‘IF I BECOME CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER …’
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher's fiscal views—and her political philosophy
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, Finchley's MP who personifies beauty and intelligence on the British political scene may well go down in history as our first woman Chancellor of the Exchequer.
As a leading Opposition finance “spokesman” she has left her mark so indelibly on this year's Budget debates that she is confidently placed in the lists for the job—if and when the Conservatives get back to power at Westminster.
Her mastery of the complicated clauses of the Finance Bill in the debates just before the Summer Recess and her tussles, mostly with Mr. John Diamond, Chief Secretary of the Treasury, which she invariably won, have put this important office within her reach.
Few who heard her on these occasions will forget her withering attacks on the hapless Mr. Diamond over the Selective Employment Tax.
“If only you had been a woman,” she used to observe with a touch of asperity, “you would not defend this tax. It simply won't work—and events will prove us right and you wrong.” [end p1]
Not that Mrs. Thatcher is a “blue stocking” (the female intellectual type, I mean, not the kinky knee-length variety)—far from it; MA, BSc, barrister-at-law certainly.
But as her appearances on “Any questions” and her down-to-earth approach to politics confirm, she is no hide-bound academician.
I persuaded Mrs. Thatcher to leave the second day of the Rhodesian debate last Thursday night to spend an hour discussing her attitude to politics—in particular the role of women politicians—with me.
And a highly stimulating diversion it proved to be. If not for her, for me.
An ardent, but I should say a qualified feminist, she told me:
“I think the answer is we have to do everything the men do—and a good deal more besides.
“Everything the men do because the great issues such as defence, Rhodesia and Europe affect us all, the women just as much as the men—the children and the whole family.
“In addition I think we have to put the special viewpoint of people like widows and the single lady who is supporting elderly parents. Generally I think we have a wider understanding of problems affecting the family, and of matters such as health and welfare.
“The position is quite well illustrated by the special interests taken by women in politics now.
“In days gone by they were used almost exclusively on the welfare side. It was common for Prime Ministers to select women politicians to go to the Ministry of Pensions, the Ministry of Health, or the Ministry of Education. Or Ministries with a quasi-social responsibility.
“Now while we are still expected to have a special knowledge of these subjects modern Prime Ministers have also sent women to the Home Office (Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith, Miss Mervyn Pike and Miss Alice Bacon); Commonwealth Relations (Mrs. Judith Hart; and the Foreign Office (Mrs. Eirene White).
Will it work
“Women MPs nowadays speak on defence. Dame Joan Vickers from Devonport on the navy especially. Dame Irene Ward from Tynemouth on shipping and shipbuildings. Both have an almost unrivalled knowledge of their subjects and are experts in the field.
“As to the welfare side we have as I said earlier a much wider understanding of the actual practical problems involved.
“Men are great theorists but they do not always consider how their ideas will in fact work out in practice. Often our approach is—Will it work and How will it help in practical terms?”
I reminded Mrs. Thatcher that the time might come when she might have the opportunity to put some of her theories into practice, if and when, she became Chancellor.
“Yes I ‘shadow’ the Treasury in debates,” she replied, “and if office comes my way one thing I should try to do is to attack the problem of differentials.
“I think the differentials between the skilled and the unskilled, and the qualified and the unqualified, have become too narrow—maximums have become minimums but the maximums are not in fact advancing.
“This is causing a lot of trouble among those who took years to attain their qualifications or among those who work especially hard for long hours.
“This may mean increasing some of the indirect taxes—like Purchase Tax, Customs and Excise Duties—but at least people will have the money in their pockets.
They could then choose whether or not to spend it in a way which attracted more tax.
“A tax system in my opinion should try to help people help themselves. Ultimately this is to the benefit of the community. They call less on the State. This fosters personal responsibility. [end p2]
“I would also like to see some tax relief given for savings. People who contract to save a certain amount each year should get some relief from taxation.
“This wouldn't be revolutionary. We already give tax relief on one form of savings—life insurance premiums.”
“We must reduce taxes on actual income so that people can keep a larger share of their own earnings and savings.
Mrs. Thatcher is also concerned about the burden of taxation on married women who go out to work and declared bluntly: “It bears too heavily on them. They can't get any allowances for the domestic help they must have to enable them to go out and do a job.
And the country needs them.
“A married woman's tax starts at the rate where her husband's earnings leave off.
“She may be taxed so heavily it is not really worthwhile her returning to work.
“This is especially true of women with qualifications who are married to fairly successful husbands.
On widows, Mrs. Thatcher said: “I have tried to do a good deal in the House to sort out the Estate Duty position.
“In an area like Finchley owner-occupied houses command a high price. They therefore represent a high value on which Estate Duty may have to be paid.
“This may well come as a shock to the widow when she has to find ready cash from the little store she may have been left to pay this Duty.
“I myself feel that widows should have a special claim on the property their husbands leave and that the husband should be allowed to make provision for his widow—some of which is allowed against Death Duty she has to pay.”
On the Selective Employment Tax she said it was always interesting to see how, and when, public opinion would react to a measure going through Parliament.
During the summer months the Opposition (and she herself was prominent in it) attacked the tax, and she said:
“We fought for the disabled, the widows, firms who have to employ many part-time workers, and for the elderly.
“At the time we got extraordinarily little publicity and our many thousands of words had very little impact.
“But since the tax came in at the beginning of September the complaints have poured in.
“We were asked to fight for the very cases over which we spent so many long hours debating in the Chamber.
“I think this is a ridiculous tax. It is not achieving the objects for which it was designed.
“It was supposed to see that people were transferred from the services to manufacture.
“So far it has resulted in a tremendous ‘shake-out’ (Mr. Wilson 's phrase) from the manufacturing industries, particularly in the Midlands.
“Those who were working in the motor car industries—our greatest export earner—have now gone into the service industries.
“In the London area we do not yet appreciate the problems of short time and unemployment now facing the Midlands.
“I wish I could be more optimistic about the prospects next year.
“I believe unemployment will rise and that business generally will be much worse than it has been this year.
“One almost always finds that economic measures really grip 18 months after they are imposed.
“It is easier to run a country down than to start it up again.
“Government, like a business, depends tremendously on the calibre and experience of those who are running it.
“I believe one of our problems has been that those in charge of our affairs now have very little practical experience outside politics. They therefore do not recognise the limitations and impossibilities of some of their own policies.
“It is often said now that politics is a job entirely for the professionals. I disagree. It is very easy at Westminster to get out of touch with reality.
“Sometimes I think we debate not the actual problems but those which ceased to exist some time ago—or those which only exist at the propaganda level.
“Change is very rapid today.
“It is vital to have someone in the House on every side who is in touch with the things which are happening now, and who can speak from experience about the subject.
“Not merely from having read all about it.
“I am very much against the House sitting in the morning as well as in the afternoon and evening. I think we would become more and more a ‘talking shop’ and less and less a body which shapes policy for the future.” [end p3]
Read for Bar in Spare Time
Despite her poise Mrs. Thatcher has always been in a hurry.
Within weeks of her election to Parliament in 1959, she made her maiden speech. Not on foreign affairs or in a major debate, but moving the Second Reading of her Private Members' Bill on the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press) Bill, a subject frequently referred to in our columns.
Incidentally, she made history by being the newest of new members to undertake the piloting of private legislation.
It reached the Statute Book in October 1960 and codifies Parliament's view on the issue.
Born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, she was born into politics so to speak. Her father, a local grocer, with over 25 years in local government, takes a prominent part in most voluntary societies and bodies in the district, including Rotary, and the local National Savings Committee. He is also chairman of the Girls' Grammar School.
“I was used to a home where Alfred Robertsfather was doing a great deal of voluntary work during the day or in the evenings,” she told me with a smile.
Educated at Kesteven School and Grantham Grammar School, she went on to Sommerville College, Oxford University, where she took a chemistry degree—MA, BSc.
“I was always rather fascinated with the process of the law and sometimes went to watch the local magistrates' courts, particularly when my father was on the Bench. Eventually I started to read for the law in my spare time and finally qualified as a barrister.
“I took a fairly active interest in politics while I was at Oxford and became President of the University Conservative Association and this gave me the opportunity of meeting the prominent politicians of the day.
“It was eventually suggested to me that I should stand for Parliament, which I first did for Dartford, Kent, in 1950, and again in 1951.”
Mrs. Thatcher didn't tell me, but the records show that her efforts there resulted in the Labour majority being reduced from 20,000 to 12,000, quite an achievement.
Fighting the neighbouring constituency of Bexley was Mr. Edward Heath—now the Conservative Party's leader—who helped her a lot, and who has now picked her as one of his chief lieutenants in the Commons.
After the 1951 election—then Miss Margaret Hilda Roberts—she married Mr. Denis Thatcher, Chairman and managing director of Atlas Preservative Company, of Erith, Kent.
“Paints, not jams,” she said with a smile.
They have 13-year-old twins—a boy, Mark, and a girl, Carol. Mark is at Belmont Preparatory School, Mill Hill, and has just got his Common Entrance to Harrow. He starts there in January. Carol is at a girls' school—Queenswood, Hatfield.
The Thatchers have a flat in London— “just a stone's throw from the House of Commons,” and moved this week during the school holidays, to a new cottage at Lamberhurst, Kent, where they like to relax, work permitting, with the family.
It is conveniently placed to Mr. Thatcher 's factory.
Husband and son are keen sportsmen—particularly interested in cricket. Mark attends the Middlesex County cricket training school in East End Road, Finchley. [end p4]
Quart in a Pint Pot
In common with many members on all sides of the House, Mrs. Thatcher is worried about the present pace of Parliamentary legislation.
She believes that measures are being rushed through with insufficient consideration. An apparent desire to get the debates over and into the division lobbies to vote.
In particular she disliked the manner in which the Bill postponing the London elections was hustled through.
She also thought the Rhodesia debate was dominated to an inordinate extent by Front Bench spokesmen including the Prime Minister himself, and by Privy Councillors. This left far too little time in her opinion for back-benchers some of whom have intimate personal and business knowledge of the problem.
“There is just too much legislation,” she told me.
“Parliament is being asked to do too much too quickly.
“I'm sure the public did not realise the importance of the Selective Employment Tax until it hit their pockets when it was implemented in September. But it was law before we got up for the Summer Recess in August.”
“Sitting two mornings a week won't improve matters. It will just increase the flood—it will not give us additional time to think about what is before us now.”
Possibly because she is so much in the public eye, Mrs. Thatcher has a substantial post at the House of Commons, most of it from constituents.
Much of it concerns housing and town planning.
As far as the allocation of council houses is concerned, this is of course, entirely a matter for the local authority.
“But,” she says, “it is part of my job to know exactly how far Government policy requires to be changed to meet the local position.
“I therefore go round seeing many housing conditions for myself. This often makes me realise how fortunate most of us are to have comfortable and happy homes to live in.
“Building permission has to be obtained from the local authority and I like to go round and see some of the sites so I know what is going on before the complaints—if any—reach me.
“I know examples of good and bad planning in the constituency.”
At Art Exhibition
Picture caption A break from politics for Mrs. Thatcher.
She visits an exhibition by two Finchley artists at the North Finchley Public Library, and is seen here admiring a portrait by Miss Rose K. Hugh-Jones of her sister Miss D. Hugh-Jones.
Pictured with her, Miss D. Hugh-Jones, the other artist exhibiting Miss Helen Reid, and Miss Rose K. Hugh-Jones.
Mrs. Thatcher describes herself as “very fond” of the arts—painting, music and the theatre, and regrets that the pressure of her parliamentary duties does not give her sufficient time to enjoy them to the full.
The exhibition is now on view at the East Finchley Public Library until December 31.