British Author Writes On

John Mortimer's latest reveals Titmuss conservatism as Thatcherism. INTERVIEW

JOHN MORTIMER, best known in the United States as the originator of Rumpole of the Bailey, has written much else not as widely known. His latest book completes the life of the Right Honourable Leslie Titmuss, Minister of Housing, Ecological Affairs, and Planning (HEAP) in the Thatcher government. Titmuss, a rather angular, gloomy sort, who believes in the tooth-and-claw system of conservative economics, was disappointed early in life. He was pushed into a pond by some rowdies who thought him below them in social station. He never forgave them. Since living well is the best revenge, Titmuss, by dint of hard work, boosted himself in business and the Conservative Party. Now he has become a Cabinet minister and exponent - in taciturn, almost Coolidge-esque brusqueness - of the new kind of conservatism.

For the attentive American reader, Mr. Mortimer, who talked to the Monitor recently, is happy to provide a bit of background. Conservatives in Britain immediately after World War II were garnered from the upper classes, the product of money and privilege. For the most part they shared an affection for the socialist paternalism that the Labour Party supported. Their vision of Britain was little changed from before the war, when noblesse oblige was the very best form. But times change.

Titmuss conservatism (Thatcherism in other words) believes in no breaks for anyone - least of all for such unprofitable things as open land and scenery. Titmuss heaps abuse on the ``green welly brigade of the ... Rural Preservation Societies.'' They are people who want to preserve a country that never really existed and can't exist in modern times. You can hear Mrs. Thatcher wanting to privatize the water companies of Britain.

What Thatcher brought into the Tory party, and what Leslie Titmuss appeals to, is what Orwell called the upper-lower middle class, people who have had a taste of some money and think that their own determination will get them more. ``I know what the English countryside meant to me,'' Titmuss says explaining his land development policies, ``It meant damned hard work ....''

Into Leslie Titmuss's later life comes the confusion that usually accompanies love. He meets the widow Jenny Sidonia, beautiful and, but for his success in politics, quite beyond him. Nevertheless, he presents her with his best side, and she finds herself agreeing with his hard-as-nails philosophy. His brutal honesty does have a certain appeal, especially when put against the hypocrisy that infects the rest of the political scene.

But Jenny is still wedded to the glowing memory of her late husband, even after she marries Leslie - which hardly makes for a happy home life once the honeymoon is over. Leslie knows of only one way to fight a pleasant memory, and that's to destroy it.

The parallel of this tragic approach with the ``brutalities'' of Thatcherism is the soul of the book. And, in the middle of it, Titmuss discovers that the very philosophy he has espoused to others is being used by his party to destroy him politically.

Mortimer wrote the book before Mrs. Thatcher's recent serious contretemps with the poll tax, an eventuality that he says he could never have foreseen. He regards Margaret Thatcher as a phenomenon, because, he says, ``the basic English conservative was actually rather fond of the welfare state. Most conservatives were paternalistic.''

Here you can see why Mrs. Thatcher got on so well with President Reagan, Mortimer says. ``First, she made the Tory party populist. Second, she made the Labour Party look as if it were yearning for the past!'' Reagan did the same thing, or at least his speechwriters did.

But that vision of ``how things have got to be if we're going to compete has problems in England,'' Mortimer says. The past is stronger there than it is in America, and the awareness of the limitations of land and water is much more acute. ``The Conservatives are no longer conserving anything,'' he says. As a result, the Labour Party currently is 22 points ahead in the polls.

All of which makes Leslie Titmuss's infaust denouement rather prophetic. He is not capable of change and clings to, or rather sits defiantly on, the unlovely block of philosophy he had carved. He's not good at admitting he's wrong. And so far, on the poll-tax issue, which will almost certainly cost her the next election, neither is Mrs. Thatcher.

The book is, as usual with Mortimer's work, nicely written and thoroughly engaging. I await the BBC dramatisation and have several suggestions for casting. There's Leslie Titmuss's mother. Possibly by that time Mrs. Thatcher herself may be free. Just a thought.

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