Focus on The Famous
Mrs. Thatcher stays serene in spite of schools rumpus
Even before she became Secretary of State for Education and Science in the new Tory Government, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, M.P. for Finchley since 1959, was as well known as anyone else we are likely to feature in this series. Overnight she became famous throughout Britain for her prompt withdrawal of Labour's directive on comprehensive schools—an action seen by her supporters as progressive and by her opponents as putting the educational clock back 25 years.
I cannot understand the surprise with which it has been greeted, although the opposition to it is easy enough to follow. After all, the Tories pledged themselves during their election campaign to give local education authorities the chance to decide for themselves whether to introduce comprehensive education. Anyone who imagined Mrs. Thatcher would fail to implement this promise understands neither Mrs. Thatcher nor the nature of British society.
The two are really inseparable. Mrs. Thatcher is both the product and protagonist of a Britain in which competion and free enterprise are the driving forces. The daughter of a man who built his own successful grocery business from scratch, entered local government and became Mayor of Grantham, Margaret Thatcher has come all the way from an elementary school to the Cabinet entirely by her own efforts.
On the way she became a pupil of Kesteven and Grantham Girls' Grammar School, a classic example of the type of successful selective school both Mrs. Thatcher and her party want to preserve.
The Conservative Party, which she embraced as a student on a scholarship at Somerville College, Oxford, might well hold her up as an example of what a bright girl can do under their system. They would be the first to allow that she is exceptionally bright, and it is part of their case that Britain must nurture the brainy to be strong.
The storm Mrs. Thatcher has stirred up on this issue is rumbling in and around her own constituency over the issue of Plan C. She answers her critics by saying that she believes in the right of local people to choose the education system they believe to be best. She points out that she is not against comprehensive schools where the local authority opts for them and has already approved a fully comprehensive system for Leeds.
But even those who criticise Mrs. Thatcher's action on comprehensive schools will be pleased at her insistence that more resources should be devoted to primary and nursery schools. And they will be watching with interest her attempts to get more money out of the Treasury.
They will find once Mrs. Thatcher has set her shoulder to the wheel she is not easily put off, as any of her constituents who have had reason to ask for her help know to their benefit.
Like most M.P.s, Mrs. Thatcher receives a stream of letters, petitions, and visits on a huge variety of problems and she is better qualified than most to handle them.
At 44, she is of an age to understand people both older an! younger than herself. She has had a wide experience of life, has earned her living both as a barrister and an industrial chemist. She has a happy and busy married life with Mr Denis Thatcher, a successful businessman, and her twin son and daughter, Mark and Carol, aged 17, whose right to a large share of her time and interest she has always upheld.
Mrs. Thatcher does not agree the term “meteoric” should be applied to her Parliamentary career, but thinks 11 years is time enough for anybody who is going to rise to the top to do so. Most people would agree it is outstanding for a woman M.P. to become a junior minister inside two years and, in opposition, to assume important responsibilities to her party in the spheres of housing, transport, fuel, and education, culminating in a Cabinet post.
Mrs. Thatcher's own explanation for her success is that she was lucky enough to grow up in a political household. She met interesting people and was able to take advantage of their advice, such as the need to have an alternative career if she was going to take up politics.
She says she and her elder sister, Muriel RobertsMuriel, learned thrift from their Beatrice Robertsmother, who had her own dressmaker's business and instilled into them the idea that a family ought to live well within its means, never up to its means or beyond them. For that reason she still cannot bear waste.
Margaret and Muriel used to do the household shopping on a Saturday morning. Part of the routine was to borrow [end p1] two books from the library—a biography and a political book—and Margaret devoured both.
In 1950 she was the youngest woman candidate put up by any party in the General Election and she reduced the Labour vote then and again in 1951. She stayed out of the 1955 election, despite a number of invitations from constituencies, because her twins were only two years old and she was determined to consider only a London constituency so that she could live near her job at Westminster and run her home and family.
Now Carol is at St. Paul's School for Girls, Hammersmith, and Mark at Harrow, which has been called Britain's most successful comprehensive school. They meet at meal times and in school holidays, like most modern families, with Mrs. Thatcher doing the cooking “Our family works because we are all busy,” she says. “We are always occupied, never bored.”
I asked a Conservative woman what she most wanted to know about Mrs. Thatcher, and she said it was how she manages to look so serene, dress so beautifully, and always look right for any occasion.
It is infuriating to know that she spends no longer on herself than any other working mother, although she may be able to splash out a little more. She goes to sales, like the rest of us, and buys things out of season so that she gets better value for money. The immaculate effect is achieved by her talent, her natural poise and English good looks.
Some reporters have described Mrs. Thatcher as the epitome of the English middle class and maybe she does cultivate the classic look of the Tory woman leader. She did confess to me she would like to wear chunkier shoes. At any rate, she avoids dowdiness.
“You and I mustn't look matronly,” she said. Mrs. Thatcher always manages not to.
Perhaps the key to her success is her supreme self-confidence. She is completely without self-doubt and without uncertainty about the essential rightness of her party. She speaks out of her experience as a woman and as a mother. As a result many who disagree with her political viewpoint can agree with a great deal that she says.
Some of her views are surprising in a woman. She joined a mild Conservative revolt in 1961 in favour of corporal punishment for young offenders who commit crimes of violence. She says she would “punish strongly” those who inflict cruelty on children “for the sake of it” and does not agree that these people are sick.
Mrs. Thatcher laughed at the idea—widely canvassed—that she might one day become Britain's first woman Prime Minister.
“There won't be a woman Prime Minister of Britain in my lifetime, because the inbuilt prejudices are too entrenched,” she declared. “It's the same in every other field. Women are not welcome at the Bar or in the Stock Exchange and there is no national daily newspaper with a woman editor.”
If she never becomes Prime Minister this will not worry Mrs. Thatcher. She is not personally ambitious and is happy when given a job to do and the chance to get on with it.
But if she ever did become Prime Minister, I asked her, what would her aim be? “A Britain in which every family can buy their own house, pay their own way and have their own savings without having to depend on the State.”
Broadly, Mrs. Thatcher sees Britain as a good country. She does not believe we shall be involved in a nuclear war or that we live in a sick world. “I don't agree our society is sick. There is much in it that is good, much that is fine.” This was her last word.