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Margaret Thatcher

Prime Minister 1979 - 1990

The Greek philosopher Plutarch would not have been what Margaret Thatcher called "one of us". Plutarch is supposed to have said of politics: "They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage, or a military campaign, something to be done with a particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore to be got over with. It is a way of life." (Attributed to Plutarch in The Great Quotations by George Seldes P 570)

Margaret Thatcher would have disagreed. During her premiership in the 1980s, she did indeed see politics as an ocean voyage or a military campaign with an end in view. Her biographer Hugo Young says with regard to his combatitive subject: "The politician needs to believe, or perhaps assumes the voters need to believe, that the events in which he is taking part belong to a sequence which is nearing its heroic and predestined conclusion" (One Of Us P518). Margaret Thatcher was working towards a heroic conclusion, and did not see herself as just another prime minister muddling through her watch. In many ways, however, the Thatcher years prove the wisdom of Plutarch's words. This is the story of a military campaigner of a politician who showed that life goes on, with no heroic and predestined conclusion.




The shop in Grantham where Margaret Thatcher was born and spent her early life

Margaret Roberts was born 13th October 1925 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, daughter of Alfred and Beatrice Roberts. Alfred was the dominant force in the family, a pious, cautious businessman who carefully ran two grocers shops in Grantham. He was also very active in local politics, becoming mayor of Grantham in 1945. Margaret's experience of the family business, and of her father's earnest politics were to be profound influences on her. The other important factor shaping Margaret's personality was the Methodist Church. In comparison with the more easy going Baptist background of her future Labour opponent James Callaghan, Margaret's faith was clear cut. "We are methodist, and methodist means method" she told an early biographer (Margaret Thatcher by Tricia Murray P17).










With much hard work, Margaret managed to gain a place at Somerville College, Oxford in 1943. Here the competent chemistry undergraduate joined the Oxford University Conservative Association. With party politics submerged in the needs of a wartime coalition government, the Conservative Association was more of a social club than anything else. Nevertheless Margaret was already reading The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayeck which argued that any form of socialism and economic planning ended in tyranny. After Oxford she continued focusing on making her career in politics. Whilst working as a research chemist two unsuccessful attempts were made to win the safe Labour seat of Dartford in 1950 and 1951. A switch was then made to working in law in the early 1950s, a more overtly political world than that of chemistry. Marrying successful businessman Denis Thatcher in 1951 also helped, since it gave an independent income, which even in the second half of the twentieth century was useful in furthering a political career. Entry to Parliament as MP for Finchley finally came at the 1959 general election. Her first job was junior minister for pensions in Harold Macmillan's government. Then when the Labour Party took over under Harold Wilson in 1964 Margaret Thatcher did a number of jobs in opposition, before becoming minister for education in Edward Heath's government of 1970 - 74.


Though Mrs Thatcher would later revel in the impression of personal power, this point in her career shows how powerful circumstances are in politics. Government policy strongly opposed the idea of replacing grammar schools with comprehensives, but the fashion of the time was for comprehensives. More comprehensive schools were created under Margaret Thatcher than any other education minister. Often the impression of power comes when a leader's personal convictions happen to coincide with what a particular era in history requires. Most of the 1970s did not represent such a time for Margaret Thatcher. As well as seeing comprehensive schemes forced on her all over the country, it was also necessary to endure the frustration of seeing rational decisions playing out badly in a news story. School children since the war had been receiving daily milk at school, an idea originally designed to combat rickets, a disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency and shortage of calcium. By the 1970s rickets was a rare problem, and Labour governments had already phased out milk for secondary school children. Mrs Thatcher decided to extend this to primary school children, only to create a media backlash, in which she was portrayed as Thatcher the Milk Snatcher. Compromises and frustrations continued when Heath lost the 1974 election and Mrs Thatcher took on the role as shadow environment secretary. In this role it was necessary to support wider government policies which included a commitment to fix mortgage rates at 9.5%. Even though this interference in market forces was not something Mrs Thatcher agreed with, she got on with vigorously promoting fixed mortgage rates in an apparently sincere fashion.

Losing two general elections in 1974 Edward Heath's leadership of the Conservative Party became untenable. His loyal senior supporters were reluctant to run against him, which allowed Margaret Thatcher to come through the confusion and, against all expectations, win 1975's party leadership election. It was at this point that the new Conservative leader really began to position herself as a conviction politician, someone on a mission to cut through the usual daily business of government and achieve a goal. In 1976, the Soviet news agency Tass called her the Iron Lady, following an anti-Soviet speech. A sense of mission is clearly seen in the way the Civil Service was viewed. The Civil Service in the words of Hugo Young: "represents and personifies the seamless integrity of past, present and future governments rolled indistinguishably into one" (One Of Us P153). The new leader of the Conservative Party simply did not see government in this way. She wanted to get somewhere, reach her heroic predestined conclusion. As far as the Civil Service was concerned this meant favouring those who were in sympathy with her radical plans, and freezing out the old Civil Service "mandarins" who like Plutarch saw politics as a way of life.



Bank of England

Once in power following the 1979 general election, Margaret Thatcher got on with putting her vision into practice. The early 1980s were a time which welcomed the image of a conviction politician. But in many ways an impression of steely resolve hid a reality which was more complicated. Immediately the new government faced contradictions, where determined progress in one direction somehow threw up an equal and opposite reaction. The Conservatives claimed, for example, that they wanted to reduce the role of government, to stop futile planning of the economy and give people more individual freedom. But just as past Labour governments had concocted unrealistic economic plans, so now did the Conservatives. Plans were put in place to control the economy through manipulation of money supply. The money supply, refers to all physical currency, and all deposits held by banks, and the money lent on those deposits. As well as controlling the amount of money actually printed, regulation of market forces was required to try and control the balance between depositing and lending. Money supply growth 1980 - 81 was planned at 7 - 10%. The actual growth in money supply for 1980 - 81 was 18%, and the following year the discrepancy was only slightly smaller. Ian Gilmore called monetarism "the uncontrollable in pursuit of the indefinable" (see One of Us P203). Efforts were made to change the way "money supply" was defined, but this only went further to strengthen Gilmore's claim that the government was struggling with something indefinable. Conservative planning went the same way as Labour's. After two years of monetarism, total economic output had seen the biggest single year fall since 1931, and the biggest collapse in industrial production since 1921. Later these facts were presented as the necessary pain needed to put Britain back on the right track. It is true that the economy was to recover spectacularly in the later 1980s, during Margaret Thatcher's second term. It is also true that targets for money supply were quietly abandoned during the second term. In her autobiography The Downing Street Years Margaret Thatcher calls the 1981 budget the "Second Battle of Britain," (see P155) but it is difficult to justify such heroism. Whether controlling money supply might help or not, it turned out to be impossible to control it in the first place.


The economic pain of the early 1980s was such that in normal circumstances the Thatcher government would probably have fallen. But in 1982 extraordinary circumstances arose. On 2nd April of that year Argentina unexpectedly invaded the British held Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Margaret Thatcher came into her own as a war leader. A task force was dispatched for the south Atlantic, with landings on the Falklands beginning on 21st May. Inspite of the loss of a number of Royal Navy ships, and two troop transport vessels, the Argentinean commander in the capital Port Stanley surrendered on 14th June. The effect of this victory was profound, and meant that 1983's general election was a landslide for the Conservative Party.


Big Pit Mining Museum, Wales

Margaret Thatcher now moved even further away from the usual unifying model for a peace time politician. She wanted definite conclusions, and in her clear cut philosophy there was no time for cobbling together a consensus and muddling through. In 1981 she said: "Whoever won a battle under the banner 'I stand for consensus? " (quoted in One of Us P224). This position became clearer following the Falklands War. After winning 1983's general election, the second term was defined by conflict with the miners. There had been preparation for this since 1981 with massive stockpiling of coal, a switch to oil at some power stations, and preparation of police tactics. On 6th March 1984 the miners' strike began, and after a long struggle the miners were defeated. Union power was broken.

This victory did not lead to some promised land of freedom and economic plenty. Instead life went on, reflecting Plutarch's wisdom that there is no end of the road. In October 1984 an IRA bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, where the Conservative leadership was staying whilst attending a party conference. Five people were killed, and two senior ministers, Norman Tebbit and John Wakeham, were seriously injured. Wakeham's wife died of her injuries. Then there were various scandals and controversies. The Westland Affair in 1985 - 86, saw president of the Board of Trade Michael Heseltine fighting to support a European bid to take over the ailing Westland helicopter company. He was opposed by the prime minister and trade and industry secretary Leon Brittan who favoured an American bid. The row ended with Heseltine's resignation. Then in April 1986, in response to terrorist attacks and hijackings linked to Libya, the decision was taken to allow British based American bombers mount a raid on the Libyan capital Tripoli. This was a controversial event which resulted in civilian casualties. Meanwhile the Spycatcher scandal 1985 - 88 grumbled along. This involved the British government attempting to block publication of a book by an ex MI5 employee. It is one of the many contradictions of Margaret Thatcher's administration that a guiding philosophy of less government and more personal freedom was directed by a fiercely controlling prime minister and a government keen to use its power. Education became more centralised, and freedom of the press was not a priority, as the Spycatcher episode demonstrated. During the Thatcher years it is significant that local government lost independence, money and authority, though in Mrs Thatcher's autobiography the implementation of the community charge or poll tax was a measure to control the spending of local authorities. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular debate, the effort to grant freedoms resulted in controls. Freedom is a nebulous concept, with freedom in one sense demanding restriction in another. This is the recurring problem with trying to set a definite course in politics guided by firm principles. Instead of a clear charge into the future, one action tends to throw up its opposite, and it's as if the journey goes in circles. Margaret Thatcher, naturally, did not want to go in circles.




The Margaret Thatcher Spitting Image puppet at Grantham Museum

Through all of this, inspite of the insistence on clear goals and no u turns, the Thatcher government was illuustrating the enduring truth of Plutarch's way of life philosophy. By 1987 economic planning of money supply had been abandoned, and public spending had been increased. In the autumn of 1986 £5000 million was released for additional public spending, with chancellor Nigel Lawson rather bizarrely claiming that this wasn't a u- turn, just the result of good economic management. In reality life was simply going on, beyond any great goal. As Hugo Young says: "Tory politicians now looked like any other politicians, dodging and weaving through the economic thickets rather than handing down prophetic truths from the mountain top" (One of Us P503). Something very similar has been said of the first Labour prime minister James Ramsay Macdonald. Keith Robbins has written of the realisation dawning on Labour politicians in the 1920s that inspite of their seemingly great breakthrough in getting a Labour prime minister, life was going on in the same old way: "A Labour prime minister seemed to be like any other prime minister. It was also beginning to look as though a Labour government was like any other government" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P279). From 1986 Margaret Thatcher became a star of the satirical puppet show Spitting Image in which everyone, in their various different ways, was the same buffoon.

Hugo Young, whose biography of Margaret Thatcher was published during her third term, wrote that her win of a third term in 1987 marked a great change in British politics. In some ways of course things had changed. There was less union power, less state involvement in industry, while more people were owning their own home and buying shares. But essentially Margaret Thatcher's term did not change politics in Britain. Her lack of feeling for unity and consensus is highly unusual in a peace time politician, and she was replaced in 1990 by that archetypal consensus politician John Major. There was no great and heroic completion of the crusade, simply a return to something like business as usual under Major, then Tony Blair and Gordon Brown at the head of a newly moderate Labour Party. William Knox said in 1789: "When an opposition gets into office and the king trusts him with the exercise of his power, the farce is at an end, and after a few awkward apologies, and a few ineffectual votes with old connections by way of consistency, the business of government is expected to be taken up and carried on in the usual way." (Quoted by Paul Langford in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P 134)

The voyage goes on in the usual way. Some people are not temperamentally disposed to accept such a situation, and as Hugo Young says in some ways we need the sense of a journey with a goal. But in the end the age old story told by Margaret Thatcher's government seems to bear out the continuing wisdom of Plutarch, and confirms that politics is a way of life.