Was it Treachery ?


I recently watched with John a programme showing the late Margaret Thatcher giving her views on her fall from power and on her colleagues’ conduct.   The interview took place after she had resigned her office but in the period when she was still lucid and before her final illness over-whelmed her.


I of course have little sympathy for Mrs Thatcher’s views on anything, but even I was quite astonished at her state of mind and point of view.   She appeared to believe that she – and only she – was capable of leading Britain.    During the last few months of her premiership,  it seemed that she  accepted no counsel – not even from distinguished advisors with a reputation for integrity such as Lord Carrington – nor did it  seem to occur to her she might ever be wrong about anything.


Her reaction to events was surprisingly subjective.   She seemed to believe that because she had appointed ministers to posts, they owed her a personal loyalty.   She described members of her cabinet bitterly as traitors and committers of treachery.    Yet these men were like herself ministers of state, members of parliament, responsible to the country and the electorate, and did not owe her that personal loyalty.   They were entitled to judge her on her performance in office and act accordingly.   She had no detached overview.    It was all intensely personal.


Somewhat alarmingly, she complained that some of the worst ‘traitors’ had once been ‘believers’.   Believers in what, one wondered?   Did she actually suppose that the laissez-faire, free market, I’m all right Jack, mumbo jumbo cod philosophy associated with her times was a worthwhile creed that intelligent and sensible men could have faith in?    If  so, perhaps we should have doubted in her  sanity sooner than we did.


She was spiteful and petty in her desire to belittle anyone who opposed her.   When you considered what  she said, she did not seem to be in a balanced or sensible frame of mind; and though in truth I think her cabinet colleagues conspired to be rid of her because they could no longer tolerate her arrogance and rudeness, and they played on the party’s fears over her growing unpopularity, she was by that time unfit to make decisions on our behalf and her removal was in the national interest.   Regrettably this appears eventually to become the case with almost every long serving prime minister.


She didn’t appear to acknowledge, even retrospectively, her own stupidity in failing to recognise danger.    She appeared to consider that John Major owed such a debt of loyalty to her that he was rendered impotent and harmless, whereas in the programme he always appeared slightly sinister in his colourless anonymity.   She was embarrassingly snobbish about his intellect and education, though he out-manoeuvred her;  and however you look at it her elocution-class accent (which mainly reveals you are ashamed of your oigins) and nanny-knows-best outbursts in Europe were never a class act.    From a feminine perspective, she emulated in many ways the worst aspects of (some) men’s behaviour (bullying, sarcasm, ruthlessness) and she could dish out very hard blows, yet when it came to her turn to be attacked, she would lapse into ‘femininity’ and cry.   This is not a good example of dignified womanly behaviour.


Her contempt for the mild-mannered Geoffrey Howe, which she made no effort to conceal, was also an error of judgement.   His eventual calm and effective evisceration of her was  a notable illustration of the English at their deadliest.   In many ways, Mrs Thatcher’s behaviour  was not typically English.


Her view appeared to be that she was entirely right about everything;  that everybody  (including we ourselves) owed her;  that she was entitled to be Prime Minister for so long as she chose;  that we had all betrayed her, and that she had been shabbily treated.   She did not appear to recognise that whereas she may have been more powerful than any single opponent, she could not withstand a unified attack and in her over confidence and contempt for others she did not calculate  that men like Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe would commence the process of her destruction, and men who were not intimidated by her personally, such as Ken Clark and Malcolm Rifkind would stiffen the resolve of weaker troops, and that men of  devious cunning whom in her complacency she had failed to spot (John Major) would emerge from the shadows and seize the prize.   Why all the whinging anyway?   Was this not more or less what she or her agents had done to Edward Heath?


Personally I thought it was all over for Mrs Thatcher when she emerged from No 10 and announced, “We have become a grandmother” – and though there is no logic to that feeling, in only a few months she was gone.   It’s a mantra well worth remembering that when times are good for you, you must keep your feet on the ground;   and when times are bad, you must keep your head above water.    Mrs Thatcher didn’t follow this sage counsel  – but people who are always right don’t need any advice, do they?



“You’re so vain…”   Most of us have been accused of this at some time (generally by people who don’t like us and whom we suspect of jealousy.)

When I was thinking about this first, I thought, you can’t be ‘vain’ if you actually possess the quality being examined.  Can Kiri te Kanawa be accused of vanity over her beautiful voice?    I thought not.   It is glorious.    She IS a diva.


But then I thought of the wretched business man I wrote about last week who resembled Fred Goodwin in his destructive uselessness, and realised that he was undeniably handsome, and indubitably vain.   He placed an inordinately high value on his looks.   It’s fine to be good-looking and certainly of great benefit to the person possessing the beauty, but it’s not really of over-riding importance.    He (The Pretty Face) was a case in point.      Yes, he was good to look upon, but a half hour spent in the company of an ugly man who had wit enough to make you laugh; or  even with an ordinary fellow, but kind and decent, would be far more rewarding than wasting time on his dull, self absorbed and terminally boring self.   The Pretty Face also didn’t like any competition:  he took care to surround himself with men and women whose looks would not detract attention from himself, like a bride who chooses for her bridesmaids only girls whom she regards as less attractive than herself.   (Whereas if you’re confident in yourself you might like to surround yourself with  a bevy of lovely girls, thinking the more the merrier, and the great impact you, as a group, will create.    The bride is after all The Bride anyway.   On that day, nobody else will get a look in.)   Or maybe you should just have the people you love, whatever their appearance?

The same things I’ve said about beauty apply to, say, cleverness.   Yes, of course intellligence and academic ability are good things.   But you want someone who possesses these qualities also to be practical and sensible and useful, and not so clever that he can’t apply his massive intellect to cooking a meal or navigating a city.   We had one acquaintance (not half as clever as he thought) of whom it was said by an unkind observer,    that he must find it tiring having to push his brain around in a wheelbarrow, so enormous and weighty it was.

Vanity, I discovered when I looked it up, actually means ‘worthless’ as in All is Vanity.    But I think in modern usage, we tend to mean overly proud, or arrogant.   There again, if one has some special talent or skill, one should be confident in it.   If you are an ace sailor and can sail the seven seas and bring the boat safely in to any port, then you’re good, and you know you’re good.   You’re only ‘vain’ (as the word is used now) if you think you’re the best navigator since Captain Cook; and that you are on this list through undoubted merit and that everyone else of your acquaintance who sails is just a trifling amateur.   But if you genuinely believe this (even if it is only in your secret heart) then we don’t need to worry about your vanity because sooner or later the oceans will swallow your boat and the sharks will devour you.

And vanity in women?  Who’s the fairest of them all?   Well, eventually even her mirror told her it wasn’t  her.   There shouldn’t be competition in beauty.   It’s at least in part in the eye of the beholder.        Besides, there’s room for all of us.    And anyway, full blown beauties can be both tiring and boring, as though like Trollope’s Lady Griselda Dumbello, all they had to do was ‘appear’ and be A Beauty.   (Trollope’s names are not a coincidence.   He had a firm of family lawyers called Bideawhile an d Slow.)

I suppose the term vanity could be applied to those people who are only interested in themselves and their affairs;  who see their own lives in glorious technicolour which quickly fades into shadow and sepia if the subject strays off themselves for more than a few minutes.   Vanity could also apply to people who are always boasting – how rich they are;  how cultured they are;  how well-connected they are;  how desirable to the opposite sex etc etc.

However you define vanity, it clearly isn’t a desirable quality.   We should all try to cultivate humility, and conclude (and believe) that our fellows are, on balance, the equals of ourselves.   That way you might just defend yourself against hubris, and avoid being eaten by sharks.

PS   Talking about  our old  friend Trollope.   We were discussing between ourselves recently the use of the word ‘flitting’ in relation to house removals, and the Shorter Oxford Dictionary making no mention of that meaning, I concluded it was used in this manner in Scotland only.    Imagine my surprise to find, reading early this morning the concluding chapter of The Warden by Anthony Trollope  (published in 1855) the following sentence referring to the Warden’s removal from  the Hospital to lodgings:   “After this manner did the late Warden of Barchester Hospital accomplish his flitting and change his residence.”


I read an interesting article in The Times recently on Fred Goodwin (Fred the Shred) and his unhappy progression to the ruination of our banking institutions.   He reminded me of a businessman I had the misfortune to come across at the end of my working career, (before I cheerfully abandoned that role to have children.)

We were a  profitable section of an American multinational, with 500 or so employees, and I was PA to the man in charge of it.   I had been closely in his confidence so I understood his concerns and how he thought, his plans and anxieties about the business, its profitability, and the welfare of its employees.   He was not an empathetic man, but he was conscientious and well respected.

One day our American overlord arrived on a scheduled visit.   He always reminded me of a piggy bank I had as a child, round, rotund, with his hands behind his back, declaiming.   Anyway his visit passed as usual, except that as I stood in my office and watched my boss wave Piggy off in the staff car, I got the distinct impression (which I knew was not physically accurate) that he was actually giving Piggy the fingers.   When he came upstairs, I said  to him: “What went wrong?”   He looked out of the window for a long time before he replied that the American —- (he didn’t say Piggy but a much less acceptable word) had advised him at the very end of the day that a new incumbent would arrive shortly from another part of the empire to take over the post my boss had held for some years, but there was nothing to worry about because they were going to re-assign him to Head Office.  He swore me to secrecy and then followed a terrible time.

Under the stress of this, my boss had what amounted to a nervous breakdown;  refused to acknowledge what was happening;  completely lost his normal perspective;  proposed running off with me to Australia, and altogether behaved in a manner utterly out of character.   I was engaged to John who  also worked for that business so I had his support, but (apart from John) I was unwilling to break my promise of secrecy although time was marching on, and the incumbent was already in touch with me about looking at houses etc.  No official announcement had yet been made.

Eventually I confronted my boss.   I asked, had he informed his wife?   No, he had not.   I said he absolutely must;  she would help him.   He refused.   This was a Friday.   I said if he did not inform her over the weekend I would have no alternative but to go and see her myself on the Monday to ask for her help and advice.   It would be extremely humiliating for her to hear this news from me instead of from him, and it would represent disgraceful behaviour on his part.    He blustered and argued but I stood my ground.   Over the weekend he told her.   She worked her magic like the wonderful lady I knew she was, and he returned on Monday, apologetic for his behaviour to me and much more like himself, though he still refused to have anything to do with the incumbent and I had to announce his arrival and make arrangements for him.

The much anticipated incumbent duly arrived.   We never found out why he had been chosen or who had instigated his promotion.   (None of us had ever heard of him.)   He was  exceptionally handsome and vain with it, and one of the dullest and least rewarding men I have ever had the misfortune of dealing with.   I thought of him as The Pretty Face and never an idea seemed to disturb its beautiful contours.    Like the ill-fortuned Fred, he seemed to have no idea whatsoever of the duties and responsibilities of a man in charge of a section of the business.    He had no technical understanding of the business itself, nor much interest in it;  nor did he think of future plans and strategies.   He seemed obsessed by the appearance  of things (including himself.)    The first  things he did on arrival were order a new car and new office furniture.    He would have passing fixations on things of no consequence whatsoever – how cars were parked;  the layout (not the content) of letters;  the use of commas.   He had a  campaign about Good Housekeeping which meant basically that any old scrap metal lying around had to be painted in our corporate colours.   He would appropriate employees from their work to undertake personal tasks for him.

Needless to say he did not relish having me in his office, and so he ‘promoted’ me to be the administrative secretary of various committees where I learned how to write what should have been said instead of what had been, and discovered what a powerful combination a good chairman and secretary of a committee were if they worked together.     Meanwhile he chose for his office someone who would have no opinion on him and his duties, whom he could affect with his looks, and who was altogether more adoring than I would ever have been.

When, from Mt Olympus, another pronouncement despatched him to another continent – we never found out why – I think we were all mightily relieved to see the back of him, and the only lasting memorial of him was the heap of painted scrap in our yard, which in its surface prettiness but total uselessness was a good metaphor for him.   I cannot think of a single positive contribution he made during the months he was with us  – other than that he raised the heartbeat of a few silly girls.

After he left us, we were sold to another multinational.   This had been nothing to do with him – he didn’t take action on anything unless it appeared in his mirror.   We never heard what became of him, so he did not achieve the notoriety of Fred the Shred, but then he didn’t do as much damage:   he was on a minor scale.

How these people rise to prominence is utterly mysterious, because they really are completely useless, and often leave a succession of ruined businesses in their wake.

I heard it said that the first RBS heard they were getting Goodwin, was when they got an unexpected telephone call from the bank which then employed him.   They could hear in the background sounds of revelry and rejoicing, so they asked, Why the party?   It’s because, they were told, Goodwin is leaving us to come to you.   So that was how their ruin fell upon them.