifkind helps sweep away the Westminster traumas of today that cloud those of 1990. He was her Scottish secretary – a member of the cabinet who travelled, in his words from a “blue eyed boy” to, in her words, the PM’s “sharpest personal critic”.  Such a journey had little to do with Europe. Taking a truly long term view, he dates the beginning of the Tory Civil war as the second “we decided to join in the seventies.” Instead his memories of her decline and fall combine the widely-shared perspective of her increasing detachment, with the specific problem of her attitude to Scotland.


It is of course true that Geoffrey Howe made the core of his lethal resignation speech Thatcher’s Euroscepticism (did such a word exist then? ) His verbal assassination followed her “No No No” battle cry to the Commons about the intentions of Jacques Delors (in an earlier podcast her private secretary Dominic Morris stresses this flourish was off-script). 


“The tragedy is - and it is for me personally, for my Party, for our whole people and for my Right Honourable Friend herself, a very real tragedy - that the Prime Minister's perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation”


But for all Howe’s publicly declared reasons for his resignation, Sir Malcolm blames Howe’s exit on the way Thatcher was treating him. Above all he cites the cabinet meeting where she humiliated him over plans for the parliamentary session to come. He recalls it as “embarrassing” – she spoke to him as if he was a “junior civil servant” not a former Chancellor and foreign secretary. Sir Malcolm says he and colleagues afterwards thought “she’d lost her marbles”. Everyone I have interviewed remembers this exchange clearly and with a grimace. Her foreign affairs adviser Sir Charles Powell said to fellow officials at that very moment - “if she carries on like this he’s going to resign.” He was wrong only in that it was already too late. Thatcher’s impatience with Howe could be put down to European differences - but most eyewitnesses think it was simply personal antipathy that she could no longer control. 


So far so standard -  Sir Malcolm’s reflections chime with others who worked with her at the time of Thatcher’s exit. But from where he sat as Scottish secretary, he had a particular perspective. And our conversation suggests that relations with one particular European nation, namely Scotland, were as problematic as those with any across the Channel. 


Rifkind and Thatcher’s relationship was fiery. He threatened to resign over a dispute over poll tax rebates – infuriated by briefings against his position which one paper attributed clearly to Thatcher’s spokesman, Bernard Ingham. In a loose comment to a Sunday newspaper - along the lines of “I was an MP before she became leader – I’m sure I’ll be an MP after she’s leader” he supplied bullets for Neil Kinnock to fire at PMQs. Surprisingly she took this rather well - testimony to a quality he noted in her post-premiership – an ability to not bear grudges.


And when in 1990 she asked him face to face if he’d continue to support her, he replied I will not campaign against you – a lawyerly answer which allowed him to abstain in any ballot. In her autobiography she writes: “Silently I thanked god for small mercies” – a sign of her desperate position as well as the frisson between the two.


So was this a Howesque personality clash? The case against is strong. Sir Malcolm was an early supporter - voting for her to be leader once Ted Heath had resigned. Their professional relationship pre-cabinet was rather bonnie. He was present at the Chequers-Gorbachev meeting, and on foreign affairs they shared the same robust approach to the cold war world. As a junior minister she lavished praise on him over various legislation he guided through the Commons. He was the youngest member of her cabinet – fast tracked in the wake of Michael Heseltine’s 1986 walk out. Sir Malcolm’s trip to her outer circle was not fuelled by a failure to get along. 


Rather Sir Malcolm says Mrs Thatcher never grasped that the position of Scottish Secretary inevitably threw up a conflict of loyalties. He was a member of her cabinet. But as Scottish secretary he was also a national representative. These two could clash – much to his boss’s consternation. His recollections reminded me of her fury with the BBC for referring to “British’ soldiers rather than “our” soldiers during the Falklands war. Her famously clear cut English outlook ran into trouble when facing the messy fudge of a union of kingdoms.


Added to this was the Conservatives’ minority position in Scotland. The constitutional right to do whatever they pleased thanks to the strength of Conservative numbers at Westminster only amounted to so much in reality. Good ideas that Rifkind supported and which could be rammed home in England – such as the involvement of parents in school governance – had to be coaxed through in Scotland. It was a political reality Thatcher was loath to accept – and one with deep roots. Before she came to power Sir Malcolm and other Scottish colleagues resigned from her front bench in a clash over devolution. Thatcher was a child of the second world born to a grocer’s daughter from Grantham. It’s a background which maybe explains her antipathy to the European project. The same psychological interpretation can easily be applied to her attitude to Scotland.


Come the Fall itself, there is no sense of vindication, just an awareness of history, pain and courage. He and many of his colleagues shuffled into cabinet not knowing what was to happen next. She resigned but broke down during her statement – an unprecedented moment – only to rally and sail through the subsequent meeting and, staggeringly- the bearpit of a House of Commons confidence vote. The MPs cheered her on only hours after they’d kicked her out – and Sir Malcom defends this from charges of hypocrisy. Those who voted against her still admired her, and were wowed by the steel she showed at her lowest ebb. But they also thought it was time for her to go. It was a distinction her subsequent bitter reflections suggest she lacked the emotional intelligence to grasp – just as she’d struggled with the nuances of being in charge but not in control of Scotland.


After Downing Street – his encounters with her give further colour to an extraordinary personality. As defence secretary he’d have to brief on her various changes to the Armed forces to square her off. The conversation once culminated in her literally jabbing him in the ribs as she admonished him for not having lived through World War II – a failing that Sir Malcolm could do little to rectify.


This vignette suggests further that Thatcher’s the person rather than Thatcher the ideologue prompted her demise. An imperious character empowered her to change Britain. It also ultimately made her impossible to work for. The fact she was the sort of person who would physical poke a grown man in the stomach explains what can seem inexplicable – that the most successful Prime Minister of the twentieth century ended up being fired.