We know both too much about Margaret Thatcher and too little. She was 20th-century Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister, and occupied the post for a longer continuous period than anyone since Lord Liverpool in the early 19th century. As a result, the volume of official paperwork impinging on her career is enormous, and much of it is still under wraps. The first and only woman to lead the Conservative Party, and the first non-royal female ever to lead the country, she has already attracted more books and essays than any other recent British politician barring Winston Churchill. But many of these writings are by acolytes or enemies, too smitten or too repelled by her formidable, divisive personality to offer a balanced or comprehensive appraisal of what she actually achieved.
Assessments of Margaret Thatcher the individual have been complicated in addition by the mythologies of Thatcherism, a process to which she herself contributed. Her two volumes of political autobiography, The Path to Power (1995) and The Downing Street Years (1993), are compulsive reading, a continuation of political warfare by other means, and a combination of valuable postwar history and adroit rewriting of the national past and her own past. The longer that the current Conserv-ative Party remains in the doldrums, the more potent and attractive this Thatcherite version of the past is likely to become, at least to those predisposed to believe it. Put crudely (and it has never been put all that subtly), the story goes something like this.
Britain won the Second World War, but then lost its Empire and the Peace. Both Labour and Conservative politicians were complicit in this failure, which stemmed from complacency, lack of vision, ideological flaccidity, and a tendency to buy off special-interest groups and troublemakers in the present, rather than resolutely out-facing them and implementing radical change. The rot mushroomed in the 1960s, manifesting itself at an individual level in sexual promiscuity, family breakdown, drug-taking, and a decline in proper respect for institutions, and in improvidence, runaway inflation and overmighty trade unions in economic terms. Neither Harold Wilson’s Labour Administration, nor the Europhile Tory, Edward Heath, was capable of arresting national drift and decay. But then, at last, a saviour emerged. Like other saviours, she was an outsider, but all the more powerful for that.
‘I have only recently become a Conservative,’ declared Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s closest Party allies, in the early 1970s. (One is reminded of the film Elizabeth, and of its heroine’s no less momentous and politically charged declaration: ‘I have become a Virgin.’) Joseph’s remark, Thatcher writes in her memoirs, acted on her as a revelation and a summons to action. The Conservative Party and Conservatism must be refashioned, so that the country itself could be remade. And she, the grocer’s daughter, would do it. By 1975, she was Party leader. Four years later, the door of Number Ten swung open before her. There followed 11 years of sterling effort, ferocious zeal, unremitting sacrifice and determined renewal, their success measured by the taming of the unions, the rolling back (for a time) of Brussels bureaucracy, burgeoning prosperity at home, and victory in the Falklands. Thatcherite Conservatism won general election after general election. No opponent could touch her. But, like other saviours, she was brought down in the end by some of her own rotten and selfish disciples. She left behind a Party which – without her – naturally unravelled and lost its way, tumbling to conspicuous defeat in 1997.
It is a measure of Thatcher’s political genius that she has been able to weave around herself such a compelling, easily graspable story, made all the more potent by the fact that it contains elements of truth. Much of it, though, is selective, teleological and dependent on long-standing myths. There is the log cabin to White House myth, transmuted in this case to Grantham-corner-shop-to-Downing-Street. But more ancient, less secular narratives have been brought into play as well, subliminal themes of sin, suffering and redemption, of long-awaited messiahs and of betrayals with a Judas kiss. The challenge John Campbell has set himself is to write an authoritative though not authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher that acknowledges its subject’s calibre while sorting through and sifting the legends that have grown up around her. In this, the first of two volumes, he succeeds brilliantly, shadowing the chronology and events that Thatcher herself adopted in The Path to Power.
He finds, as might be expected, some more or less subtle distortions and significant omissions. There was, to be sure, a grocer’s shop in Grantham, fit birthplace for the future leader of a nation of shopkeepers, and its presiding genius Alfred Roberts was indeed a vital influence on his younger daughter. Town councillor and ultimately mayor, he introduced her to politics and public service, just as his provision store provided her with an early education in the virtues of free trade. He and his devoted, seemingly cowed wife bestowed on her, too, a strong religious and moral sense and a conviction of the necessity of unremitting hard work. But their greatest gift was to give her a fierce desire to get out, and to become substantially different from them.
Campbell reproduces two early photographs of his subject. In one, she is four years old, chubby-faced, alert, entirely mischievous. The other is the famous official portrait of Alfred in his mayoral robes with Beatrice and the two girls. Margaret is just twenty, but all sparkle has gone. Indeed, they all look as if they have not laughed for years. In Margaret’s eyes, gazing out far beyond the photographer, there is panic and determination. Her parents had never gone to university: she would go to Oxford. She would leave the dour, easterly provinces for London and the fat South and never return. She would buy shop fashions in impractical colours, adorn herself with hats and pearls, and never again wear dowdy, homemade dresses that made her look plump. She would discard in due course the family Methodism and become Anglican or, as she characteristically put it, go ‘higher and higher’. She would leave her mother out of her Who’s Who entry always, rarely revisit Grantham, and seldom invoke Alfred’s Victorian virtues until he was safely dead.
Yet like most rebels, she never entirely disentangled and reinvented herself. Oxford gave her cachet and contacts; it did not, pace her memoirs, change what she was. She joined the university’s Conservative Association and ultimately led it. But there was no involvement in student drama or journalism, no surge of intellectual discovery, and no deep emotional attachments, much less sexual discoveries. Instead, she joined the John Wesley Society. One of Campbell’s achievements is to document Thatcher’s persistent religious sense. As a child, she was used to four church services and at least two sermons every Sunday; as a student, she went on weekly preaching trips to Oxfordshire villages with fellow Methodists. The impact of all this on her future career was massive. She learnt the art of public speaking, as well as the simple, accessible language of the King James Bible. Like so many other British politicians over the centuries, she would draw on this source regularly in her speeches, quoting verses, telling homely parables, and infusing everything she said with a fire and earnestness borrowed from the pulpit. Even after politics had crowded out religious zeal, she retained a valuable sense of belonging to the elect (‘one of us’), of having a calling, of being right.
There was a deeper, historical sense in which religion was crucial to what she became. Religion has always been the most reliable springboard for women wanting to overleap the barriers of gender. From the medieval saints, through to the earliest female Wesleyan preachers in the 18th century, and on to Florence Nightingale, the conviction that God was ordering them to act has allowed iconoclastic women to brush aside opposition from mere human males. Thatcher, too, would shrug off masculine criticism and almost relish it, because she was armoured in advance with a belief that she served a higher purpose. At first glance, it seems paradoxical that an overwhelmingly secular society like Britain should succumb first to a fundamentally religious leader like Thatcher and then, soon afterwards, to a no less devout male politician, Tony Blair. But nations in decline are always desperate to be saved, suckers for promises of a new dawn. In this respect, too, Thatcher’s religiosity served her well. Like Blair, she was able to convince voters that – with effort – things could only get better, because she herself possessed faith.
She also had more mundane virtues. As is the way with aggressive, insecure people, she was completely different and much nicer when in contact with men and women who did not threaten her. Earning her electoral spurs contesting the safe Labour seat of Dartford in 1950, she demonstrated not only formidable stamina and organisational drive, but also a real way with ‘ordinary’ people. She remembered the name and family details of every Party activist. She was a wonderful canvasser, manufacturing ‘little havens of intimacy’ in which every voter she talked to felt for that moment as if they were the only person who mattered. Later on, she proved equally winning and effective dealing with the stout folk who attended the annual Conservative Party Conferences, or with constituents in trouble, or with her armies of loyal secretaries, or with minor civil servants, or, initially at least, with Tory backbenchers. Those who satirised Thatcher as a fierce headmistress, a stern nanny, a dominatrix even, perceived only a part of her personality and power. More than most politicians, she had the ability to attract and retain affection and fierce loyalty from people who individually might not be that important, but cumulatively made a difference.
Yet her ability to terrify was vital too. In this, as in other respects, Thatcher successfully challenged prejudices masquerading as pop psychology. Before her apotheosis, it was often contended that women could never become dominant politicians because they lacked the ‘killer instinct’. True, the occasional royal female in the past had managed it. But this was because, as the late Sir Geoffrey Elton wrote of Elizabeth I, such creatures were trained from birth in the ‘masculine’ virtues. ‘Real’ women, by contrast, were ‘naturally’ inclined towards compromise, consensus and coming second. The very pitch of their voices, it was suggested, disqualified them from winning shouting matches in the House of Commons. Even the oblong shape of that chamber, some argued, and the confrontational politics it fostered, were inimical to the gentle sex. Much of this, as Thatcher showed, was purest codswallop. It remains startling, however, just how much she was able to give vent to and win mileage from her belligerence.
Like most women, she was not brought up properly to channel and express her anger, but for some reason she emphatically escaped the female tendency to internalise anger and nurse it until it becomes depression. It is possible, as Campbell suggests here, that the repression she experienced in her youth filled her with so much fury that she lived off that bracing fuel ever after. Certainly opposition, derision and criticism seem, until the very end of her career, only to have made her raise her game and come out fighting harder. Whether it was left-wing Somerville ladies mocking her accent and her politics, or Tory grandees looking down at her along their patrician noses, or intellectuals writing her up in acid, or condescending Labour opponents, or seething rivals in her own party, or General Galtieri accusing her of menopausal hysteria: nothing visibly abraded her political skin. She would show them. They would see; and they would pay. And they did.
Because Thatcher’s achievement in winning through was so remarkable, and her personality so strong, it can be tempting to approach her career mainly in terms of her own exceptional attributes. Yet this is ahistorical and ultimately sexist. Like every successful politician, she was both extremely lucky and a beneficiary of events and long-term trends over which she had little control. Had she been born even twenty years earlier, it would have been extremely hard for someone of her sex and social background to acquire an Oxbridge education, or to have made such an early start in Parliamentary politics. Forty years earlier, it would have been impossible. And had she been a postwar child, there would have been many more professional women competing with her, compromising her rarity value in politics. As it was, when she finally entered Parliament in 1959 for Finchley, she was one of only a dozen female Conservative MPs, and – as the media and other Members regularly pointed out – the most physically attractive woman in the House. This by itself would not have been enough, but it scarcely harmed her that she was both highly able and personable. And it was enormously helpful that influential men in the Party were able to back her secure in the knowledge that there weren’t many more of her kind around.
The men in suits could give her a ministerial job in 1961, add her to the Shadow Cabinet in 1967, even make her Party leader, knowing that she was not a precedent others like her were queuing up to follow, and not a proselytiser either. Just how important being so rare was to her success and acceptance is suggested by the dreadful press the unprecedentedly large number of female Labour MPs have received since 1997. This criticism is usually attributed to these women’s poor calibre and excessive deference to Tony. Yet no one has thus far demonstrated that Blair’s babes (and what a telling putdown that is) are any less able or any more tractable than Blair’s blokes. In fact, the swollen regiment of Labour females has been attacked with ferocity because it threatens the end of token women at Westminster and the coming of a major structural change in its membership. Thatcher, however, was very different. Because of her time, and because of her type, she was never a threat to the overall gender make-up of the ancien régime: and this was vital.
How much difference being female made to her success in other respects is difficult to estimate, in part because she herself has always been understandably reticent on the issue. If we are to believe former male Cabinet ministers in their memoirs and in their cups, at the apex of her power, she exploited her sex ruthlessly, drawing on while subverting the dynamics of the harem. She would straighten a supplicant minister’s tie, pat his shoulder, button (not unbutton) his jacket. Her lips would be carmine, her eyes clear, and all the while she would move so as to exhibit elegant legs in invariably high-heeled shoes. She acted in her prime – if this version is to be believed – like a sultan’s favourite, displaying her allure before those unable to sample it and thereby reduced them effectively to eunuchs. Yet, lethally, she was not the sultan’s favourite. She was the sultan. Too many wrong moves on the part of a Tory minister or MP, and she could summon the mutes – or in her case the Whips – and destroy him in an instant.
How far such accounts convey the real flavour of Thatcher’s prime ministerial court, rather than the fantasies and fears of some of her male colleagues, is another matter. Margaret Thatcher and sex, as distinct from Margaret Thatcher and her outward relationship with Denis, is an area about which we know very little, and about which there may be little to know. Certainly there is scant evidence of such indulgences in Campbell’s analysis of the final stages of her journey to Number Ten. Like any very ambitious person, and especially any very ambitious woman, she played it very carefully when there was a lot still to win. She did her homework in the Commons library with a thoroughness that left most of her competitors standing. She reserved her formidable aggression for her Labour opponents. She cultivated elderly Tory statesmen and her electoral base. Most of all, as Minister for Education under Edward Heath she toed the party line. She pushed comprehensive schools, spent large sums of public money, commendably fought for the Open University, and was pro-Europe, though in a Gaullist fashion. Only if the European powers united, she remarked on one occasion, could they ‘form a bloc with as much power as the USA or Russia’.
Even after she fought Heath for the Party leadership and won, she kept most of her powder dry. As Campbell makes admirably clear, most of those who voted for her in 1979, and many in her own Parliamentary party, can have had very little glimmering of what she would eventually strive to do. It will be fascinating to see in his second volume how far he is able to rise above the mass of government and policy detail and sustain the originality of analysis he demonstrates here. It will be interesting as well to find out how close he is able to get to his subject once she has become enveloped in the prime ministerial mantle. How far, one wonders, was Thatcher ever aware of the contradictions inherent in her aspirations and ideas? Did she know that her ever more extreme free market views would not necessarily sit comfortably with her fierce patriotism or with the Tories’ cult of the family? Was she aware that it would prove almost impossible (as Blair is also finding out) to push through radical change in Britain while simultaneously rolling back the centralised power of its state? And beneath the Britannia-like bravado, how far was she conscious of, and how did she cope with, the miserable compromises and fudge inevitably demanded from a statesman/woman in an age and place of decline?
It was just after 4 p.m. on 4 May 1979 that the grocer’s daughter entered Number Ten as Prime Minister. In one sense, this was just the beginning. Yet, in another, the clearest and least ambivalent of her achievements already lay in her past.