A reader’s guide to Thatcherism from Standpoint
MODERN LAMENTS about the decline of deference notwithstanding, the English have always regarded their leaders as idiots or crooks, and nowhere more so than in their literature. Today’s politicians do not feel the need to pretend that they read books. But in the 20th century, they had to put on a show of sophistication. When interviewers asked them to name their favourite novelist, they invariably picked Trollope — the only great writer to respect their trade. Despite the long tradition of insubordination, however, this scene from Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! could only have been written at a particular time about a group of politicians the literary intelligentsia hated more than any other before or since. Thomas Winshaw, a creepy banker whose aim in life is to keep wealth and power in the hands of men like himself, is wondering how his equally repellent brother, Henry, a venal, backstabbing political fixer, got away with cutting the health-care budget.
“Well it’s quite simple, really.” Henry leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. It was a cold, dark afternoon, and they were enjoying tea and muffins in one of the Heartland Club’s private rooms. “The trick is to keep doing outrageous things. There’s no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving everyone time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public has had the chance to work out what’s hit them. The thing about the British conscience, you see, is that it really has no more capacity than…a primitive home computer, if you like. It can only hold two or three things in its memory at the same time.”
Thomas nodded and bit eagerly into his muffin.
“Unemployment, for instance,” Henry continued. “When was the last time you saw a newspaper headline about unemployment? Nobody gives a hoot anymore.”
No one of my age and political leanings needs to be told that we are in the Eighties. Like the first bars of a Clash song on the radio, a stroke of Coe’s pen takes you back to the grim, furious and still misunderstood left-wing reaction to Margaret Thatcher.