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The Importance of Being Prickly

How Margaret Thatcher ruled

Getty/Hulton Archive

"Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” Have more absurdly misleading words ever been uttered by any politician? Margaret Thatcher was standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street in May 1979, after winning the first of her three general elections. She or (more likely) some aide had found an eirenic prayer by St. Francis to recite. And yet nothing could have less accurately described the spirit in which she governed the country for the next eleven years—or the way she is today remembered.

“The woman who made Britain great again,” wrote the Tory Daily Telegraph on the morrow of her death, and the Daily Mail acclaimed, “the woman who saved Britain.” But for the Daily Mirror, the Labourite tabloid, she was “the woman who divided a nation,” and there were street parties celebrating her death in Brixton, the district of London that had rioted in 1981, while the miners’ union she had so roundly defeated sneered, “Good riddance.” She divides opinion still, just as she had divided the nation once and divided her own Conservative Party, which in the end brought her down.

To understand this most extraordinary of political careers, you must realize how unlikely it was. When a 24-year-old industrial chemist called Margaret Hilda Roberts first stood for Parliament in 1950, the Conservatives were still an overwhelmingly masculine party, with notably patrician leaders. Every Tory leader from 1923 to 1965 had been to an elite public or boarding school—three at Eton, two at Harrow, and one at Rugby—and each of the three Tory premiers between 1940 and 1963 had formerly served as an infantry officer in the Great War. When Mrs. Thatcher (as she now was) did enter the Commons in 1959, the Tories were dominated by men who had served in the second war, and who looked down on this shopkeeper’s daughter.

How she reached the top of the greasy pole, as Benjamin Disraeli called it, might have been described in the words John Bright used at the time of Dizzy’s own ascent, “a great triumph of intellect and courage and patience and unscrupulousness employed in the service of a party full of prejudices and selfishness and wanting in brains.”

She proved an assiduous and effective MP, junior minister, and Cabinet minister, before she alone had the guts to challenge Edward Heath for the leadership of the Tory Party in 1975.

Beginning with the petulant and ineffectual Heath, she was lucky in her enemies. Following its defeat in 1979, the Labour Party almost imploded, and was then led by the ludicrous figure of Michael Foot. By early 1982, Mrs. T’s political fortunes were at a low, with unemployment soaring, many cities still restive, and her party turbulent, when providential rescue came from an unlikely quarter. The murderous Argentine junta of General Leopoldo Galtieri seized the Falkland Islands and gave her the opportunity to lead her country to triumph.

All along, her greatest strength was that, unlike most modern politicians, she wanted to be respected more than loved. In 1983, James Reston looked in on the British general election and compared two leaders. Ronald Reagan was personally popular, but not much respected, at any rate by the Democrats, whereas Thatcher was not loved but was widely respected, even by her opponents.

One might add that any profession of warm amity between those two was illusory, and Margaret’s true opinion of Ron was less than glowing. After she had left office, Sir Nicholas Henderson, the British ambassador in Washington during the Falklands War, said privately, “If I reported to you what Mrs. Thatcher really thought about President Reagan, it would damage Anglo-American relations.”

For all the boilerplate about a “special relationship,” Thatcher considered the Reagan administration clueless and inept in the Middle East. She bitterly resented the U.S. invasion of Grenada with no prior warning to London; she hated the way that Washington, or at least Jeane Kirkpatrick, had equivocated between London and Buenos Aires over the Falklands; and she thought Reagan was being played for a patsy by the Russians when he offered Mikhail Gorbachev nuclear disarmament at the Reykjavik summit in 1986. She might have been wrong there, but still, she whom the Russians themselves had dubbed the Iron Lady had been entirely consistent ever since she told the voters in 1950 that: “We believe in the freedom of the democratic way of life. If we serve that idea faithfully, with tenacity of purpose, we have nothing to fear from Russian communism.” When the Berlin Wall fell, she was entitled to claim outright victory.

Even those who worked with her and admired her found it difficult to like her. She was famously considerate to people like secretaries and cleaners at Downing Street and notoriously brutal toward her Cabinet ministers and her aides. The best of all depictions of her is by Ferdinand Mount in his memoir, Cold Cream. For a time, that cultivated journalist and novelist, later editor of the TLS, worked as an adviser to Thatcher, and Mount has called his years at Downing Street a holiday from irony. He describes the way she would harangue some visiting editor or diplomat for hours, and then, when the unfortunate personage had left, “she would resume the harangue, as though we had never met before, as though I had not heard the same spiel half a dozen times already that day.”

Some felt that the same thick-skinned indifference to others lay behind her economic policies, where her legacy is still acutely controversial. The liberating work of her early years in power—selling municipal houses to those who lived in them, ending exchange controls, privatizing state-owned industries—is an enduring achievement. She broke the strength of the labor unions, above all through her defeat of the 1984–1985 miners’ strike, and the sentimental leftists who decry her for that have little historical imagination. The real reason that miners’ strike failed was simple: At the 1983 election, only two out of five union members had voted Labour.

There are other measures of her success. When she became prime minister, more British people belonged to unions than owned shares; more people now own shares than belong to unions. During the ’70s, an annual average of 12.9 million days were lost to strikes; in 1990, 1.9 million days were lost. Where she is very rightly faulted is on two fronts. Her government presided over the hollowing out of British manufacturing, with 15 percent of the industrial base lost in the ’80s. And her deregulation of the City of London led to the mushroom growth of “casino capitalism” and the financial bubble, which finally burst in 2008.

During the Falklands conflict, she consciously borrowed the mantle of “Winston,” as she called him (to the considerable irritation of the Churchill family). If only she had remembered another of his sayings. In 1925, when he was chancellor of the exchequer, Churchill said, “I would rather see Finance less proud and Industry more content.” All modern British governments have forgotten that, and it’s a measure of her imprint on politics that none of the four prime ministers since her, two Tory and two Labour, has seriously challenged the basis of “Thatcherism.” Indeed, when asked once to name her great success, she answered crisply, “Tony Blair.”

Two memories came back to me when I heard the news of her death. Not long after she left office, she was the guest at one of those policy dinners so off the record they don’t exist, and at one point she held forth about the deplorable European Common Agricultural Policy. When I shyly suggested that she had somewhat misstated a point about farm subsidies, that terrifying basilisk glare swung round on me, more the eyes of Caligula than the mouth of Marilyn Monroe (to echo François Mitterrand’s description of her). “Are you a farmer?” she asked derisively, at which, feeling like one of her put-upon Cabinet colleagues, I shriveled into my wine glass.

And on the evening of Thursday October 11, 1984, at the Conservative conference in Brighton, I was in a suite in the Grand Hotel where a small party was being held. The prime minister was sitting on a sofa nearby engaged in animated conversation, which I did not interrupt. Later on, I went elsewhere, and she went to her own room. Shortly before three in the morning, a bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army wrecked the hotel, killing five people and narrowly missing the prime minister.

She emerged in disarray, but in one piece. Later in the day, she gave a speech as scheduled, but now saying that the very fact they were still gathered there, “shocked but composed and determined, is a sign not only that this attack has failed but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.” No, she wasn’t bringing harmony that day, but she was magnificent all the same.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is the author of The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the Margaret Thatcher quote in the opening paragraph wrongly began with "Here," rather than "Where."