Monday, 1 September 2014

From humourless Thatcher to paranoid Cameron

During last Friday’s ‘Reunion’ programme on BBC Radio 4, former Sun jounralist Wendy Henry told Sue MacGregor about the time she met Margaret Thatcher.

I went to Downing street to interview her, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I lost control of the interview around about the third minute... She just spoke on and and on and I remember desperately sitting there thinking “Oh my God, what am I going to get out of this?”

Then I made the fatal mistake of trying to inject a bit of humour, I suppose probably very sort of tasteless humour. We were talking about Ireland and conflict and things like that, and I said, “Oh well, I know how we can solve the problem.”

She went “Oh, really?”

I said, “Yes, if we take the IRA and put them on the Gaza strip, and we take the PLO and we put them on the Falls Road, we’ll have solved the problem.”

There was a deathly silence and she said “Right, well, I think this interview is finished” ... so I slunk off.

Wendy Henry’s joke wasn’t that amusing, so the funniest part of the interview is Thatcher’s response: grim, self-important and above all humourless. It amazes me that a country like Britain which prides itself on its sense of humour still insists on sanctifying her. She was so dour, so dull, so unbendingly solemn.

Not all Tory Prime Ministers were like that. Winston Churchill was famed for his banter. When Manny Shinwell, a fine figure of the radical socialist Left, asked Churchill if he could borrow twopence to phone a friend, Churchill apparently offered him four pence with the words “phone all of them”.

It’s not as though Churchill was any less courageous than Thatcher. He led the country at a time of far worse danger to it, and it was his combination of courage and humour that made him so admired.

If we could face them with a smile, why are we so panicked today?
Thatcher faced risks too, redoubtable enemies even though they were not as dangerous as the Nazis. It might have been her lack of humour stopped her seeing how risible was the most ludicrous measure she adopted against them. 

She argued that terrorists ought to be denied the “oxygen of publicity.” Now one can argue against this proposition. One can argue that it implies a restriction of a fundamental right, freedom of speech. One can argue that it is better to hear what the terrorists have to say than to leave them in the dark to hatch ever more desperate plots. But even if one agrees that they should be denied publicity, one can’t argue is that it makes any kind of sense to allow their words to be heard, though not their voices.

That was the situation Thatcher created. In 1988, she banned leaders of organisations associated with terrorism from being heard on broadcast media. So for six years we had the ridiculous sight of people like Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness being interviewed on TV with an actor dubbing the words they were speaking. Words but not voices? Was that denying them the oxygen of publicity?

That was only the most laughable act against the IRA. Far less funny were the repeated attempts to crush them by military force, which created martyrs and gave the movement momentum, or the use of deeply anti-democratic actions, such as detention without trial, which also attracted new support for the cause. None of these were specifically Tory, incidentally: Labour was just as guilty of them.

If the troubles came to an end, it wasn’t ludicrous restrictions on broadcasts or administrative measures taken in flagrant contradiction of democratic principles that beat the IRA, it was outstanding intelligence operations leading to deep penetration of paramilitary organisations, and action to alleviate the difficulties of the minority in Northern Ireland, so that the IRA was denied the pool of disaffection from which it recruited.

Now roll forward nearly twenty years.

Britain once more faces a terrorist threat. Indeed, there hasn’t been a moment since the Good Friday agreement when we haven’t faced such a threat. And what has been the reaction of government, and indeed of much of the people? Churchillian good humour and a courageous stand to protect the very rights the terrorists threaten? Sadly, anything but.

No, it’s back to authoritarian measures. Worries that young Britons who have travelled to the Middle East to join organisations such as the Islamic State, might come back as hardened jihadists, is leading to a popular wish to deny them entry to the country. That’s denying British citizens entry to Britain. And on mere suspicion.

That undermines the very foundation of what citizenship means.

Certainly some of those banned, if these powers are adopted, will be wholly innocent of any offence or even the intention of committing an offence. The fact of banning even real jihadists will whip up sympathy for them and probably for their cause. The move will be as counter-productive as detention without trial was in Northern Ireland.

And what threat do we face? We used to have IRA attacks in London every couple of months. We have yet to see a single attack by Isis. IRA members could travel to the rest of the UK without passports and without any kind of check. Isis members coming back from Iraq will be known to the security services. It’s hard to see how this can be as serious a threat as Thatcher faced, let alone Churchill.

It’s time to grow a little courage. See the threat for what it is. Prepare for it, arm ourselves against it (above all with more of the kind of intelligence that beat the IRA), but don’t give up our fundamental principles in panic at it.

And above all – find that old Churchillian sense of humour. Laugh a little. Overcome fear. And only then dig in.


Anonymous said...

How can you accuse someone who said, Everybody needs a willy, of being humourless?

David Beeson said...

Deprecating others she was good at. Self-deprecation, or just not taking herself quite so seriously, she had trouble with.