Half a defence of John O’Farrell’s comments on Margaret Thatcher

by Stephen Tall on February 18, 2013

OFarrell-things betterI wonder if Labour HQ wish they’d read John O’Farrell’s 1998 book, Things Can Only Get Better, a little more carefully before he was selected to fight the Eastleigh by-election?

First there was his call for Labour voters to vote tactically for the Lib Dems to beat the Tories, as uncovered by Mark Pack here: Should Labour supporters vote tactically to beat the Tories? “Go for it” said John O’Farrell. (Incidentally, the Telegraph then ran the story here without any credit.)

And then yesterday, the Mail ran with the story that he’d once wished Margaret Thatcher dead:

Fury over ‘moral reprobate’ Labour candidate who wrote of disappointment that Mrs Thatcher didn’t die in the Brighton bomb
The Labour candidate in the crucial Eastleigh by-election said he wished Margaret Thatcher had been murdered in the IRA attack on Brighton’s Grand Hotel. Left-winger John O’Farrell felt a ‘surge of excitement’ when he heard of the attempted assassination in 1984 and was ‘disappointed’ the terrorists failed. He asked himself repeatedly: ‘Why did she have to leave the bathroom two minutes earlier?’ The bathroom of Lady Thatcher’s suite was wrecked in the explosion. She had been in it shortly before the bomb went off.

This prompted an understandably aggrieved Norman Tebbit to pose the uncomfortable question:

John O’Farrell was sorry that the Brighton bomb didn’t kill Margaret Thatcher. Was his disappointment eased by the injuries incurred by my wife?
I do not know to what extent his disappointment that Sinn/FeinIRA failed to kill the Prime Minister was eased by the deaths of five other people or the injuries incurred by John Wakeham and my wife. The question now is not just whether any rational or decent Labour voter in Eastleigh will vote for this creature O’Farrell. It is a test for the Labour leader, Mr Miliband. Does he endorse Mr O’Farrell and the latter’s disappointment that the attempt against Margaret Thatcher failed, or will he have the decency and courage to repudiate the Labour candidate?

It’s almost 15 years since I first read Things Can Only Get Better. Though we’re different generations, as a then Labour member a lot of John O’Farrell’s memoir rang true to me — and what I remembered of it was a lot more reflective than the selective snippets in the Mail suggest.

So I had a quick re-read of the offending section this evening (pages 110-115 in my paperback edition). My memory hadn’t let me down. John O’Farrell is reflecting on the hatred he and much of the left then felt for Mrs Thatcher at the height of the miners’ strike. He doesn’t do so proudly, but honestly:

I hated Mrs Thatcher more and more with the passing of each day. I hated her more than was healthy.

And he contrasts the passions of that period with his own contribution to it:

… I felt ashamed as I realised that the only campaigning I had done during that long and painful year was for the election of the president of the Exeter University Guild of Students: an organisation of which my friends and I were no longer even members. The irrelevant posturing of student politics was our only outlet.

These aren’t the words (I don’t think) of a cruel-hearted assassin-once-removed: they’re the stark, uncompromising memories of a thwarted, student radical lefty.

So why only half a defence? Two reasons. First, John O’Farrell himself only half-recants his death-wish for Mrs T:

I just hated her so very, very much. But with some justification, it has to be said. And though some might argue that I should not have been prepared to countenance undemocratic means to get rid of her, she was not being particularly democratic in the way she exercised and extended her power.

This now is the adult O’Farrell writing, and I don’t buy his moral equivalence. (To be honest, I’m not sure he does, either.)

The second reason is that — much as I still like Things Can Only Get Better, and much as his campaign tweets are amusing me — John O’Farrell comes across to me as a deeply tribal creature. (I suspect, without any evidence, that he probably uses the tired term Con-Dems unironically.) My basis for this assumption? My only ever Twitter interaction with him, a couple of months ago:

For those of us who hoped coalition politics would allow a more grown-up political debate, one in which blind adherence to party loyalties might come unstuck a little, politics since 2010 has been a bit of a disappointment. I’m afraid John O’Farrell looks like the same old, same old to me.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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