Myself and my colleague Natasha Williams are at our department’s private election night party at a packed and noisy Dolphin Square bistro. In the early hours of the tenth of June nineteen eighty-three, a colour TV on a stand opposite us announces win after win for Mrs Thatcher. This will allow her a working majority with which she can do as she pleases. Despite the jubilation, the victory is based upon a spilt between the opposition parties, rather than popularity amongst the masses. This is especially the case outside of London and the Southeast of England. Natasha and I hid at the back in a corner, quite morose over our mineral water, wondering what was likely to happen next and how our respective careers would be affected. We were about to find out.
Our companion was a recent retiree, somewhat over-refreshed, scolding the indiscretions of others while being indiscreet himself.
Crumbs had been falling from high tables. We nodded in agreement with him, somewhat embarrassed. A rumour had done the rounds at the retiree’s monthly afternoon social, in the pensioner’s room at a services club in Mayfair. All present had filed the whispered gossip to an easily opened memorandum entitled ‘should be true whether true or not’.
A flick book had been left lying next to a bunk. A giant map had been left unfolded in a wardroom. What sealed the murmurs into certainty was the indiscretion of a subaltern in the wrong place at the wrong time. His father was an acquaintance of a chap who corresponded with the man squatted between us now, who was now raising in competition with Robin Day’s on the goggle box.
“Walked right in on the gold dust. An umpire’s chair sat next to the halfway line of a badminton court beneath the draughty pitched roof of a supposedly deserted drill hall. Up the North somewhere, next to a windswept parade ground surrounded by stone barracks named after the proud engagements of a much-merged shire regiment.”
“There it all was. The snotty pretended to be invisible. Everybody assumed someone else had invited him and he got away with it. Stood and watched while Mrs Thatcher herself climbed a little ladder and sat in the umpire’s seat, warming the cushion with her own imperial backside. All was before her, mapped out on the floor.”
“Thing is, Both, I must share a confidence between ourselves, these four walls and the celebrating Hurray Henry’s. We’ve all suspected passing a lot of laws, winning a little distant war in the South Atlantic and gaining a second parliamentary term, was only the start. We’re still in the bottom left corner of the doubles court. Loads more to come. Reckon your phones will be ringing soon. Jealous of you both to be blunt, exciting times.”
He continued with relish, as though exciting times were something for young executive officers to be pleased about.
“Arrows, dots, text, connections, solid red lines for blockages, double arrows for accelerators, dotted marks for distractions, all connected by symbols and letters in a web of graphic meaning. And a name, the ‘Protocol’. Everything wrong with the country, and the solution, in one overall strategy, painted on the floor by the boffins for Mrs T to sink her teeth into.”
The whole lot. The complete bankrupt, chaotic late nineteen seventies Britain and all its problems had been illustrated to one impressive flow diagram painted in an army camp shed. Problems flowed along white badminton markings towards solutions via a massive process map.
Unions, strikes, restive unwanted colonies, ungrateful regions, torpid management, clapped-out factories, squatters, overcrowded prisons, slums, unhappy families, empty shelves, idle students, power cuts, everything wrong about Her Majesty’s realm could be quantified, turned into process, demonstrated to the Prime Minister and transformed to a bright hinterland.
A team of management consultants stood at Mrs T’s feet calling advice to her as the Prime Minister, with a megaphone, practised bossing her resources to rendezvous with victory. Soldiers on their hands and knees pushed competencies and materials about the place in preparation for the off.
“What’s your speciality? Ulster? Top left corner. Informants, the SAS, paramilitaries, extra-judicial stuff, cut off the oxygen of publicity, have a word with the yanks. All written into the diagram. Like a giant Schlieffen Plan except this Protocol covers everything and will last for the rest of your lives.”
“And yourself, Miss?” He asked of Natasha. “Domestic? Little models of mines and picket lines and mobile response units, covered in blue dots where the legislation is already in place.”
Added to which were small but important details, such as a better standard of man and girl in the press office feeding better slogans to the press barons.
“All ready to go,” he continued. “Explains why this lot are so cock-a-hoop.”
He waved his arm towards the guffawing triumphalist knots of suits, cheering over their glasses of champagne below the Union Jacks and red, white and blue bunting.
“At last the nation has a plan. An all-encompassing remedy that solves everything. For the first time since God died, we have a proper sense of direction, unless you’re a spineless backbench wet of course. More reason to thank a non-existent God we’ve got Maggie Thatcher for the implementation thereof.”
As he rose to leave, he tapped his left temple, repeated the gesture on the side of his nose and then held an index finger across his lips as if he’d imparted an unsayable secret suggesting ‘on your marks’ and ‘set’. Natasha and I peered at each other in anticipation, dreading a sudden pistol crack accompanied by a shout of ‘Go!’
I suggested Natasha come back to my room, but she preferred not. I was allowed go to her’s but only for one coffee, lasting no more than thirty minutes, and consumed while I sat on the floor and she sat on the bed. Her portable TV played the continuing election night excitement to itself beside me.
“Do you believe him?” I wondered.
“Not quite,” she replied, “badinage, exaggeration, banter and tease, and too much whiskey and lime, much of spilt down my dress while he pawed me. Thanks Worth, gallant of you to intervene,” she added sarcastically.
I was inclined to second her conclusion. The country was run by old duffers who did everything the way it had always been done, leaving the nation’s ills intractable.
“Does sound too American. Strategies, planning, not sure our lot are up to the mark. They’re too used to, and too comfortable with, managing decline,” I said in agreement.
Natasha nodded sagely. At last, we’d finally agreed about something.
“Perhaps when you and I are heads of departments,” I reassured her, adding with a new startled note in my voice, “Or mayhap somewhat earlier.”
The television had caught my attention.
I leant towards the set and turned the volume higher. A rather tipsy Conservative Party Chairman had allowed a camera crew into what could only be called a ‘war room’ at Conservative Central Office. An entire wall was filled by a giant chart, covered in all sorts of symbols, lines, names and dates.
Every day of the campaign had been meticulously planned and coordinated with candidates, media and voters. There were different themes for different days relating to different demographics in different places.
“That appears novel and shrewd,” I admitted.
“While the Opposition,” Natasha observed, “are bumbling along the market street in rosettes giving out stickie badges to kids.”
“Almost as if,” I began hesitantly, Natasha completing the sentence for me, “Part of a giant Protocol aimed at completely changing the entire country.”
A year later, a different colleague, Captain Davies, was beside me in the constituency office of Sleescale MP Major Sir Fergus MacDee during the nasty part of a miners strike. Sure enough, a Protocol had emerged and you didn’t need to be sat on a tennis chair cushion shaped like Mrs Thatcher’s buttocks to be able to have a decent guess at what was contained therein. As predicted, the Government contained wets who wavered. Sir Fergus was one of them. His ringleader was a certain former Prime Minister name of Maurice Harold Macmillan, 1st Earl of Stockton. Trying too hard to create some spontaneous applause, his Lordship had discreetly advanced too much of his forthcoming speech in support of the strikers. The likes of myself had, therefore, had a decent run at intimidating his supporters to ensure an embarrassing silence as Macmillan left the stage.
Feeling confident I’d bluffed Sir Fergus into thinking I knew more about the Protocol than a boozy recollection of a drill hall badminton court covered in small print and administered over by Mrs Thatcher, I fixed him with a stare and prepared my coup de gras. I was about to give him, in the interests of national security, his wellbeing and the wellbeing of his family, an offer he couldn’t refuse.
To be continued ….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file