I've only watched the proceedings in the House of Commons a couple of times, but last week, as before, I was struck by the thoroughgoing masculinity of the place. Forgive the sexism, if that's what it is, but the conduct is roughneck, aggressive, obstreperous --male. There is jeering and shouting down, a recurring effort to obstruct, humiliate or drown out the speaker. So I marveled before (when she was leader of the opposition) and I marveled again the other day (when she was leading debate on her government's handling of the Falkland Islands crisis) at Margaret Thatcher's apparent ease in these surroundings.
There she sits waiting to respond, marcelled within an inch of her life, the eternal handbag resting nearby. No assertiveness training course required here: she is the model of cool. On her feet now, she appears oblivious of the catcalls. She waits for them to subside and then merely restates her unbending position. Her posture is good and she doesn't fidget and, in some particular sense, it seems as though she doesn't even respond. She restates. This is not to say she hasn't heard the charge or the complaint. Her restatement will always have some specially crafted and clever put-down, some phrase designed to dispose of the tiresome schoolboy who is being so obdurately wrongheaded.
Thatcher's mode is that of the great auntie. Her most dwarfing forensic weapon is her affronted incredulity, an affectation of astonishment. Can these things really be happening in our drawing room? "I beg your pardon," the prime minister gasped at a hapless radio interviewer the other day who had asked a perfectly reasonable question and one that was on many people's minds about the merit of engaging in warfare to recapture islands that were eventually to be yielded back anyhow. Did you really say that? she wanted to know. In debate in Parliament she will assert that she simply "fails to understand" how the right honorable gentleman could think such a thing. It is a mannerism wonderful in its power to intimidate and unnerve. The interlocutor becomes a boor. Thatcher, in her magnanimous posture of pretending not to have heard right or to have understood, gives him a chance to retreat from his unspeakable offense.
The woman, in other words, exudes control. Every aspect of her appearance and bearing and speech, along with the content of that speech, reinforces this impression. And that is what has made watching as this conflict unfolded so eerie and even frightening. For what has been wondered all along, and what is being wondered now as the actual warfare heats up, is whether Thatcher and her government, maintaining this unflappable and unyielding attitude as they do, really are in control.
First, are they guiding a military operation that has a strong chance of ultimate success, or are they overconfident of British success in the situation and sending troops to a bloody stalemate or even debacle? Is the government's air of cool confidence in the military odds justified? The answer to this should be known fairly soon.
The other anxiety here concerns the fact that this aura of control and of dispassionate commitment to principle sits oddly with some of the more violent and excited emotions it seems to have roused and which seem in turn to have been supporting and encouraging it. Is this policy or is it revenge? The position Thatcher and her government are defending is unexceptionable. In principle she is right. But what is actually going on?
To read the British popular press and to listen to some of the prime minister's backbench supporters is to hear voices and witness feelings that are reckless, bloody-minded and crude. They seem, emotionally, a universe away from the competent, dignified British diplomatic labors we have witnessed over the past couple of weeks or the reasoned arguments we have been hearing about the principles at stake in the Falklands affair. How much is the policy being fueled, inspired by these less respectable, heedless sentiments?
You read rather little in the daily papers about the impact of this conflict on other countries, especially those in Central and South America. There is a single-mindedness that makes you wonder how much is being left out of the calculation. How much is war fever or even obsession now driving choice? There was a nice note the other day when, in the middle of the rising tensions over the Falklands, Robert Mugabe came to town, where he visited the queen and set about trying to encourage more investment in Zimbabwe and altogether reflected credit on one of the larger successes of British diplomacy.
Did anyone stop to think, I wondered, whether in the heat of another, earlier day, it would even have seemed possible that Mugabe would any time soon be making a most establishment-type formal visit to London? Hadn't both he and the direness and emergency of the situation if he were to prevail been read wrong; they surely had been by me.
I am not saying that the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe situation ever was similar or comparable to what is going on in the South Atlantic now. But I couldn't help noting the fact that there were certain similarities of passion and anger and despair then and that these now turn out to have been largely misplaced. The Guardian, the most critical of the daily papers, wondered recently whether the British in this coming summer would wake up and ask themselves what on Earth had possessed them this spring.
I am bound to say that I do not have an alternative answer and that I believe some military reaction was required and that the Argentine government certainly asked for it. Yet I look at that self-possessed woman standing in the Commons speaking her reassurances and her certitudes, and I am neither reassured nor very certain. There seems an enormous gap between the impression of control and what is happening on those raging seas--I mean the raging seas off the Falkland Islands and the ones that comprise the emotions of so many Britons these days.