Our Maggie – Margaret Thatcher

London Hotel Magazine – 09-1985

Margaret Thatcher is many different things to the British. That she is a force to be reckoned with nobody denies. Christopher Long puts the Prime Minister under the microscope.



ome people love her, some people hate her and no-one, it seems, can ignore her.

Since she first emerged as an MP in 1959 she has inspired more admiration, more disapproval, more support and more opposition than any other British politician in living memory.

There is only one reaction which almost everybody, however grudgingly, will grant her – a healthy respect for her personal achievement.

And that achievement is remarkable.

Margaret Thatcher was born in October 1925, the younger daughter of Alfred and Beatrice Roberts who owned a corner grocery in the small provincial town of Grantham. Her parents were modest, pious, hard-working members of the lower middle classes whose lives were entirely dominated by the work ethic, self-improvement, service to the community and deeply held Methodist convictions.

"She has no more ability to assess her actual position or weigh opposing arguments than Joan of Arc" – Germaine Greer

"She went to Siam with a sense of purpose and the perseverance to carry out this purpose. Because of her slavery was abolished" – Margaret Thatcher, Woman of the Year, 1960, explaining that if she had to be someone else she would like to have been Ann Leonowen, the governess of The King and I.

These and a rock solid upbringing were all they could offer their daughter as she set out, quite single-mindedly, from total obscurity to dominate the world's centre-stage as a major statesman of the 20th century.

From elementary school she earned herself a scholarship to the town's grammar school (more the result of sheer hard work than any innate brilliance) and from there got another exceptionally hard won scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford.

X By present day standards life at home was probably so dull and dutiful that there was little else for her to do but work and she has since claimed that she has achieved nothing without working hard for it.

Perhaps the only excitement in those first eighteen years of her life was the arrival, shortly before World War II, of a young Jewish refugee called Edith, a victim of Hitler's invasion of Austria. Her stay with the Roberts family was later to colour Mrs Thatcher's views on Human Rights.

As a child she was already controversial. Mothers would ask their daughters: 'Why can't you be more like Margaret Roberts' – hardly likely to endear her to her contemporaries, while at Oxford she argued pleasantly, though persistently, with everybody on her abiding obsession – politics.

"I feel I have been accepted as a leader in the international sphere – the field in which they said I would never be accepted." – Mrs Thatcher after her first meeting with President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, 1975.

"If you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman" – Margaret Thatcher, 1965, who has nevertheless employed even fewer of her own sex in Cabinet posts than almost any other post-war Prime Minister.

Remarkably again she became only the second woman ever to be president of the Oxford University Conservative Association which, along with the Oxford Union, was about the most elevated and prestigious training ground for the highest posts in public life. By the age of 21 she was already familiar with politicians such as Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham) and Peter Thornycroft. They would no doubt have been staggered to learn that one day they would serve in the grocer's daughter's Cabinet.

"Gentlemen, I have the latest red-hot figure!" – Margaret Thatcher, junior cabinet minister, 1962, demonstrating (though this time ambiguously and to the delight of other MPs) her formidable ability always to be better armed with facts, figures and statistics.

And hereby was set a seal that has, perhaps, become the least appreciated key to the Thatcher enigma: she moved so far and so fast from the simple, loving and humble world of her father's corner shop that she would forevermore be alone.

Those who knew her in wartime Oxford say she was embarrassed and irritated by her Grantham origins and it seems clear that if she had ever stopped her unashamedly ambitious rise to power she would have been lost. She couldn't afford to stop, to doubt herself, to fail or to cease the remorseless upward climb because she had nowhere to retreat to.

"It's unbelievable! She just dictates policy and doesn't expect disagreement. And she talks on and on... " – a cabinet minister on Mrs Thatcher's political style.

Leaving Oxford with, surprisingly, only a good second-class chemistry degree, Margaret Roberts had already decided on heading for Parliament. With that in mind she decided to read Law in spare time from a first job in an Essex plastics factory. There she immediately involved herself in local Conservative politics, attended her first Conservative Conference in 1948, was selected for a no-hope constituency in Dartford, Kent, and there she fought the General Elections of 1950 and 1951, unsuccessfully, but very creditably. She was just twenty-three.

"Should a woman arise equal to the task, I say let her have an equal chance with the men for leading Cabinet posts." – Margaret Thatcher, law student, 1952.

It was on election night in 1951 that Margaret Roberts announced her engagement to Denis Thatcher whom she had met during electioneering the year before. He had inherited a prosperous family chemicals business (which he later sold in 1965 for around half a million pounds). He had already been married before – one of those "silly wartime marriages... which never really got off the ground".

X Already almost devoid of any other interests but politics, the young Mrs Thatcher spent 1951-59 bringing up the couple's twin children, Mark and Carol, passing her Bar Finals on the night they were born – after less than two years of part-time study!

In the 1959 General Election she won the safe seat of Finchley, North London (for which she is MP to this day) and thus did the homely girl who wouldn't stay at home first enter the political arena – aware, perhaps, even then, that her only true home might possibly be Number 10, Downing Street, if fantasies were ever to come true.

She made an immediate impact on the House of Commons, a place where the majority of MPs are lost without trace. As luck would have it she won the 'lottery' that selects a rare few MPs wishing to introduce Bills of their own – and succeeded in her bid to ensure that journalists should have a statutory right to attend meetings of public bodies.

"To yesterday's men tomorrow's woman says hello!" – Margaret Thatcher in her first TV interview as Tory Party Leader in 1975 – with her sights already set on 10 Downing Street.

"Once a woman is made equal to a man she become his superior" – Margaret Thatcher quoting Sophocles in 1968, though she remains virulently opposed to feminists, feminism and anti-sex-discrimination.

Two years later Prime Minister Harold Macmillan offered her a junior Cabinet post and from then on MPs were stunned by her ability to remain better informed, better armed with statistics, better prepared in all ways than the majority of her opponents. From then on she became, as journalist Ferdinand Mount described her, "the Evita of the Tory Party". She succeeded not despite being a woman but because she was a woman, and an indefatigably astute one at that.

X But it didn't all go her way. After a succession of cabinet and shadow cabinet posts she ended up with Education under Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1971. That was the year she was described as the "most unpopular woman in Britain" and faced cries of "Ditch the Bitch" and "Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher" from opponents who were appalled at a decision to stop free distribution daily of 1/3 of a pint of milk to each of the nation's school children (an economy that she argued was better than cutting education itself). The nation hysterically loathed her but she survived – and it toughened her.

In 1975 the unbelievable happened. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was in power. Edward Heath was Opposition Leader and Margaret Thatcher found herself perfectly poised to make a bid for Heath's job, largely because of Conservative disillusionment with both Heath, his past election performances and his largely unlovable (though respected) public image.

It was in one of those unforeseen and indecipherable manoeuvres that the nation awoke one day to discover it had a woman party leader – and a woman waiting on the very doorstep of Number 10.

"Your family are always your closest friends" – Margaret Thatcher.

The rest is common knowledge. The successful meetings with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter (unprecedented for a mere Opposition Leader), the rapturous welcome by the Chinese (who loved her Iron Lady approach to Russian ideas of detente), her mutual accord with Germany's Willie Brand and, even in 1979, the incredible arrival of Kosygin on the tarmac of Moscow Airport when all she was doing was making a refuelling stop.

She had 'arrived', as a statesman, before she ever held power. Her election win in 1979 was therefore no surprise and the extraordinary dynamism of her first term as Prime Minister, with the national rallying of both Britain and her allies during the Falkland's War, set the seal on her premiership. In 1984 she won one of the most resounding landslide General Elections ever known – putting her in office until at least 1987. [In fact until 1990]

"The criticism has been vicious (but) you have to build an armour round yourself knowing the things they say aren't true" – Margaret Thatcher reflecting on the virulent 'Ditch the Bitch' and 'Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher' campaign of 1971. She had cut free milk for Britain's school children but the (arguably unfair) attacks put iron in her soul when the strongest might have been broken by the character assassination.

"Some of us were making it long before Women's Lib was ever thought of." – Margaret Thatcher's snappish reply to a female Chicago reporter.

"I'm not sure I understand the significance of your question – I'm just Margaret Thatcher. You must take me as I am..." – in reply to another Chicagoan who asked whether she preferred to be 'Mrs' or 'Ms'.

Yet why does she provoke such intense feelings of both admiration and repugnance among the British population? Certainly it's something we feel more acutely here than others feel abroad.

In July she was regarded as the star attraction by the 20,000-odd members of the American Bar Association. They were in London for a 'conference' that was, let's face it, a gigantic freebie. Politics, economics and seminars on the law were low down the list of priorities. What she gave them was a school-mistressy lecture on law-and-order – and they loved it! The American Ambassador described her as "one of your own".

Just the words that more than half the British population would not choose – perhaps not even half of her own Conservative MPs.

"Let me give you my vision. A man's right to work as he will. To spend what he earns. To own property. To have the state as servant and not as master. These are the British inheritance." – Margaret Thatcher at her first Tory Party Conference as Leader.

"The Russians are bent on world dominance and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen... They put guns before butter while we put just about everything before guns. They know that they are a super power in only one sense – the military sense. They are a failure in human and economic terms... If we cannot draw the lesson... then we are destined, in their words, to end up on the 'scrap heap of history." – the speech that earned Mrs Thatcher the Russian sobriquet 'The Iron Lady' in 1976.

Maggie and Family

As Margaret Thatcher has said: "Your family are your closest friends". In her case a husband and twin children have been invaluable to her as a retreat from over 25 years of political rough-and-tumble. Denis Thatcher inherited a family chemicals business which he sold in 1965 for around half a million pounds. This and the joint incomes from her political career and his string of corporate directorships assured them and their children of substantial financial security. The family lived for years in a large Chelsea town house with a weekend cottage in Kent where Denis Thatcher's family originated.

Of the four of them, Denis has probably found the warmest affection from the public – a quietly popular figure who is frequently the butt of good-natured teasing in the satirical press. He seldom appears in public, preferring to remain "the shadowiest husband ever" – playing golf frequently and spending pleasant time in the company of non-political friends at the '19th hole', or at the RAC club in Pall Mall.

X His only controversial gestures have involved a sometimes strained relationship with his son Mark, an accountant, who may have found it difficult to live with the overwhelming success of his parents. The occasion on which he got lost in the Sahara Desert during a motor rally, requiring a full-blown and embarrassing international rescue mission, clearly didn't please his father. A similar strain on their relationship was caused by a controversial business contract in the Middle East.

Nowadays Mark prefers to pursue his motoring and business interests in the United States – causing most interest in this country when he chooses to return in the company of a stunningly attractive Texan heiress.

Carol Thatcher is a full-time journalist who spent her early years in Australia, returning to London when her mother became Prime Minister. Ironically she is often a source of more curiosity than many of the people and subjects she writes about. But as a journalist and broadcaster she has consistently kept a low profile, preferring privacy while facing the difficult task of proving her talent to colleagues who envy her the contacts and advantages to which they believe she has access.

X Clearly life has not been made at all easy for the Thatcher family by the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher, but equally clearly she is deeply dependent on family life and the unity she has been able to preserve, despite the glare of publicity over more than 30 years of apparently very happy marriage.

True, the nation had a good chuckle when young Mark Thatcher embarrassed his mother by getting lost in the Sahara and needed a full-scale international rescue team to find him. And Denis Thatcher is fondly regarded by those who speculate on what his life must be like under the 'Boss's' regime.

But when they call her 'Atilla the Hen', 'The Blessed Margaret', 'The Iron Lady' or 'The Evita of the Tories', the feelings are mixed.

"Prime Ministers need things to take their minds off the job and she doesn't have them. She doesn't drink with the boys – or with the girls for that matter. She doesn't tell jokes. She may relax but I've never seen it in the fifteen years I've known her." – a Tory party official.

"She believes that... government should basically decide on taxes and enforce the law, but that beyond that it is up to the people themselves." – Sir Keith Joseph.

Is it because she's a woman? Well, Indira Gandhi, Mrs Bandranaika and Golda Meir were there before her and Britain has been accustomed to Queens as heads of state for almost 500 years.

Is it because she threatens other women? Perhaps her formidable success has been an embarrassment when the gimmick of the decade has been the obsession with female emancipation and her emancipation was hardly what the unadmiring feminists had in mind.

Certainly her critics find an unconcealed irritation in Mrs Thatcher's slick PR-created image. In her schooldays she took elocution lessons of her own accord because, she said, "one's voice is so important". But the perfectly coiffed hair, the immaculate presentation, the lack of any visible defect or breath of scandal does little to make her as human as her PR advisors, Saatchi & Saatchi, would wish for.

They've given her a honey-sweet voice of solicitous purity for public consumption but those who hear what has been described as the strident and hectoring voice with which she withers opposition in the House of Commons must wonder which, if either, of these voices is really her own.

"As you know, there is no subject on which she has no view. She'll have to get over that." – a Cabinet colleague.

Certainly her policies have been unpopular with some people at times: but then she never promised anything else in her vow to put right "30 years of neglect". She has cut inflation. She has improved trade balances (though North Sea Oil was a great help there). She has handed over large state industries to the private sector (though the rich are likely to benefit most from that, it's said). And she has put into action her convictions that the national health and welfare systems should be reformed to make people more self-reliant and less dependent on a 'nanny' state (though this has probably been her most unpopular policy to date).

What she hasn't achieved is a reduction of Britain's massive unemployment problem, nor the long-promised reduction in state spending.

But even these don't account for the extremes of feeling she provokes.

Perhaps the truth is that, as one commentator observed, she reminds us of childhood aunts. To him her rise from obscurity was all too perfect, too well-deserved and too reminiscent of little goody-two-shoes, who deserved a punch on the nose in the school playground.

She's so sure that she's right and she so often is. Yet she's so unwilling to accept that others may be right too. And her critics will say she's unable to accept that there are people who lack the steadfast, uncompromising ability to work, prosper and fend for themselves.

In a crisis the nation flocks around this strong and determined, almost Churchillian figure, as happened during the Falklands' War. But the rest of the time there are plenty who long to put a drawing-pin under aunty's chair – just to see perfection in disarray.

Captured in paint: Maggie, The Iron Lady.

Margaret Thatcher, as leader of the Conservative party in Britain, caused a major stir in the Iron Curtain countries, with her outbursts against communism. Subsequently, London artist Joe Rose captured our Iron Lady on canvas and she was delighted.

Joe said: "I wanted to depict her as a Joan of Arc figure, and the Russian's nicknaming her the Iron Lady gave me just the inspiration I needed." Worried about her reaction to the picture, Joe sent Mrs Thatcher a copy of it. She wrote back: "I am delighted with your picture and hope to get along to see the original."

The work was eventually displayed in the Fine Art Gallery in London. It showed Maggie with her honey-blonde hair hidden under a steel helmet, wearing a coat of shining mail and that true blue Tory bosom covered with what looks like a pair of saucepan lids.

Captions to original illustrations:

When in Rome, etc... Mrs Thatcher deftly handles the chopsticks in Shanghai with Minister Yk Pao.

'The Falklands Factor' gave Maggie an enormous boost in popularity. In photo above she attends victory parade in London. Top, tough marines land to recapture the territory.

Centre: HMS Antelope explodes in San Carlos Bay.

The Thatchers at home; a rare moment together.

Mark, and Denis at his favourite pastime.

Carol Thatcher. As a journalist she keeps a low profile.


Click this image to see comments, on the death of Margaret Thatcher, by expatriates in France in April 2013.

See also: Margaret Thatcher – Angel Of Mercy?

© (1985) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Christopher Long