Interview for Tricia Murray
|Venue:||No.10 Downing Street|
|Editorial comments:||1630. MT’s next appointment was at 1815. The interview text on file takes the form of written answers to questions submitted in advance. No transcript of the interview itself has been traced.|
|Themes:||General Elections, Women, Autobiographical comments, Women, Executive, Autobiographical comments, Autobiography (marriage and children), Autobiographical comments, Leadership, Autobiographical comments, Parliament, Pay, Trade unions, Women, Conservatism, Labour Party and Socialism, Public spending and borrowing, Health policy, Social security and welfare, Conservatism, Conservatism, Industry, Trade unions, Northern Ireland, Terrorism, Foreign policy (Africa), Commonwealth (Rhodesia-Zimbabwe), Conservative Party (organisation), Northern Ireland, Terrorism|
Was there ever a moment during the election campaign when you felt you might not win or did your reputed inner strength keep you going? I am thinking particularly of the last weekend of the campaign when for the first time labour led by just under 1 per cent.
No. We set out positive policies. We made very few specific promises and we told people the truth. Wherever I went I found a tremendous response to what we were saying. I have always believed that the only poll that really matters is Election Day itself. I used to tell our supporters never to be too euphoric about favourable polls or too depressed if they were against us. So, the answer to your question is ‘No’, and the election result proved we were right not to be deflected from our campaign strategy.
Were there any highlights of the campaign which you particularly remember?
It's all go in an election campaign—from early morning until late at night. The result is that the whole period becomes a sort of kaleidoscope. Different things come to mind from time to time. Just a few which occur, and don't forget that photographers and journalists are always wanting something new and something different, were the visit to the farm in East Anglia and the brush factory near Bristol where they gave me a giant broom to make a clean sweep, and the rush to get ready the big speeches for the mass meetings. I don't like repeating speeches so we had to get a new one ready each time.
Then there was the high technology factory at Milton Keynes when their special monitoring system pronounced me "fit as a fiddle". But perhaps the most memorable occasion was that great rally of Conservative trade unionists at Wembley. You will remember, because you were there. It was an inspiring sight and one I shall never forget.[fo 1]
What was your very first thought on 4th May when in the early hours of the morning you knew you were the first female Prime Minister in the western world?
You don't stop to analyse your emotions at times like that. After all, with my colleagues I had been working for a General Election victory for four years. We achieved that on 3rd May, and the next day was the start of a new chapter.
As I said on the steps at No. 10 on that Friday afternoon, there was work to be done. We went straight in and started that work. It scarcely crossed my mind that I was the first female Prime Minister in the West. I have always thought of myself as a politician who happens to be a woman.
How quickly did you adapt to life at Downing Street?
Four years as Leader of the Opposition is excellent training for life in Downing Street. There are times when it might not have seemed so, but on balance I tried to make the best use of those years and I was able to broaden my experience, especially in the foreign affairs field. That I think has stood me in good stead at No. 10.
The chief difference is that Opposition can only question and exhort, Government can talk and act. I like to get on with things, so the transition was not difficult after the frustrating years of Opposition.
What aspect(s) of Prime Ministerial life (if any) have you found the most difficult to get used to?
Anyone in public life finds that there is very little privacy. It means that it is impossible to get away from it all even for a short time.[fo 2]
Could you give me some idea of life at Downing Street and chequers for it is a facet of a Prime Minister's life that few people have any knowledge of?
In a way I suppose I have come full circle. As a girl we lived ‘over the shop’ in Grantham and that's the case again at No. 10 now. I think there are considerable advantages in having the office and home together, but it is important to keep them in separate compartments. Whilst I take work into the flat, which is at the top of the building, I always have meetings in the working rooms.
In addition there are the State Rooms for official entertaining and meetings. Chequers offers the chance of a change of scenery and a breath of fresh air. For all that, it remains a fully operational office and is manned at all times.
Do you feel that the civil servants have had to make any adjustments simply because you are the first female tenant?
It is not so much a different sex as a different style that has caused some adjustment.
Did you have a great urge to make changes as far as the decor was concerned? Did you put a lot of your own furniture into No. 10 and do you look upon it as a real home?
The answer to both your questions is ‘No’. All we did was to bring in a few personal items, which really make a home. We moved the furniture around a bit—but I was determined not to spend any "public" money on the living quarters at No. 10.
Mark said, "as a family, we will have to make more sacrifices, to forego more family life if my mother becomes Prime Minister but I will happily pay the price". Do you find that you do have to make more sacrifices regarding your family life and private life generally? Can you still have a private life despite the enormous pressures of public life?
Yes—I have very little private life—but that little is very precious. At Christmas—the family was all together—it was wonderful.[fo 3]
[ Carol Thatcher] Carol is now working as a political journalist in Australia and [ Mark Thatcher] Mark's work takes him to many different parts of the world, but we all make the effort to keep in touch regularly, usually by ‘phone. That is my only luxury.
Is the workload of a Prime Minister far greater than that of leader of the opposition? Since you were working extraordinary hours as leader of the opposition, do you find it difficult to cope or is the key ‘organisation’?
No, I don't find any difficulty in coping with the physical strain—but then I have always been used to working hard. Indeed I don't know what I would do without work! A methodical mind does help—I suppose that is where legal and scientific training come in—as well as running a home.
In the observer it said, "Mrs. Thatcher's aides despair of her habit of working round the clock". Do you expect them to work the same sort of hours as you? (I understand that Sir Geoffrey Howe also keeps the midnight oil burning.)
Only when something has to be ready for the next day.
Another quote from the observer: "Memos from the Prime Minister's office descend at all hours of the day on other departments, rebuking them in the plainest terms for some failure to get papers in on time. One recent Prime Ministerial pronunciamento is said to have contained the immortal line ‘In future there will be no excuse’. There is no doubt that she inspires a healthy apprehension among her ministers." Further quote from the observer: "Compared to her predecessors, all of whom built up strong personal staffs, she is very isolated. There are those who believe that it is only a question of time before the civil service mandarins take over. But whitehall has so far made only limited headway against the entrenched convictions of the Prime Minister."
In my job—you mustn't become the prisoner of anyone. But you must be approachable by everyone. There is of course no point in being here unless you have strong beliefs and are determined to put them into action. That's what I was elected to do.[fo 4]
Henry James is quoted as saying "It is impossible to get Mrs. Thatcher to relax. If she has an afternoon off, she will say: "But what am I going to do with it"?" Mark said that you passionately believe in what you are doing, that it's a very hard course but to you it's a way of life. He also said that you enjoy it and the fact that it is a job is secondary—you would do it for nothing. Bearing this in mind, is your work your relaxation?
Relaxation isn't quite the right word. It is the way I live. And I like to pack each minute with "sixty seconds worth of distance run".
Regarding Prime Minister's question time, do you find that your approach as Prime Minister is entirely different to the approach you adopted as leader of the Opposition?
Yes—it has to be. Finding the right answer is quite different from finding the right question. And then, you never know what the Questions are going to be. So you have to do a lot of work before hand to try to see that you aren't taken by surprise.
Have you noticed any significant change in Mr. Callaghan in his new role as leader of the Opposition? Do you feel that his confidence has diminished?
I don't think I am the best person to make a judgment. What I do know is that having taken part in Question Time from both Despatch Boxes I know which I prefer every time—that's the Government side!
You described the election result as a victory for conviction and commitment. You have described yourself as a conviction politician. What are your main convictions?
Goodness, there's enough in that question on which to write a book. Perhaps the best summary is to be found in the sayings attributed to Abraham Lincoln: [Quotation missing].[fo 5]
In your conference speech you said: "We want the greatest possible co-operation with both sides of industry but that national policy is the sole responsibility of Government and Parliament". How difficult will it be to get the co-operation of the unions bearing in mind that in the years of labour Government, they have become accustomed to playing an ever increasing role in the formulation of Government policy?
Our standard of living depends on what we earn. Anyone who tries to increase his pay, not by earning more, but by industrial muscle, does so at the expense of his fellow citizens. It is they and not Governments who pay the price. It is this truth that we have to drive home. Unions have a very big role to play in industrial relations. Only they, management and the employer can work things out in industry. Parliament on the other hand represents all the people, of which unions are a part.
The hierarchy of the unions is almost entirely male dominated. Bearing this in mind, is it more difficult for you as a woman Prime Minister to communicate with them, or to put it another way, do you think it creates a conscious or even unconscious barrier for them? Are they perhaps inhibited in their discussions since they have never really had to negotiate with a woman before?
Negotiations are between employers and employees. Only rarely is Government in the role of employer—i.e. Civil Service, the Armed Forces, etc.—and then there is well-established machinery for negotiations.
From time to time I meet both the CBI and TUC and I find no difficulty in saying what I want to say, or in understanding them. I always enjoy discussing things of mutual interest.
In your conference speech you said that "The task your Government is facing is the most difficult and the most challenging that has faced any administration since the war". Would you elaborate on that?
For years people have got used to turning to Governments for the answer to their problems. Rather too many people have done that. Whether they want a job, a house, a pension, more[fo 6] money—they say that Government must provide it. But Governments don't create wealth—they can only take it from the people who do. Consequently Governments have overspent, overtaxed, over-borrowed and over-interfered. The result was decline because people don't work to improve the lot of Government but to provide a better life for their families. For that purpose they need to keep more of their own earnings and make more of their own decisions. They want more freedom to exercise their own responsibilities. This means a great change in attitude but I believe it is the only way.
If labour had won the election they would obviously have been forced to make spending cuts. Joel Barnett has already admitted to that reality. Could they have chosen different options and which do you think they would have chosen?
They didn't win the Election, so I think it would be idle of me to speculate on what they might have done. What I do know is that on their projected spending plans it would have meant an 8p increase in income tax or VAT up to 22p in the pound. No Government can escape reality for long. Eventually the last one had to call in the IMF and the spending cuts were made.
The media is systematically trying to destroy all your efforts to show that the conservative party is a caring party. Almost daily, they manage to single out a spending cut which results in the closure of a hospital, an old people's home, a home for the disabled or the mentally handicapped. How will you counteract this insidious propaganda?
There is a lot of waste that still needs cutting out. I think precious little of any authority that would rather close down a hospital ward or nursery school than cut down on administrative staff.
The efficiency of a service does not always increase with increasing numbers employed on it. Sometimes too many cooks spoil the broth.
Wanting to care is not enough. You need the means to do it. The countries with the best pensions and welfare systems are those who are more successful in industry and commerce than we are.[fo 7]
You said "We must create a wholly new attitude of mind. We must be prepared to look at things in a completely different way". How will you persuade the British people to charter a new course?
There is no simple magic wand to solve this problem. Example is always better than precept. It as a Government we show that we are determined to live within our means and we pursue that course steadfastly, others will follow because they know it makes sense.
How do you intend to secure the trust of the British people who have become very suspicious of politicians over the years? They feel that they have been let down on a sea of broken promises. How can you restore their faith?
We must go on telling people the facts of economic life. We didn't make a lot of promises at the election, but some of those we did have already been fulfilled like increasing the pay of the police and the armed forces. Performance is better than promise. If we can achieve that, then a lot of the cynicism which has developed will disappear. There are some things that will take quite a long time because they involve a change of attitude. Those are the things we must stick at until success is achieved.
Would it be a good idea to explain to people more frequently the reasons for the actions of Government rather than simply presenting them as a fait accompli? Isn't it in the field of communication that British politics has in the past been found severely lacking?
Yes, I agree. It's not enough to do the right things; you have to explain what you are doing and why. But it is very time-consuming and we haven't yet struck the right balance.[fo 8]
It can be argued that politicians and the media have been prophesying doom and economic disaster for so long that people have become almost reconciled to assuming that there is no escape from our decline both as a world power and an industrial power. You said in your conference speech, "We must rekindle the spirit which years of socialism have all but exhausted". Given that attitude, how can the spirit of adventure, ambition and pride in our nation be rekindled?
I can only give people the opportunity by creating tax incentives and reducing government interference. Once those things are done—I believe that a lot of people will respond, and they will build our industrial and commercial greatness in the future. As for pride in our country—we have never lost that and never will.
How do you react to Mr. Callaghan's statement, echoed by his senior shadow ministers and trade union leaders, that "this tory Government is the most reactionary Government since the war".
Well—there was a lot to react against and the time had come to do it.
Quote from your interview with "Now": "Most of the increased productivity comes from adopting the latest developments in equipment and machinery and technology and working them up to the limit of what the machines themselves will permit. If we don't do that other people will and if they have the latest and get a step ahead of us they will get the business and the jobs and the prosperity and we shan't. If you turn your back on new technology, you turn your back on your own future". So many unions rebel against the use of new technology. How can they be persuaded to use new equipment and create tomorrow's jobs rather than constantly trying to protect yesterday's?.
This is a matter of patient persuasion and of showing that successful nations have done just that. Without change many jobs will be lost forever as other nations get ahead. Innovation and inventiveness have long been British characteristics. It's those men of ideas and talent whom we must encourage. It is to them we must look for tomorrow's jobs. And in their hearts trade unionists know it.[fo 9]
Was it to some extent an emotional decision to go to Northern Ireland after the murder of Lord Mountbatten and all the soldiers? Did you stop to think about the great personal danger?
I just felt I should go and so I went. I'm glad I did.
How did you feel when you arrived in Lusaka amidst all the antagonism from the local press? How did you win all the delegates over?
It wasn't very nice. So many horrid and untrue things were being written. But we overcame them because they were patently false. The Conference lasted for some eight days so there was plenty of time to talk things over.
Airey Neave was a great man, and if you are agreeable I would like to put a special tribute to him in the book. Is there anything you would like to say about him?
[ Airey Neave] He never thought of himself—only of what he could do for others. The things we have and value—freedom, rule of law, fairness, kindliness, he wanted to extend to everyone. He lived by loyalty and patriotism. And he had a rare insight into people—a sixth sense. It was from him I got the phrase "there is work to do". And there is and always will be for those who believe in the same things that he believed in.