“The results of political changes are hardly ever those

which their friends hope or their foes fear.”

—T.H. Huxley

Media commentators covering David Cameron’s incumbency as Tory leader have remarked—often gleefully—on how unpopular Cameron’s Labour-like policies are with the “traditional right.”  By this, they mean the Thatcherite rump of the party (probably still the numerical majority), whose elected representatives were beneficiaries of the Thatcher phenomenon and whose rank-and-file activists still look back fondly to the halcyon days of the 1980’s, when it looked as if the Conservatives had become “the natural party of government.”  Sir Alfred Sherman’s book is a salutary reminder that, although Thatcherism drew on Tory precedents, it was never really “traditional” at all—and was, in fact, regarded as so radical when it first emerged in the 1970’s that it was very nearly stillborn.

Sherman tells a fascinating story of how a woman of no great profundity or charisma, and wholly without connections in the Tory “old boy network,” arose from provincial obscurity to lead the party, and then the country, of Canning, Disraeli, Salisbury, and Churchill.  Behind this remarkable story is another, even more remarkable one—how a handful of intellectuals put her there, despite an in-built Tory bias against systematic thinking and toward monumental institutional inertia.  This book is as much an engrossing human-interest story as it is a fascinating record of the metapolitics of that period, or a wise animadversion on today’s political realities.

Alfred Sherman was born to Jewish parents in London’s East End in 1919.  Like many of his background and that period, he lined up on the ultraleft side in the epic confrontations of the 1930’s:

We inherited a bleak world after 1918; the optimism generated by the Victorian age was dissipated.  We sought new utopias . . . we were a transitional phenomenon, having lost much of our inherited Jewish identity and values without fully acquiring and internalising British ones . . . when we deserted the God of our fathers, we were bound to go whoring after strange gods.

At 17, Sherman found himself in Spain, manning a machine gun on the Republican side.  Enrollment in the Republican ranks gave the young man “a sense of belonging which British society had failed to do and all the greater the sense of loss after its collapse.”

“De-communization” was a gradual process, borne of the realization that “the communist dream was an example of self-deception beyond repair” and that “socio-economic processes had an autonomy of their own which could be influenced . . . by intervention based on human understanding.”  Sherman also became aware of the “continued relevance of national and religious questions.”  His postwar experience as the Observer’s Belgrade correspondent further undermined his faith in the viability of Marxist theory.

Sherman’s early affiliations nevertheless had a major impact on his later activities.  “I learned to think big, to believe that, aligned with the forces of history, a handful of people with sufficient faith could move mountains.”  Many members of what was to become known as the New Right were likewise former socialists; these became disproportionately influential, as they added the Marxian habit of structured thinking to the existing Tory tradition of quiet utopianism, defined by Sherman as “the rule of moderation, common sense, justice and precedent” (which are indeed, he notes laconically, “much to hope for”).  It was this combination that enabled former firebrands to capture—at least partially and temporarily—the former party of “Church and King” and bowler-hatted respectability.

In the 1960’s, Sherman met Sir Keith Joseph, a businessman who had inherited a baronetcy from his father, done wonderfully well studying law at Harrow and Oxford, entered Parliament after the war, and held a post as a junior government minister from 1962 to 1964.  Joseph seemed to be a typical Conservative of that period, albeit exceptionally intellectually curious.  (In a touching aperçu, Sherman recounts how Joseph injured his neck by carrying around enormous quantities of books to feed his hungry mind.)  After asking Sherman for advice on a speech, he took Sherman as his “tutor and psychological prop,” as the book’s editor, Mark Garnett, puts it.  In 1969-70, he made several speeches on economics, written by Sherman, that broke with the economic orthodoxies of the time.  These were the first shots in what was to become known as the “Thatcherite” offensive—which perhaps really should, as Sherman plaintively suggests, be called “Shermanism.”

When Sherman, Joseph, and a few others began to make their presence felt, they met with dogged internal resistance.  At that time, the Conservatives still looked back somewhat to the “good old days,” although they were now led by Ted Heath.  With the creation of the welfare state, there was, after 1945, a tendency on the part of successive Tory hierarchies to temporize, and some Tories thought that the welfare state was the logical continuation of aristocratic ideals of patronage and noblesse oblige.  There was, as Sherman famously said, “a ratchet effect” whereby Labour-government measures were never rescinded by incoming Conservative governments, thus shifting the center of gravity of British life ever leftward.  Tory politicians were often unwilling or unable even to analyze what was happening, let alone to do anything about it.  The Conservative Party had been extraordinarily successful in the electoral sense for much of its history and had accordingly become complacent, but its results were always based on “sentiment rather than logic.”

After the Tories were defeated in February 1974, Heath finally permitted Joseph to set up the new think tank he had long wanted and which Sherman saw as an “animator, agent of change, and political enzyme.”  And so the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) was founded, to “think the unthinkable, question the unquestioned.”  The CPS soon began to make waves, first by a June 1974 speech written by Sherman and delivered by Keith Joseph (reproduced as an Appendix to this book), which stated baldly that Britain had the lowest productivity of any country in northwestern Europe and implied that previous Conservative policy had been mistaken—a theme Joseph went on to develop in successive speeches, after the warm encouragement he received for this first foray.  Joseph then asked Margaret Thatcher—already spotted by Sherman—to become deputy CPS chairman.  The CPS went on to produce a blizzard of influential papers and booklets, and so the scene was set for the Thatcherite revolution.  Sherman referred to himself and his colleagues as “Argonauts” in search of the golden fleece of fiscal rectitude and social responsibility.  For a time, conservatism actually became exciting, thanks to this Mitteleuropäisch leavening, even if most of the emphasis was on economic matters.  In this book, Sherman goes into considerable detail about the CPS’s more important recruits and ideas.

By 1983, the momentum had run out, and Alfred Sherman was “summarily dismissed from the CPS and blacklisted” after Mrs. Thatcher had been lobbied by an anti-Sherman coalition.  These wounds are still acutely sensitive.  Sherman is lastingly resentful of the way in which he was expelled from the CPS (he sees his knighthood as a kind of golden goodbye) and of the fact that he has been largely forgotten by all but a few specialists.  This comes out most obviously in his reference to Shirley Letwin’s 1992 book, The Anatomy of Thatcherism, in which he features only fleetingly—“a reminder,” he says bitterly, “that ‘unpersonning’ and perversion of history is not confined to Communists.”  But such forgetfulness is surely inevitable in so resolutely unintellectual an ambience as the Conservative Party.

The Tories of that period were often accused of being economic reductionists—as, indeed, some of them were (and are).  At least Joseph, Sherman, and Thatcher were aware that, as Sherman neatly puts it, “The rationality of the market is genuine, but it constitutes the lowest form of rationality.”  So, in October 1974, Keith Joseph delivered a speech in Edgbaston calling for the buttressing of family values and decrying the rise in single-parent families, which had led to “delinquency, truancy, vandalism, hooliganism, illiteracy, decline in educational standards.”  He spoke the unpalatable truth that, “For the first time in a century and a half . . . areas of our cities are becoming unsafe for peaceful citizens by night, and some even by day.”  This speech was anathematized by the left, causing Joseph to backtrack and apologize, and he never really recovered his nerve.  Like Margaret Thatcher, Joseph wanted to rewrite the political rule book, whereas Sherman, by contrast, wanted to burn it (as Garnett notes).

This is a supremely disciplined book, in which a great deal of great worth gets said within a small and elegant compass.  The author’s lively phraseology elevates what could so easily have been a dull, self-satisfied work.  A few aphoristic examples must suffice to give the flavor.  Parliamentary democracies have the tendency to overspend, Sir Alfred says, because “Posterity has no electorate.”  On trade unionism at that time: “Trade union activities became a form of reverse entrepreneurship, where militancy both gave emotional satisfaction and provided opportunities for social mobility.”  And, on the end of the Thatcher regime: “Mrs. Thatcher’s fall from power was not only that of a person, but of a personality.”  He also manages to incorporate flashes of acerbic humor.  After Joseph’s Edgbaston speech, he received supportive mail from, among many others, Lord (Laurence) Olivier, “whose own record as a family man,” says Sherman drily, “was somewhat mixed.”  The 364 economists who signed a famous letter attacking the Tories’ 1981 budget are “the priests of Baal.”

Like many highly intelligent people, Sir Alfred Sherman is not an especially easy man to warm to.  Many of the problems he experienced must have stemmed from his resolute, unclubbable nature and his absolute refusal to tolerate fools.  I was present at a dinner party at which he and another guest argued loudly about public transport for what must have been 20 minutes, drowning out other conversation and leaving the rest of us sitting around looking at one another awkwardly.  His interest in ideas has always overridden all other considerations.

Even those whom he admired, and with whom he forged indissoluble links, are gored and tossed gratuitously.  Sherman complains of Margaret Thatcher’s “general tendency to reserve her harshest decisions for her friends,” yet he does the same himself.  She is, he says, “a woman of beliefs, not ideas . . . I never heard her express an original idea or even ask an insightful question.  She has left no memorable sayings.”  Elsewhere, Sherman writes that “at Oxford she did not shine,” and “she was no judge of character.”  As for Keith Joseph, he had an “unoriginal” mind and was “the antithesis of a leader,” suffering from a “lack of robustness and fighting spirit.”  It is just as well for Thatcher and Joseph that he was a friend.  It is a testament to Lady Thatcher’s graciousness that she endorsed this book and gave a warm little speech on the occasion of its launch at the CPS offices last year.

There are some adventitious similarities between Sherman and America’s neoconservatives, yet the differences are far more important.  Sherman is distinguishable from these by his greater intelligence, his breadth of historical vision rooted in the classics, and his deep knowledge of political thought.  (Paradoxes of Power is peppered with philosophical allusions, from Einstein to Hegel and Ortega y Gasset.)  Unlike the neoconservatives, too, he has long been sympathetic to Christian culture and concerned about immigration (he caused a storm in the early 1980’s when he invited Jean-Marie Le Pen to attend a Conservative conference) and is sceptical about the efficacy, as well as the desirability, of exporting democracy.  Indeed, Sir Alfred sees America as a well-meaning but rather naive and ineffectual force in world affairs.  As he says, “The world is too big to fit into a single ideology.”  Fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, he has a shrewd idea of what can and what cannot be done in the Middle East.  He has as well a long-standing interest in the politics of the Balkans.  During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Sherman was one of a very small minority of intellectuals who took the Serbian side, seeing the Serbs as a Christian bulwark against Islam.

But despite his multifarious gifts and insights, there was only so much Sir Alfred Sherman could do during his subterranean sojourn at the heart of British political life.  It is no criticism of him to say that, economics aside, the years 1979-1990 now look like a record of wasted opportunities.  Successive Conservative administrations spent so much time tackling the trade unions, and selling off industries and council housing, that whole swathes of British life and society—such as education, the arts, U.K.-E.U. relations, Anglo-Scottish relations, race relations, and ecological concerns—were left open to the orc-raiders of the left.  Mrs. Thatcher was always preoccupied with the likes of Arthur Scargill and General Galtieri (Sherman, incidentally, had considerable influence during the Falklands crisis, advising the prime minister several times) and always hamstrung by intrigue and backstabbing from within her own party.  The ambitious rethinking of all policy areas that Sherman and a few others could see to be urgently necessary “was postponed sine die,” with consequences we are doomed to live through.

And even when it comes to the economic record, there were things that could have been handled better.  For instance, the mining and shipbuilding industries certainly needed to be reformed and/or privatized, but was it necessary to let them down so abruptly?  Feelings of ownership and identification were associated with these industries in areas where they had been the chief livelihood, sometimes for many centuries.  The political fallout from the actions of those years has ensured that whole areas of Scotland, Wales, and northern England have become Tory-free zones.  And there should have been stronger safeguards to ensure that strategically important industries—and the utilities, and farming—did not pass into foreign control or become subjected to the dictates of the global market.  Some of the willy-nilly privatization of those years was, indeed, as the left complained, “selling off the family silver” (although they themselves were largely responsible for changing that silver into base metal).  And Sherman does admit that “privatisation has turned out to be a mixed blessing,” as the money raised by that device was often used to fund other areas of state expenditure, and that the community charge (a.k.a. the poll tax) was politically misguided.

But the point of this book is not to repine about the Thatcher years; there is a much sharper focus.  Sherman has written in the belief that much of the effort of that era may have been in vain.  Although “the New Right has swept the board as far as economic theory is concerned . . . [it] has been sidelined at government level.”  Public spending has not decreased under the Major or Blair administrations—quite the contrary—and Britain’s legislators and opinion formers have not developed the habit of intellectual discipline.  In short, “We are back to where we started.”  Insofar as Mrs. Thatcher had an impact, it was mainly an invisible, “negative” one, whereby even a seemingly unstoppable Labour government has not sought to reintroduce wage-and-price controls or to make grand economic plans.

Within David Cameron’s Tory Party, there is little evidence of the “distinctive Conservative criteria” that Sherman sees to be so sorely needed.  As with the pre-Thatcher Tories, there still is a tendency to temporize with the status quo rather than to challenge it.  As Cameron has said in a recent interview, “I love the Britain we have now.”  Now, as then, Tory machine politicians judge policies by their electoral acceptability.  Now, as then, the party is run by moderates with “a low panic threshold.”  Now, as then, there is essentially no right-of-center party in mainstream British politics.

If this situation does not change, a new party, or an amalgam of existing smaller parties in alliance with rebel Tories, may emerge.  As Sherman reminds us, “There is a populist mood abroad . . . defensive and plebeian, anti-authority yet authoritarian.”  He obviously thinks this spirit could yet be tapped by the Conservatives, if only there were to arise a new type of conservative thinking that would confront

the national question (or questions), relations between ethnically diverse communities, with the US, the EU and the Commonwealth, the role of Christianity . . . a reassessment of human nature, the roots of crime and social breakdown, scope and limits of market-oriented economics and of government action in society.

Fat chance, one might think.  Yet, if someone such as Sherman thinks these things worth saying, then perhaps all is not lost.  Things may change very quickly in politics.

Meanwhile, Sir Alfred Sherman has done an enormous amount for his country and for the conservative cause—and he tried to do a great deal more.  This record of his struggles and collection of his reflections really should be read by all of those interested in statecraft and conservative politics and who are, as well, concerned for the future of Britain.  His book proves that, within his 86-year-old frame, there still beats the heart of an ardent 17-year-old, manning his machine gun in the defense of an idealistic England. 


[Paradoxes of Power: Reflections on the Thatcher Interlude, by Alfred Sherman (Exeter: Imprint Academic) 184 pp., $34.90]