Margaret Thatcher: the makings of a politician (1925-1959)

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Margaret Thatcher, the Grocer’s Daughter, the Iron Lady, has passed from this world to the next. The political colossus of the 1980s has been elevated from earthly presence into the illustrious canons of historical memory. Winston Churchill once remarked that “some politicians make the weather” – yet even Churchill’s rhetoric somewhat fails to capture the immensity of Margaret Thatcher’s impact on British domestic politics and on the world stage. Mrs Thatcher was a tornado which rampaged and galloped across Britain’s political scene, shaking the fabric of this country from head to toe. Unique among other Prime Ministers, she remains the only British premier to be honoured with a doctrine: Thatcherism. The repercussions of her policies and the debates surrounding the consequences of her political philosophies and actions will echo and transcend down the epochs of time. Mrs Thatcher is without doubt one of the most fascinating political figures and has left a defining imprint on Britain’s political heritage. Proof of this can be evinced by the plethora of books, biographies, journalistic interest, films and innumerable documentaries made about her. Many individuals belonging to the younger generation may have been surprised by the overwhelming outpouring of discourse during the aftermath of her demise. For the reasons outlined above, I believe a biographical insight is required to illuminate the journey of her life and catalogue her political achievements in the context of the time.

Miss Margaret Roberts was born and bred in a grocer’s shop in Grantham, a quiet and unassuming provincial town. These were the roots that she initially sought to definitively discard upon coming of age at Oxford. Only much later, when the demands of political expediency came calling in 1975 (when she became the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition), did she decided to shine light upon her lower-middle class roots. She realised the potential of utilising her unprivileged background in order to maximise her appeal to the British public and improve her chances of election in 1979. She admitted “I had precious little privilege in my early years.” Yet, it was the very absence of a polished silver spoon in her mouth that defined her identity and became formative to the forging of her values. Hard work, grit and determination were the order of the day in the Roberts household. Alfred Roberts, her puritanical father, was fiercely religious and his Methodist principles governed and regulated every aspect of his life. Margaret was compelled to attend church four times every Sunday and precious little time was allocated to the pursuit of fun. Alfred’s decision to inflict his punctilious tendencies upon his family ensured Margaret had limited access to typical adolescent avenues of enjoyment. When she asked if she could go out with friends, the stern Alfred would reply, “Never do things because other people do them; [instead] persuade people to follow your way.” This motto evidently struck a chord in the young Margaret and she zealously elevated this remark to become a guiding principle concerning her interaction with politics.

Thatcher-loc
Margaret Thatcher in 1975

Although Margaret lacked the trappings of wealth and privilege in her youth, one thing she did not lack was confidence in her own abilities. She did not recognise the matter of her sex to be a disadvantage, as most women regrettably did at the time. Like many women politicians of her generation (such as Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams), it was her father that imbued confidence in her own capacity to achieve that thrust her forward to new opportunities and new realms of experience. Indeed, evidence of this boisterous ‘go-getting’ attitude stretches back to her girlhood. Upon winning a poetry recital competition, the prize giver commented that she was ‘lucky’ to have won. Characteristically, the unimpressed and outspoken Margaret retorted, “I wasn’t lucky, I deserved it!” Yet, her ambitions quickly rose beyond winning prizes in amateur children’s events in Grantham. The dreaming spires of Oxford were really Margaret’s ambition; the prospect of abandoning intellectual endeavour, politics and the rigorous sphere of professional work for the curtailed and mundane existence of a housewife simply was not on her agenda.

At school, she displayed her lifelong trait as a commendably conscientious girl who applied herself diligently and consistently to her studies. Not for Margaret the whirlwinds of romance or the quintessentially adolescent rebellion against authority. Indeed, contrary to rebelling against authority, Margaret assiduously joined authority’s ranks. She became a school prefect; an occupation which fitted her like a furry glove. It fitted her rather hectoring, schoolmistress personality. According to contemporaries, no schoolchild ever even contemplated questioning her authority. In contrast to the other prefects, her commands were obeyed and discipline was enforced unwaveringly. Like many school pupils, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who go on to esteemed higher education institutions, Margaret was fortunate to have an excellent Chemistry teacher who enlivened the subject for her and gave her the yearning to pursue her interest in science. Nevertheless, one must not over-emphasis Margaret’s childhood too much as a precursor to her future life. Heavenly rays of destiny did not guide the blessed Margaret to the glory of her ideal occupation: the office of Prime Minister. However, Margaret admits in her memoir, ‘The Path to Power’, that the circumstances of living ‘above the shop’ where one had to be constantly on duty placed her in good stead for living in the small flat above Number 10 Downing Street where work always prevailed over privacy or rest. Nevertheless, compared to most of her school fellows, Margaret was able to set her sights rather higher than average. The ivory-towers called Margaret to attendance, and Margaret heeded their appealing call. The flamboyant genius, Oscar Wilde, famously remarked “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” This eccentric view of life captures the essence of the young Margaret’s vision and determination. Margaret aimed for the stars, but unlike most, she achieved her dream.

Margaret Thatcher in 1981
Margaret Thatcher in 1981

Prior to the outbreak of World War Two, Oxford was not too dissimilar from the decadent world of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’. One can almost imagine the “city of aquatint” where “the bells rang out high and clear [exhaling] the soft airs of centuries of youth”. Nevertheless, Oxford had been fundamentally altered by the travesty of the Second World War by the time Margaret arrived in 1943. The war had sucked the cream of English male youth into the Armed Forces. Margaret herself asserted that Oxford was a skeletal shadow of its former self. The University was only rejuvenated to its former self in 1945 at the end of the conflict when Miss Roberts was half way through her degree. However, even after the war, Oxford had not been for Margaret, as it had for so many countless individuals within the blossoming flower of English youth, a deliciously formative epoch, where eternal friendships were forged, where memorable experiences were carried out, where the early flames of romance were kindled. It was not a period which Margaret nostalgically looked back upon with romanticised ideals and rose-tinted spectacles. One simply cannot imagine the conscientious Margaret wasting away her hours feasting decadently on champagne in the spirit of Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte.

In contrast to many of her contemporaries who arrived in Oxford relatively free from pre-determined politics and philosophies, Margaret was already a fully fledged Conservative. There was little possibility of her flirting with popular socialism, revolutionary Marxism or the more sedate liberalism. Margaret threw herself into the Conservative Association and was fondly remembered for her remarkable competency and organisational skill. She eventually rose to become its President. On top of political involvement, Margaret continued to retain a delicate link to her roots. Methodism remained a presence in her weekly schedule, even if it was a less demanding facet of life compared to the arduously strict Grantham days. However, one must remember that Margaret experienced an enormous culture shock and it comprehensibly took her a while to settle in. Her initial loneliness can be exemplified by her many solitary walks in Oxford’s surrounding countryside. Regrettably, this is not a shining example of a student utilising the opportunities that Oxford could then offer. It was only in her later University years that Miss Roberts come out of her shell to enjoy the fruits of youthful exuberance that University life can offer. Unfortunately, however, John Campbell (one of Margaret’s biographers) states that Miss Roberts made no lifelong friends and she was not altogether ecstatic with her first occupation in the ‘real’ world. Shortly before graduating from Oxford, Margaret attended a village dance in the depths of the Lincolnshire countryside. When drinking cocoa afterwards, one attending lady conveyed an accurate prediction: “what you really want to do is become an MP, isn’t it?” In her memoirs, Margaret claims this revelation descended favourably upon her like a lightning bolt from heaven, giving her inspirational direction for her life. However, such an assertion is categorically unfounded. Margaret’s biographers are unanimous in agreeing that she must have pondered the prospect of becoming an MP in at least one of the labyrinthine corners of her mind. Nonetheless, the assumption made by other people that she would undoubtedly reach Parliament must have given a considerable boost to this young lady, who sought political ambition.

Essex became her residence subsequent to Oxford. She was employed in a chemical factory pioneering advanced techniques of improving the preservation of ice cream. Yet, one can easily conjure up an image of Margaret struggling to fit in with her new surroundings. The biographer John Campbell, remarks how the other workers were bemused by her cut-glass Queen’s English accent and her extraordinary affinity for exhibiting her elegant hats on the daily bus to work. Margaret was quite evidently not ‘one of the lasses’. This dissatisfaction spurred her on to cast aside the unhappy status quo. Margaret was determined to achieve great things in her life, to stride into a domain where no one in her family had rode before. Margaret soon bumped into a thorough-bred Tory, socially conservative man, who would immensely assist and facilitate her on the road she was determined to travel. His name was Denis Thatcher. It was through this most fortunate connection made in the late hours of a Conservative reception that the first chapter of Margaret’s life came to a shuddering close. Miss Margaret Roberts became Mrs Thatcher in December 1951. A new dawn broke and Margaret was determined to fully utilise the safe haven and security of marriage to promote her political ambitions. Denis provided her definitive route out of provincial obscurity towards the glittering towers of the Palace of Westminster.

Nevertheless, prior to marriage, she fought in the 1950 general election at Dartford – a traditional working-class Labour seat. Needless to say, a Conservative victory was unlikely in the constituency. Yet, assiduous campaigning gave her a solid grounding in the arts of political canvassing and persuasion. Margaret gained national recognition as one of the few, young, female, promising candidates in politics. Despite falling short of victory, Margaret impressively reduced the Labour majority by 6000 votes. It certainly was not an inconsiderable achievement when one thinks of the overt sexist prejudice that existed against women venturing into the realm of politics at the time. Having lost Dartford for a second time in the 1951 election, Mrs Thatcher, with her quintessential determination, decided to produce a family. In 1953, she gave birth to twins – an unexpected surprise! She called the blessing a “ready-made family”. Later that year, she passed her Bar exams and became a qualified lawyer, specialising in taxation. However, no matter how Margaret tried, she simply could not suppress the flame of her political aspiration. Perhaps Thatcher was roused by the inspiring words of Churchill who once declared that “success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” A few years later, a vacancy serendipitously arose at the Finchley Conservative Association and Margaret fought and thrashed her competitors for the Tory candidacy. Subsequent to becoming the constituency’s ‘blue-badge’ representative in the House of Commons, Margaret immersed herself in the constituency to get to grips with the issues affecting her ‘patch’. By the time of the 1959 general election, the Conservatives had recovered from the disastrous Suez fiasco under Anthony Eden, and Harold Macmillan had assumed the reigns of the premiership. With all the assurance and oozing confidence of a plummy, gentlemanly Edwardian aristocrat, Macmillan won the election on the ticket that “Britons had never had it so good”. He seemed to capture the optimism of Britain. The country seemed to be finally back on its feet after the prolonged and profound gloomy austerity of the post-war years. Margaret Thatcher was swept to victory and maintained her seat with a substantial majority until she voluntarily stepped down in 1992. So ends the long and arduous journey of the young Margaret to the illustrious steps of Parliament. It was eventful, hard and involved many set-backs. Yet, she overcame the mountainous barriers of her background in the hideously class-ridden, hierarchical society of 1950s Britain. She galloped down the river of opportunity, and consistent hard work enabled her to succeed in realising her dream. The next chapter of her life’s story begins in Parliament – an institution that would do so much to shape her life, forge her legacy and assure her place in history.

Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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