Head Girl's Report
‘I'm afraid I'll be remembered for the milk … but I must confess the record is pretty impressive. I think the Prime Minister thinks so too’. Margaret Thatcher, Minister of Education, talks to Sue Sellers
Mrs Thatcher, one senses, is longing for the day when someone comes to interview the Education Minister and not the milk snatcher.
She has even a way of pronouncing the word “milk” which invests it with more gloom than any other in the language.
What would she like to be remembered for? “I'm afraid I'll be remembered for milk,” she groans at once.
“But I'd like to be remembered as the Minister who actually, actually did raise the school-leaving age instead of just talking about it.”
Her speech bubbles with emphatic phrases like that.
You could say, uncharitably, that it makes her sound like an over-enthusiastic head-girl. (Or you could say that at least it's fresh, and infinitely preferable to the circuitous mumblings of many politicians).
Like a good head-girl, Margaret Thatcher is awfully decent. She's straight, consistent Tory right through to her backbone, with the consequence that she really does believe in all she says and does.
She looks you straight in the eye, and tries hard to answer honestly. And if she does sound a bit like a party political broadcast, that's because she is a loyal party member.
Despite the criticism she's had from the Press, she plays fair in interviews. Two people from the Department sit in and take notes of the conversation, but there's no request to vet the copy.
Mrs Thatcher will stand by what she's said, as long as she really has said, as long as she really has said it. No post-interview tidying-up or censoring of the odd tactless remark will take place.
There's no denying she's attractive. She's hatless and gloveless, and wearing a brilliant turquoise suit with a flower spray presented at lunch-time wilting in the lapel.
“I've been to a lunch and the speeches lasted until three-thirty. I was the guest of honour and my speech was the shortest. Can you imagine?” she bubbles.
She has the reputation of being an entertaining speaker, but she's a doer, not a talker.
“I much prefer Government to Opposition because I can make decisions and that suits me better than just talking about things.
“It's most frustrating just to talk. Now, I'm achieving something, and I'm quite prepared to take responsibility for the decisions I make.”
She enjoys power, obviously, but she says, not power for its own sake.
“Power as a Minister doesn't in the end give you power over people. In the end it's the people who have power over you.”
She has twice been defeated by the peoples' power, in the first two elections she fought in 1950 and 1951.
“No, it wasn't very unpleasant. You take whatever comes philosophically. And I've never had to fight a marginal constituency.
“And let's face it I've never had my family's livelihood depending on whether I won or lost, so I haven't had all the worries that you can have when you're fighting an election.”
In the sense of whether or not she'll be re-elected, the people don't have much power over her any more. She has a safe Tory seat, at Finchley, North London, and she will, as she hopes, “go on for a few years yet.
“I am very happy where I am,” she says, “Secretary of State for Education and Science is a very important post. Think of the people who have held it—R. A. Butler, Lord Eccles, Quintin Hogg.
“I realised there was going to be a label tied on me because of the milk, but I've gone on steadily doing the job and I must confess the record really is pretty impressive. I think the Prime Minister thinks so too.”
Oh dear. Now perhaps that's what people don't like [end p1] about Margaret Thatcher.
Put down on paper she sounds so smug. And certainly just at the moment, she is very buoyant.
She has good reason to be, after the glowing tribute paid to her by the Prime Minister in Parliament recently.
And she has signed the papers raising the school-leaving age, she has got an extensive building programme for primary schools and polytechnics, to get which she managed to stave off Treasury cuts.
Against she has the “consultative document” on the financing of student unions, which raised a storm of protest from students, local authorities and universities and, of course, she has the milk issue.
Did she realise school milk was such an emotive issue when she banned it?
“I can't think it is an emotive subject with the people,” she insists.
“I think it will pass, as most of the campaigns I have known against politicians have. I will ride it out.”
What have twelve years in politics done to the grocer's daughter from Grantham?
Has she become tough? “The publicity has been a baptism of fire,” she says. “Perhaps you come out of it stronger.
“But on a personal level I'm not any tougher. I'm sometimes told off for being too soft in individual cases.
“I try to do something for someone, and I'm told I can't because 200 others want the same thing. I say, I don't know about the 200, what about this one I do know?
“If someone had had a raw deal, I go into the case wholeheartedly, but I know several times I've had an answer back which has totally altered the whole story.”
Has she ever been completely taken in by a hard-luck story? This creates difficulty, and she has to think for a long time.
At last the expected answer comes. “No. I can't remember a specific case where I've been taken in.”
One hardly thought she would. It would take some genius to deceive those unwavering blue eyes, that lawyer's reverence for facts (she became a lawyer in 1954, after a career as a scientist), that unassailable sense of right which make Mrs Thatcher head-girl of the Ministry of Education and Science.