Margaret Thatcher—the personification of true grit

Barbara Amiel on a barrier-breaking outsider
Nov 21, 1977; London, England, UK; The first female British Prime Minister (from 1979-1990) MARGARET THATCHER, flying with the Parachute Brigade. Mandatory Credit: Photo by KEYSTONE London/KEYSTONE Press. (©) Copyright 1977 by KEYSTONE Press
Margaret Thatcher—the walking personification of true grit
Richard Slade/Camera Press/Redux

On Nov. 22, 1990, three-term prime minister Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. She had been knifed by a cabal of elites in her own party while attending a meeting in Paris. Finally, the Oxbridge-educated, upper-middle-class males, led by Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe,  had got rid of “that bloody woman” and after all their conspiring persuaded her she hadn’t enough support to win the annual leadership vote. Later that day in Parliament, the Labour Party called for a vote of no confidence and Thatcher, who naturally was staying as PM until the party chose a new leader, rose to reply. She wore one of her bright Tory blue suits with the two rows of pearls in place. Nothing in her voice indicated the heartbreak—of which she later spoke. Her speech was vintage Thatcher, calling down the seven plagues on the policies of the Labour Party. At the height of her speech, feisty Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s voice boomed from the Opposition benches with the mad integrity of a genuine working-class chap who couldn’t bear to see what the toffs had done to her: “You could wipe the floor with the lot of them, Margaret.” And the house erupted in applause.

She left politics in 1990 after 11 years as prime minister, and an entire generation has grown up since who probably cannot understand what all the fuss is about or how the rights they now enjoy are due to her. She inherited a country in 1979 that was known as the sick man of Europe suffering from “the British disease.” Strikes every day, streets lined with weeks of garbage and the dead left unburied. Income tax topped out at 98 per cent for unearned income, 86 per cent for top earners. (Do I hear sighs of envy from the NDP?) British tourists lucky enough to go on holidays abroad couldn’t take more than a few hundred dollars with them since the country had currency controls and was on audit by the International Monetary Fund. In all respects—except climate and size—Britain was the 1979 version of 2013’s Greece. Thatcher brought a semi-comatose country back to life by employing free-market economics together with her unshakable belief that people could do better for themselves than the government could do for them. She gave the world a template for economic success, and her daily encomiums on the virtue of liberty and refusal to knuckle in to dictatorships—whether Argentine or Soviet—was a textbook lesson on peace through strength.

On the excellent CBC.ca page is an edited version of the interview Thatcher did with Barbara Frum in 1983, early in her prime ministership. Barbara sits smiling, her lap filled with the preparation she has done for this interview. She expects to corner Mrs. Thatcher. It’s rather like watching a pretty lizard mistakenly programmed to kill a mongoose. Thatcher eviscerates Frum who, among other sins, accuses Thatcher of leading the world to Armageddon through confrontation of the Soviet Union with an arms buildup—rather an ironic error on Frum’s part, given the leading role Thatcher was to play with Ronald Reagan and the Pope in the bloodless destruction of Communism and freeing of millions of Central and East Europeans from its tyranny. Thatcher won those sorts of exchanges every time, but in one sense, she will never win. The arts, academic and media establishment cannot concede that Thatcherism—that blend of anti-socialist, anti-statist, free-market policies—could possibly do more for people than government’s Big Nanny. There is no de mortuis nil nisi bonum for Margaret Thatcher among her old foes. Since her death on Monday, there have been celebrations in Britain, including “death parties.” Many of them are young people who, as Lord Sugar (the British billionaire who was appointed “enterprise champion” by Gordon Brown’s Labour government) pointed out in a tweet, were “despicable scum tweeting foulmouth comments . . . still drinking milk from a teat in the ’80s.”

She had many names: “Iron Lady,” “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher,” referring to her policies when she was education secretary, or even “Attila the Hen,” as some colleagues privately called her.  In fact, she was an outsider both politically and socially. As a woman and daughter of a Methodist grocer in a rather unfashionable town an hour-and-a-half train ride out of London, she was not the stuff of Tory politics. Her Oxford degree in chemistry was not an asset when the “right” sort of person had a degree in the arts and humanities—not science, for heaven’s sake. She wanted the state-subsidized British grammar-school system to remain because, as she pointed out, “People from my sort of background need grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes”—although, as education secretary, she was largely unsuccessful in saving the system. She had Laurence Olivier help polish up her diction so her Received Pronunciation of English—the sound of the upper classes—would have a more agreeable lower tone. I always found her voice unnerving—perhaps because it wasn’t really her natural Lincolnshire one, it sounded so perfect but mannered.

Margaret was never, as the British put it, “clubbable.” Even after she was prime minister, she could only be an honourable  member of the Tory party’s spiffy Carlton Club in London’s St. James’s area, which was all-male. The Canadian-born professor, Anthony King of the University of Essex, concluded in a brilliant essay on Thatcher that she was not only a social outsider in terms of class and gender, but also a psychological outsider in the way she saw herself.  If she did see herself that way it was an accurate evaluation of her position. The Queen Bee of the British academic establishment, Baroness Warnock, noted that Mrs. Thatcher’s looks were “not vulgar, just low,” and the theatre director Jonathan Miller went into a frenzy over her “odious suburban gentility.” The Labour Party simply used a “Ditch the Bitch” campaign in the 1983 election.

That sense of oneself as a foreigner can either hobble or help. In Thatcher’s case, it seemed to give her the nerve to do things that more cautious people would never have dared. She became Tory leader after Edward Heath lost two elections to Labour in 1974. Thatcher had been encouraged by her mentor, Keith Joseph, to run for party leadership. Joseph, a brilliant thinker, couldn’t do it himself as a Jew—the party would never have elected him—but saw in Thatcher the possibilities of an end to the compromises of “Butskellism” (a word made up of  two former chancellors of the exchequer—the Conservative Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell). Once she became leader, she never faltered and, after four years in Opposition with the country all but collapsed economically and socially, she narrowly defeated Labour’s James Callaghan. She turned her back on the entire British postwar tradition of consensus politics with a vengeance. Her battles with the miners’ and printers’ unions were almost civil wars. She privatized many of the huge number of state-owned industries, putting stocks into the hands of ordinary people. Rundown council housing became proudly repainted by their new owners after she sold council houses on the cheap to tenants allowing people who hadn’t a chance in hell otherwise to become property owners. Britain was reborn.

Her upper-class colleagues adored the idea of a European Union because, as one explained to me, they wouldn’t have to change their money when travelling to their holiday homes in Provence and Tuscany. They wanted to legitimize a comfy feeling of being so much more  authentically European than working-class Brits holidaying in their own coastal seaside resorts. Instead they found themselves saddled with a prime minister who said to the notion of joining a federated Europe, “No, no, no and never.” She was right, of course, and she lived to see the shambles of the European Union.

There will be many people this week remembering their first encounter with Margaret Thatcher. I hoped this day would never come bringing the inevitable use of the past tense with her name—though of course death comes to all. My first encounter was in the early ’80s after returning to live in London, where I was born. Having been away for several decades, I felt ill at ease among the fluent British journalists of the broadsheet press and the BBC. On the eve of my debut on a BBC television program, I was taken to a reception at Downing Street and introduced to prime minister Thatcher as a nervous newcomer to Robin Day’s Question Time, a top political debating show. She grasped my arm tightly and looked into my eyes. “Be yourself, Barbara. Always be yourself.” Later, when I got to know her better, I knew this was not an uncommon response to people, a stock response, really, but accompanied by such intensity that it seemed personal to you.

Occasionally, she would send me a hand-written letter after a column. “I have just re-read it for about the fifth time,” she once wrote, and though I knew that was utter nonsense, I couldn’t help but be thrilled. Another, after she left office, quoted Kipling in reference to the euphemisms of New Labour such as “stakeholders” that were supposed to show they had abandoned socialism: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,” she reminded me.

And perhaps her words were a little personal. In spite of her success, Thatcher was herself a pile of nerves before any public speaking. She had to “steel” herself to making tough political decisions by remembering it was “right” and must be faced. It was this aspect of her being that was such a mystery to Frum. Unlike many male leaders, Thatcher got no testosterone high sending troops off to wars, as in the Falklands. She wept bitterly over deaths of the soldiers. Her decisions were always based on practicalities and moral certitude. This could, and did, lead to a certain amount of hectoring of her colleagues with lesser backbone, which ultimately drove them to depose her.

In her personal dealings, Thatcher was colour- and gender-blind. She was one of the very few Conservatives to support the 1967 bill to decriminalize homosexuality. She was utterly non-judgmental about people’s sexual and moral foibles, to the point of comforting a minor member of Parliament convicted of shoplifting. As a philo-Semite, I don’t think she ever noticed how many of her friends and cabinet members were Jewish. She could never really shake her bourgeois middle-class manners and, being ever so punctual, once sat outside our home in her car for 10 minutes, having arrived at 7:50 p.m. for an 8:00 p.m. invitation. She was a handsome woman all her life, enjoying her attractiveness with a damn good figure under those pussy-bowed blouses, although it was part of that femininity I think that led her to go a bit overboard on Mikhail Gorbachev—the only politician about whom she herself seemed a bit soft. Her sense of humour was not limitless, and one of my more mirthful evenings was spent with Sir Ronald Millar, the playwright and Thatcher speechwriter (author of the line, “The lady’s not for turning”) who had earlier been trying to coach Margaret into telling a joke in a speech. He failed utterly.

Her policy errors, like the hated community charge (poll tax), were ill thought-out but not wrong in principle. The idea was to make everyone pay up for local government services, including renters, and not just property owners. There were lower rates for students and low-income people, but the collection was a nightmare, often unfair and the rules impossible to enforce on a mobile population. Riots ensued and the left turned it into a militant crusade that severely damaged Thatcher.

Her marriage to Denis was legendary: he was “DT” and she was “Thatcher.” He supported her and they played off one another. “What about your husband’s drinking problem?” one reporter asked her when she was running for election in her Finchley constituency. “You take that one, DT,” she said. “It’s not a problem,” Denis replied. “I like it.” I often wondered how they managed after her resignation, having been apart for so much of her life and now thrust into a normal cohabiting situation.

She got little enough comfort from her children, though she stuck by them through thick and thin. When Carol Thatcher worked for the Daily Telegraph, she declined an assignment and then wrote the same idea for an outside publication. Editor Max Hastings told her to look for another job. Almost immediately, my husband had the prime minister of Great Britain with a 102-seat majority thundering down the telephone. As for Mark Thatcher, he toured about, raising money for the Margaret Thatcher Foundation in a way that seemed designed to discredit his mother. At Sunnylands—the legendary Palm Springs home of billionaire Walter Annenberg, who had been an ambassador to the U.K., and his wife, Lee, chief of protocol to the Reagan White House—Mark arrived for a fundraising dinner; he told the wealthy and supportive assembly that, “It’s time to pay up for mumsy”—after insulting Walter’s wine glasses, and wine, for good measure.

Terror and assassination were not Hollywood terms for Thatcher. In 1979, her campaign manager and dear friend, Airey Neave, was killed by a Provisional IRA bomb. In 1984, an IRA bomb explosion at Brighton’s Grand Hotel, filled with Tory delegates to the annual conference, killed five people and paralyzed the wife of her closest ally, Norman Tebbit; only sheer luck spared her and Denis. When, after Downing Street, she moved into Chester Square, directly opposite the house we were renting, she had a single Scotland Yard man inside the house and, very occasionally, when she was entertaining, there might be a car with policemen outside—but that was it. Any former American president who had faced what she had known would have been surrounded by a ring of steel.

Ultimately, Thatcher was the walking personification of true grit. God knows where it came from: I don’t think there is any way to analyze why some people have a sense of destiny and the willpower to overcome every barrier both outside and inside themselves. No politician in the Western world has been more cruelly caricatured and treated by press and her opponents, but she never gave in. Her statue is already inside the Houses of Parliament and now, no doubt, she will join the granite luminaries like Churchill and Disraeli outside in Parliament Square. As we stand slack-jawed and flabby in the face of the new terrorism of the 21st century, afraid even to name the terrorists menacing us, let alone fight them, we could do with leaders of her grit. She lived to 87 and that is a full life, but the great always die too soon.

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