[NOTE: This was the outcome of my 3-day rush to complete the LRB’s latest commission. In the end they didn’t like it – ‘not what we wanted’; which was a mere description of the affair, plus some ‘what if’ speculations. Fair enough, but I wished they’d made that plainer when they asked me to do it. I wrote it this way because the book was very superficial – mere reportage of what happened, from the testimony, quoted at length, of those involved. And I reckoned that any reader could find the facts on Wikipedia. Beyond that, there is no analysis in the book, and no context. I may try again with another version. But no ‘what ifs’. Historians are reluctant to join in that game. In the meantime, here’s the original version.]
One of Margaret Thatcher’s most toxic legacies, along with all the others, was her introduction of the idea of the ‘strong leader’ into British politics. That hadn’t been there before. Prime ministers had brought other qualities to the job, like competence, empathy, diplomacy and good judgment. These sometimes worked (Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson), sometimes not. The only comparable ‘leader’ figure before Thatcher was Churchill (‘Winston’ to her, somewhat over-familiarly), but that was in wartime, and he had always liked, at least in public, to give the credit to his ‘people’, rather than himself. Before him, and between him and Thatcher, it’s difficult to think of a British prime minister who relied so much on his own personal qualities of resolution, courage and sheer bravery as Thatcher did during her long years of dominance. That changed the political climate, certainly on the Right. It’s what Tories and the tabloid press have yearned for in their leaders ever since her. They’re still wedded to the Führerprinzip. (Alan Clark used the ‘F’ word too, in reference to her ‘charisma’.) Theresa May’s pitiful efforts to project herself as ‘strong and stable’, and to continue to do so despite humiliating setbacks, reflects that. She has been through fire, but is still bravely soldiering on. That should be a good start, at least, for a Führerin.
Thatcher’s fire was literal. It happened on 12 October 1984 when an IRA time-delay bomb half-demolished the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where she was staying with most of her Cabinet, who were there for the Conservative Party’s Annual Conference. The assumption was, and is, that the bomb was meant for her, but if so it was placed in the wrong room, and she emerged unscathed. ‘The cry went up, “Maggie’s safe!”’ remembered Jonathan Aitken. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ But one MP was killed, plus four other Tory high-ups, and 34 seriously injured, among them Norman (now Lord) Tebbit and his wife Margaret.
Lord Tebbit has provided a puff and a Preface to Steve Ramsey’s just-published Something Has Gone Wrong. Dealing with the Brighton Bomb (Biteback Publishing, 2018), which is a journalist’s account – no more – of the event seen through the eyes of its victims, the emergency services, the press and the police, from the moment the bomb went off to the arrest and trial in September 1985 of its main perpetrator, Patrick Magee. Tebbit’s injuries were horrendous. (His wife’s were worse. She still can’t walk.) He comes out of this account much as one might expect: stoical (as a former RAF pilot he had been in life-and-death situations before), with quite an attractive line in black humour (‘Are you allergic to anything?’ ‘Only bombs’), and with the political venom for which he was celebrated preserved intact. On returning to the Cabinet in January he told following reporters that he was looking forward to ‘roughing up the Labour Party before too long.’ So, all back to normal.
Thatcher emerges even better. She is presented here as calm and cool after it all, concerned only for the other guests (including her husband, who was sleeping in a separate room), and determined to carry on as usual afterwards. To someone who suggested they abandon the Conference, she replied ‘No way. We are continuing. They don’t beat us.’ This was the theme of the Conference speech she delivered later the same day: that their presence there, despite the bomb, was a sign ‘that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.’ According to her biographer Charles Moore her original draft of the speech had expressly linked IRA terrorism with Trade Union ‘extremism’, but in the end this was only implied.
For Thatcher, the Brighton bomb was definitely a bonus. It confirmed her ‘Iron Lady’ reputation, already pretty well established by her very personal triumph in the Falklands; and boosted her in the polls. Moore also thinks it strengthened her hand against Arthur Scargill in the ongoing Miners’ strike. One downside could have been that it made her look too unflappable, devoid of human emotion, ‘robotic’, to use the word applied to her present-day successor: something that her great hero ‘Winston’ could never have been accused of. That was how she had got through it all. Ramsey marshals all the evidence he can find to counter this: little cameos of her ‘praying, for some time’ before she went to bed, for example; expressions of concern for injured colleagues; and a general explanation for the impression she gave that ‘she’s quite cold and doesn’t really have any normal human reaction’, again from Charles Moore ‘But that’s not true. She’s a very passionate person. But her passion was very much engaged, in her mind, in doing her job. That’s what she puts her passion into.’ That figures.
Having missed the bomb in the first place, the police and security services seem to have been pretty efficient thereafter, according to Ramsey’s account; which however is entirely made up of the accounts, quoted at length, of the police officers he has interviewed. (This is not a critical or analytical book.) A few people behaved badly, including male hotel guests who didn’t want to give evidence because they had women (‘not their wives’) in bed with them, at least one of whom was a Tory MP – ‘but we promised that we’d keep quiet’. The police’s task was made easier by the fact that there was none of that ‘human rights’ nonsense around then to stop them mildly roughing suspects up, for example; or ‘Health and Safety’ to prevent their rescuing people; and they persevered with their jobs regardless, because ‘we hadn’t been clever enough to invent post-traumatic stress. In those days we just got on with it. It was a different world. We didn’t have all these kinds of pansy type things we have today where everybody’s “Oh-ahh”’. These, of course, were the days before Political Correctness.
They were also the days when memories of the Second World War were still quite sharp in the minds of several of the people involved in the Brighton bombing, automatically triggering responses learned forty-odd years before in the London Blitz; especially the ‘British’ stoicism – ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – and resistance – ‘they won’t beat us’ – right down to the ‘lovely cup of tea’ to restore morale. Thatcher and Co were almost re-living Britain’s Finest Hour. That’s what gave them so great a boost. Didn’t the IRA cotton on to this? They couldn’t win – terrorism is supposed to terrorize, but it certainly didn’t then – any more than one hopes the Islamicists can win today. It was Thatcher who won, personally, or at least survived; bequeathing to us in the process an ideal of strong and resolute personal ‘leadership’ – the ‘smack of firm government’ – that the political Right misses and still yearns for today. Maybe Theresa May could do with something like this (not a bomb, please) to really test her mettle.
Terrorism can be targeted. Terrorist groups such as People’s Will aimed to terrorise the tsar and the officials of the tsarist regime in the late nineteenth century; their aim was certainly not to terrorise the peasants and the working class. As you would know, terrorism was a far greater problem for the political class in Imperial Russia in the nineteen century than it is for any contemporary polity in the developed world.
After the October Revolution, terror was again used in a targeted manner, this time on behalf of the Bolshevik state. Its enemies were identified singled out and attacked.
There was a lot of speculation about whether Reagan’s dementia began while he was still in office. I am disappointed if the same speculation has not extended to Mrs Thatcher. There is a lot of illness denial in the UK, in my opinion. The crisis in the NHS is not imaginable to countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where the blatant disregard for patient welfare would not be tolerated on such a scale.
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Thatcher ‘lost it’ in the latter part of her reign: could there have been a psycho-physiological basis to this deterioration of her judgment?
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Given that the condition has a very lengthy gestation period, I wonder if it is too improbable to suggest a link between the trauma of the bombing and Thatcher’s dementia. Research seems to suggest the possibility of a connection between traumatic experiences and dementia.
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Seems an entirely reasonable review to me, Bernard. Very well written as per usual and informative. Many much less interesting reviews have been published in the LRB over the years.
The only vaguely problematic sentence in my opinion is: “They couldn’t win – terrorism is supposed to terrorize, but it certainly didn’t then – any more than one hopes the Islamicists can win today.” Those affected must have been terrified by the explosion; all participants in British politics at the time could only have been unnerved; and given that Thatcher was not in fact a robot, she must in some sense have been profoundly disconcerted as well, regardless of her brave front. The IRA was no paper tiger. However, or, therefore, you are entirely correct to point to the need for some theorising of the event, at both a psychological and a political level.
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Philip: I think ‘terrorism’ means more than merely to terrify. As a political weapon its purpose is to ‘terrorise’ whole populations beyond the immediate victims, in order to achieve a political end. A good example – though not often classed as ‘terrorism’ – is the mutual civilian air bombing campaigns of WW2: done in order to lower national morale. The word, of course, was first applied to State terrorism, in France during ‘The Terror’.
I think if the Brighton bomb had any psychological effect on Thatcher’s fall it was to strengthen her ‘resolve’ to the point of self-destruction. Which fits in with my general argument. Has anybody diagnosed ‘dementia’ in her before she resigned?
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