If there had been no Margaret Thatcher, the Brits might have had to invent her.
British newspaper publishers love prime ministers. Conversely, prime ministers love publishers. That is, if the publisher in question owns a national newspaper with a big circulation (often in the millions).
You cannot get into the club if you only own, say, the Lewisham Borough News. This is an exclusive club for those who wield real, palpable power: Witness the scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Britain today.
The club has been operating for more than 200 years. But it was at the turn of the 20th century, with ever-expanding voter rolls, that the intimacy became really intense. Victorian prime ministers had to put up with editors and owners of journals of opinion, like The Spectator or Punch, and sometimes The Times.
Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his Liberal rival, William Gladstone, bargained with the media of their day. But these did not sway huge swathes of the electorate in the way that was to come. General education produced millions of avid readers and improved printing technology, notably the Linotype machine, made large mass- circulation newspapers possible.
Two brothers, Vere Harmsworth and his more colorful sibling, Alfred, were the first big-time press barons. In time, they were rewarded with titles: Alfred became Lord Northcliffe and Vere, Lord Rothermere.
It is unlikely that all of the prime ministers — and all of them had to deal with the press barons — really liked the intimacy. These men mostly had huge egos, daunting agendas, and their friendship always came with a price. So, of course, did the friendship of the politicians. They sought support in elections and freedom from scrutiny in governing.
Part of the price was usually the peerage, but then there were other considerations. Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, wanted prime ministers to endorse his campaign for “Empire Free Trade.” Others had other interests; but the tariffs on newsprint, the subsidy of cable traffic (which made getting news from overseas cheaper), and subsidized postal rates for newspapers and periodicals were common to all.
Northcliffe lectured World War I Prime Minister Lloyd George on how to run the war — and everything else. Beaverbrook treated Lloyd George’s successor, Bonar Law, a fellow Canadian, as his surrogate in government and campaigned for him relentlessly.
After that, Beaverbrook turned his demonic energies to supporting Winston Churchill — even though Churchill was at a low period during much of the1930s. Not only was the man who was to be Britain’s greatest prime minister out of power, he was also out of money.
The newspaper proprietors, in surprising unity, came to Churchill’s aid. Churchill boasted that he made 1 million pounds from his articles in one year and retired his debts. That was an astounding amount of money, and it reflected the fact that the newspaper bosses were overpaying him enormously, according the historian A.J.P. Taylor.
The leading paymasters were Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, and Brendan Bracken, the Irishman who owned the Financial Times. In Churchill they saw potential, a lively contributor, and someone who gave the best dinner parties in England. Bracken even encouraged rumor that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son, although he knew this was nonsense.
The cultivating of prime ministers was an ecumenical affair. Cecil Harmsworth King, who ran Mirror Group Newspapers in the 1960s, lectured Prime Minister Harold Wilson on everything, including his own somewhat ridiculous idea that Britain needed a bipartisan national government — as in wartime — to get it out of his its financial difficulties. Rupert Murdoch went all out for Margaret Thatcher. But he turned against her successor, John Major, and supported the Labor Party and Tony Blair. Gordon Brown failed to get Murdoch’s nod, but current Prime Minister David Cameron did. The rest, as they say, is history.
When television came along, the proprietors had a new incentive to cultivate prime ministers: licenses. The big winner here was the least pushy of the publishers, Roy Thomson, another Canadian, who owned The Times. He got the license to run commercial television in Scotland and became Lord Thomson. Like Murdoch, Thomson did not crave the company of prime ministers. He was happy to let others carry his requirements to the men in power. Murdoch has used various intermediaries, including the American economist and free-market ideologue Irwin Stelzer.
Is it all over now? Will prime ministers shun the company of media barons?
Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow? — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Sarah m’dear, it’s not about the party. It’s about the tea.
For those of us of the British persuasion, tea is black tea. It was the tea on which the British built the empire.
It was also, I might add, the tea that Margaret Thatcher served at No. 10 Downing Street. I enjoyed some with her there. A Conservative traditionalist, she served it with milk for certain and sugar as an option.
Thatcher did not ask her guests, as bad hotels do now, what kind of tea they would like. Tea to Thatcher was black tea, sometimes known as Indian tea, though it might have been grown in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka. It was neither flavored nor some herbal muck masquerading as tea.
The former prime minister knew that good tea is made in the kitchen, where stove-boiled water is poured from a kettle onto tea in a pot, not tepid water poured from a pot on a table into a cup with a tea bag.
Boiling water in a kettle, or pot, on the stove is important in making good tea. In a microwave, the water doesn’t bubble. Tea needs the bubbles.
While the Chinese drank green tea hundreds of years before Christ, the British developed their tea-drinking habit in the 17th century. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted permission for the charter of the British East India Company, establishing the trade in spice and silk that lead to the formal annexation of India and the establishment of the Raj.
Initially, tea was a sideline but it became increasingly important and started to define the British. The coffee shops–like the one that launched the insurer Lloyds of London around 1688–continued, but at all levels of society tea was becoming the British obsession.
By the 18th century, tea drinking was classless in Britain. Duchesses and workmen enjoyed it alike.
Tea was the fuel of the empire: the war drink, the social drink, the comfort drink and the consolation drink. Coffee had an upmarket connotation. It wasn’t widely available and the British didn’t make it very well.
Also as coffee was well established on the continent, it had to be shunned. To this day the British are divided about continental Europe and what they see as the emblems of Euro-depravity: coffee, garlic, scents and bidets.
Although tea is standardized, the British play their class games over the tea packers. For three centuries, most tea has been shipped in bulk to various packing houses throughout the British Isles. But the posh prefer Twinings to Lipton.
Offering tea with fancy cakes, clotted cream and fine jams separates the workers from the ruling classes. One of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, Anna Maria Stanhope, known as the Duchess of Bedford, is credited as the creator of afternoon tea time; which the hotels turned into formal, expensive afternoon “teas.” The Ritz in London is famous for them.
The British believe that tea sustained them through many wars. “Let’s have a nice cup of tea. Things will get better.” I’ve always believed that America’s revenge against the British crown was to ice their beloved tea. Toss it into Boston Harbor, but don’t ice it. If you should have the good fortune to be asked to tea at No. 10, or at Buckingham Palace, don’t expect it to be iced.
Incidentally tea bags are fine, and it’s now just pretentious to serve loose tea with a strainer. Of course, if you want to read the political tea leaves you’ll have to use loose tea.
If you’re serving tea to the thousands at your tea parties, Sarah, remember that unlike politics, tea is very forgiving. It can be revived just with more boiling water. –For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Workaround is a made-up word that came to us from the computer industry – at least, that is how it came into general usage. In that industry, a workaround can be a crafty piece of engineering to get the results you want without infringing on someone else’s patent.
Watching President Barack Obama at last week’s prime-time news conference, one had the feeling that he was engaged in a workaround. He was selling a vague health care reform proposal. His spiel was very long because he was selling something that is still a work in progress. Worse: Whatever Obama gets is not going to be the real thing. It is going to be a workaround.
One has the feeling that congressional pusillanimity has the Democrats and their leader working around what at heart they know is the only solution to the challenge of health care – a strong federal role. Call it the solution that dare not speak its name, like Oscar Wilde’s love.
One had the feeling in the East Room last week that the president wanted to lay down the burden of political gamesmanship and say, “National systems work from Taiwan to Norway, Canada to Australia; why, oh why can’t we face this reality?”
The first answer is that no one has the courage to face the Banshee wails of “socialism” that already echo from the right and would intensify to the sound of a Category 3 hurricane. Politically, it would be seen as a bridge too far. Had Obama said in the presidential campaign that he was for a single-payer option, the Democrats on Capitol Hill might have had the temerity to investigate what works remarkably well in Belgium and Japan, among dozens of other countries.
Globally, the single-payer option – or, let’s face it, nationalization – has brought in universal coverage at about half of what the United States spends today; let alone what we will spend with the clumsy hybrid that the president is selling and Congress is concocting.
Under nearly all state-operated systems, private insurers have a role. My friends in Britain and Ireland all have private insurance for bespoke medicine above that available on the state system. Sure, state systems are criticized, especially in Italy (along with everything else), but not one country that has a state system has made any political move to repeal it. State systems are popular.
In Britain, where I have had most experience with the National Health Service, it is the third rail of their politics. Even the great advocate of free enterprise, Margaret Thatcher, did not dare to even think of touching it. Every British Tory wants to make it more efficient, but none wants to repeal it. Thatcher repealed anything that had the whiff of socialism about it and privatized much, including the railways, but the health system was sacrosanct.
The issue should not be whether we can keep every insurer alive and whether we should continue to burden employers with the health care of their staffs and their families, but whether a new system will deliver for all Americans at reasonable cost.
It is probably too late to rationalize the system all at once. There are too many interests, too much money at stake and a pathological fear of government, fanned by the loud few. No matter that the Tennessee Valley Authority works well, that the Veterans Administration is a larger, and probably better, state program than those in many countries. It is not just in health care that Congress and the administration are engaged in workaround. Cap-and-trade in energy is another piece of avoidance.
Utility chief, after utility chief, after utility chief–among them, John Rowe of Exelon and James Rogers of Duke–has said that a simple carbon tax would be more effective and cheaper than cap-and-trade. But the same people who yell “socialist” get severe arrhythmia at the mention of “tax.” Workaround. –For North Star Writers Group
Before Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, Britain was in trouble and headed for worse. The story was told on radio news every morning. Along with the weather and the traffic reports, there was daily a list of trouble spots of a different sort: industrial action.
Industrial action was the euphemism of the time for strikes; most of them unofficial, all of them debilitating. The national mood was sour, the economy perilous, and Britain’s international competitiveness was slipping fast. Commentators around the world talked about “the English disease.”
Thatcher’s challenge was to curb the unions; but before she could do that, she had to convince a doubting nation that the unions could become, or be made, responsible. Over the years, the unions had amassed quite extraordinary power that reached into lives of people who had never thought they were affected by unions.
Union excess was everywhere but because the British believed in the importance of unions, their strengths and excesses were taken as the necessary price for the fundamental right of collective bargaining.
The Labor Party derived much of its support and financing from the union movement. They were structurally entwined: The unions represented the core, or the “base,” of the party. Unfortunately for Labor, the base was toxic and threatened the health of the economy and, as the election of 1979 showed, the electability of the party.
Thatcher, though hard to love, did three enormous things for Britain. She restored the primacy of the free market, curbed union excess and, ironically, saved the Labor Party. Thatcher’s changes made it possible for what was to be called New Labor to modify its relations with its trade union base. The politicians got back the politics, which had been progressively assumed by union bosses of the base.
The British experience is redolent with lessons for the Republican Party. The “base,” represented by the aggressive broadcasters like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, is goading the party in Congress to adopt positions that satisfy them, but not the electorate.
Building on the new reality created by Thatcher’s Conservatives, Tony Blair and his political brain, Peter Mandelson, were able to discipline or silence the trade unions in the Labor Party and present an alternative to the Conservatives that could plunder the best ideas of the right. When nobody was looking, Blair must have thanked God for Thatcher.
The agony of the Republicans is clearly on display with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court: To oppose her blindly is to kiss off millions of Hispanic voters, maybe for generations. The party clearly had no strategy to deal with a candidate like Sotamayor. None.
The far right came out with, well, with an old argument: She is a liberal activist. Not much evidence of that, but the conservative talk-show hosts were ready for war. The last war. Or the one before that.
More damaging to serious Republicans has been the conversion, almost entirely on Fox, of respected Republican philosophers into political Vaudevillians. Enter, center stage, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove. Their collective TV antics are damaging to the movement they once led.
A lot of good thinking about the future of the Republican Party is taking place in the think tanks, particularly the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. But the solid work of restructuring the party for the new realities at home and abroad is drowned out by the eponymous broadcast wing of the party.
It is hard to believe that Newt Gingrich, broadcaster, is the same Newt Gingrich who masterminded the 1994 Republican midterm sweep. Or that Karl Rove was the genius who saw that George W. Bush could be presented as a convincing presidential candidate.
Absent any possibility of reform of the Republican base from the outside, in the Thatcher way, it has to come from the inside. Several astute conservative writers, like David Frum and Mickey Edwards, have lighted a path. A first step down that path could be a more even-handed examination of President Obama’s Supreme Court picks. He could have as many as four of them in his first term. Clearly he has an eye to the electorate, as much as to jurisprudence, if Sotomayor is a harbinger.
Thatcher built herself an entirely new base. Blair dismantled an old one. The Republicans need to examine both.