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Thatcher – voices and views of the ‘secret people’

Thatcher – voices and views of the ‘secret people’

🕔16.Apr 2013

In his ‘coming out’ confession of having previously been merely a closet Thatcher admirer (‘Why the lady is for mourning’), Paul Dale quoted the popular opening lines of G K Chesterton’s First World War poem, ‘The Secret People’.

He was prepared to bet (Paul, not GK) that, in contrast to the bile and bitterness suffusing some of the early, and local, commentators on Lady Thatcher’s death, the crowds lining the route of Wednesday’s funeral procession – at least, those not turning their backs – “will include substantial representation from those whom we can compare with Chesterton’s people of England that have never spoken yet”.

It’s a tricky comparison to draw, because of course Chesterton’s people didn’t have even opinion polls, let alone multiple social media, through which to speak. Indeed, some of the comment that Paul found most offensive came through precisely those social, or anti-social, media that have given the ‘secret people’ voices that a century ago, for better or worse, would not have been heard – well, not publicly, anyway.

Whether or not it was Paul’s intention to rouse these voices and channel them towards The Chamberlain Files, his ‘personal tribute’ has certainly had that effect. Someone, I assume, must count all the likes and tweets, comments and replies that the Files’ blogs attract, but this one – like the Lady herself – must surely have set records, not least for longevity. As I started to type this, the most recent comment had been posted just four hours previously, more than four days after the blog appeared, and so, if only in the interests of potential record-breaking, I thought I’d do my bit to keep the Thatcher talkfest going, at least until the funeral itself.

The Chamberlain Files necessarily is primarily a mouthpiece for individual voices. In this case, however, it’s the collective voice of the ‘secret people’ that I’m interested in – something that today, through professionally conducted opinion polls of statistically representative samples of the total population, can have an authenticity and validity that were simply inconceivable a century ago.

It was one such poll by YouGov for this week’s Sunday Times that initially caught my attention. The report was headlined “Voters rally to the ‘best PM’”, yet the first illustrative pie chart showed that well over a quarter of respondents (26%, or 29%, excluding don’t knows) thought that Thatcher had been ‘a terrible Prime Minister’ – not average (10%) or even poor (9%), which were other possible choices, but terrible.

It was considerably more than the 20% who, at the other extreme, thought she was ‘great’, and they needed the support of the 26% who opted for ‘good’ to give her even a modest positive score of 46% to 35%.

Can it be that someone whom so many, within days of her death, described as ‘terrible’ was really the best of the 50-plus PMs we’ve had? Well, no, it isn’t. First, the Sunday Times’ prime ministerial sample was not only small, but, some might feel, not overly competitive: Thatcher, Brown, Blair, Major and Heath. Even among this group, though, Thatcher was judged the second most ‘terrible’, beaten only by Gordon Brown’s 31%.

‘Best PM’, of these five, turns out to mean the only one whose record was even narrowly on balance ranked positively rather than negatively – or whose combined ‘great’ plus ‘good’ scores outnumbered their ‘poor’ plus ‘terrible’ totals. But Thatcher’s +11% comfortably tops Blair’s -6%, Heath’s -19%, Major’s -23% and Brown’s – well, let’s just say the wrong side of minus 50.

Clearly, when Paul Dale, in commending the Queen’s decision to attend the ceremonial funeral, suggested that Lady Thatcher was “arguably, the greatest peace time leader the country has ever known”, he had a rather larger and more challenging comparator group in mind.

Now, it so happens this is the kind of reputational ranking exercise that, as a university lecturer in British politics, I’m occasionally asked to participate in, and it’s always interesting to compare the assessments of a self-selected bunch of supposed ‘experts’ with those of genuinely representative samples of ‘real people’.

There have been two such exercises over the past decade, in which we’ve been asked to rank the performance in office of all post-war PMs, on a scale of 1 to 10. We – or at least those taking the trouble to play – are a politically wider-ranging bunch than the ‘cosy liberal-left media community’ to which Paul Dale scathingly referred, and overall our scoring is not all that dissimilar from that produced in surveys of the general public.

The biggest difference, though, is at the top, and in our academic rankings, Clement Attlee (1945-51) consistently wins the title, which we don’t use, of ‘greatest peacetime PM’ – with average scores of over 8. No one else comes seriously close, except where Churchill’s wartime premiership is included, rather than simply his 1951-55 term of office. Probably not surprisingly, given the distance in time from his premiership, Attlee’s placing in public surveys is considerably lower.

That qualification aside, it may surprise some readers that we tend to rank Margaret Thatcher an almost equally solid second, followed by some permutation of Macmillan, Blair and Wilson – which again probably doesn’t differ greatly from how the general public might score them.

Academic surveys tend, sadly, not to ask directly about the most ‘terrible’ PMs. They’re taken to be the ones at the foot of the table, scoring solid 2s and 3s – Eden, Douglas-Home and Brown – but, of course, this completely fails to accommodate someone with the Marmite-like, love-her-or-loathe-her appeal of Thatcher, capable of high scoring in both ‘greatest’ and ‘most terrible’ lists.

So who, in Thatcher’s case, are the biggest loathers – those who put her up there at the top of the ‘terrible’ tree? At first glance, it looks rather interesting: men more than women, and older more than younger voters. Yes, those age groups in which the highest proportions see her as ‘terrible’ are those with the most personal memories: 40-59 year olds (31%) and over-60s (25%) – compared to only 17% of the under-25s.

However, before attempting to turn those findings into a general theory of political alienation, it should be noted that exactly the same is true of all five PMs in the YouGov survey. In every case, men are readier than women to use the ‘terrible’ word, and older age groups readier than the younger. Still interesting, but not in the way I was kind of hoping.

One last finding from the Sunday Times YouGov poll. We’ve been told repeatedly by commentators over recent days that, however much we may have disliked Margaret Thatcher, the ‘secret people’ of Britain respect politicians like her who do what they think is right, regardless of the arguments and objections of colleagues and the public alike. Well, apparently, the great majority of us don’t.

While 29% did think “it is better when politicians do what they think is correct, regardless of whether it is popular or whether people are opposed to their policies”, they were comfortably outvoted by the 48% who preferred it “when politicians listen to what other people think and follow the policies that the public say they want”.

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