Right or Wrong, by Tim Bell: Adventures in the Iron Lady’s inner circle
Review: The hard-partying Saatchi adman became Margaret Thatcher’s No 1 fan. He’s now produced a ‘deliciously indiscreet’ memoir
Right or Wrong
Tim Bell is a charming, affable chancer who rose from post boy at a London TV company to life peer. Along his enchanted way he was a founding member of Saatchi & Saatchi and one of Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisers. His “memoirs”, Right or Wrong, are edited by two marketing communications specialists from 40 hours of taped conversations.
Born in a comfortable middle-class London home marinated in Home Counties conservatism, Bell joined the Young Conservatives as a teenager. From the start he had an unwavering revulsion for socialism: “The aim of the left is to motivate people by making everyone the same.” The book is punctuated with similar sentiments, and Bell reveals a devotion to the ultralibertarian Ayn Rand, whose philosophy of extreme self-reliance he endorses.
In the early 1970s Bell was headhunted by the fledgling Saatchi & Saatchi agency, where he ultimately he became de facto managing director but was never given the title or kudos, a fact that rankled until he left. In the meantime he was a vital part of the agency’s growing success.
I was working at another London agency at the time, and we were aware of the shenanigans going on there, although not to the full extent revealed here. “Saatchi & Saatchi was brutality from start to finish,” Bell writes. “It began with aggression, it had aggression in the middle and had aggression at the end.” But the rewards were commensurate.
Played hardLondon was a playground buzzing with new money, new self-confidence and new experiences, and the Saatchi gang played hard, relentlessly cold-calling opposition agency’s clients, winning new business with outrageous promises but managing to create outstanding advertising along the way.
They worked hard and partied hard often, ending up home at 4am, getting up again at 5am and then heading off to an early-morning meeting. Everything, including Bell’s house in Hampstead, was on expenses. After all, “If people came to work worrying about their bills they would only do crap work”.
Quite. But it does square oddly with the repeated assertions about self-reliance, taking responsibility for yourself and declaring that “I’m a moral person. I know the difference between right and wrong.”
By the late 1970s Bell craved something more meaningful – and was feeling insufficiently appreciated by the brothers. It was then that he met the love of his life.
Saatchi had been appointed to manage Thatcher’s first general-election campaign, and Bell was the agency point man who successfully answered her two interview questions when they met for the first time: what’s your favourite poem, and what’s your favourite speech? (Rudyard Kipling’s If and Abraham Lincoln’s “State of the Nation”, respectively.)
Bell, who was in charge of Tory party advertising and political broadcasts, sold Thatcher on the “Labour Isn’t Working” outdoor poster, regarded as one of the best political ads of all time. He remained one of her closest confidants until her death.
Early in the relationship, Bell morphed from ad man to PR man, leaving Saatchi to set up a corporate- and public-affairs company. He was there for some of the significant moments of Thatcher’s career, including the Brighton bombing. He describes the final emotional moments when, despite his and another aide’s entreaties, she decided to quit.
“We’ll go down fighting with you, we’ll die with you, we’ll jump off tall buildings, we’ll do anything. She was in tears and said her mind was made up. At that we all hugged and hugged.”
Bell’s association with Thatcher’s electoral successes created a demand for his services all over the world, including Ireland. He was invited to advise Fianna Fáil, which he refers to as a “fairly right-wing party”. This involved a meeting at a Dublin hotel with Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan and ended with Lenihan and Bell going on the batter until Bell realised he had a plane to catch.
Not to worry, said Lenihan, giving him a lift to the airport in a State car complete with Garda outriders. But on arrival, “legless” by his own account, Bell realised he had forgotten his luggage. Not to worry, said Lenihan, and the driver was dispatched back to the hotel, where he packed and paid the bill, then drove back to the plane, which was delayed on the runway. I assume this story is true, because you couldn’t make it up.
Right or Wrong contains further insights into the unsavoury intersection between politics, the media and the public-relations business in Britain, but the real fascination is Bell’s relationship with Thatcher. He obviously shared her political convictions, but it’s hard to see how he could have added much to the conversation. The only time he expresses an extended viewpoint is in the last chapter, when he delivers an extraordinary rant about why Britain should be ruling the world.
“We are the great radical thinkers, creative and inventive – we believe in free trade, the Americans at heart don’t, nor do the EU or the Russians – the UK is still capable of being the most relevant force for good in the world – perfect for the role of the world’s peacemaker.”
Charm offensiveWhat Bell did have was charm in abundance, and he’s not the first commentator to allude to Thatcher’s susceptibility to flattery, regularly buying her flowers and chocolate and complimenting her hair and clothes. “Of course I’m quite good at being charming and I treated her like a woman.”
I suspect the real reason for Bell’s unrivalled access was more to do with the reality of power in today’s febrile political world, where party leaders have no one to trust. Bell’s most acute observation captures this well: “You have to understand the mind of a politician, in the main it’s a place of icy darkness.”
In these circumstances, a charming, sympathetic listener with no axe to grind becomes an invaluable ally.
Bell’s memoirs are deliciously indiscreet, indisputedly in the know and indispensable for anyone interested in contemporary politics. John Fanning is a former chairman of McConnells advertising agency