‘Ruthlessly ambitious? When people say this they are wholly wrong’
A Times Profile
Most of the offices in the Palace of Westminster look like vestries in Pugin's Victorian neo-Gothic churches. Margaret Thatcher has persuaded the Department of the Environment to embellish the Leader of the Opposition's room with a couple of cloth-covered settees and an armchair, a pink-shaded brass lamp and a chromium and glass table. There should be some Impressionist prints coming. The plates on the mantel-piece are her own. Only half the bulbs in the chandelier light up, which has her snapping switches in mild exasperation.
How secure does she feel, with her predecessor and experienced former ministers like Peter Walker—an alternative Shadow Cabinet in exile—sitting on the back benches?— “It just doesn't bother me. I never came to this through driving personal ambition. A combined opportunity and duty presented itself, so I took it. I am always amazed when some of the press say I am ruthlessly ambitious. They are wholly wrong. I heard Keith Joseph was not going to run against Edward HeathTed. Someone had to. I said to Keith ‘If you are not, I shall’. There was no hesitation, there was no doubt, there has been no doubt since.
“It might have put me on the back benches for life, or out, I did not know. But the one thing which I seemed to have was the power to make a decision when a decision had to be made. That is how it came out. I ran alone, regardless of the consequences. Curiously enough, you have no hesitation about the big things in life.
“It seemed as if life was going to be very difficult for us the moment we had announced we were going to run. The press come in on you, you have no privacy. And I well remember saying to my family, ‘Now look, that's the way they want it to happen. [end p1]
They want this kind of badgering to make us retreat. They are not going to win. I am not going to be beaten by these tactics. We'll go through with it whatever happens. We'll ride it.’ I'd had very good training at the Department of Education for this. They were not going to wear me down.”
Her family clearly provides a solid ballast of normality in her life. The twins, Carol and Mark, in their early twenties now, sass [sic] their mother affectionately, totally unaffected by her new eminence. She is up at half-past-six every morning to get her husband Denis his breakfast before he leaves for his job as a working executive with Burmah Oil at Swindon. There is a daily help who comes in later in the day.
Mrs Thatcher gets to her hairdresser for a set once a week about half-past-eight, and unless she has outside engagements, is in her office by half-past-nine, staying until the House goes home. She can make do with four or five hours' sleep a night and bones up on her briefs through the small hours. The gift of concentration is something she has always had. “I have to master a problem because I haven't got enough self-confidence in dealing with it until I have mastered it. I remember doing School Certificate in wartime. I went in and looked at the paper with the sort of relief you had when you realized you could do it and you just got down to it. At the end of the paper someone said ‘What a terrible thunder-storm that was in the middle’. I had no idea there had even been a thunderstorm, no idea at all. So the concentration must have come reasonably naturally.
“You keep it up because you've got so much work to do that you can't get it all done in the time unless you concentrate. The time when concentration is easy is when you are working against a deadline. The people here like me to have a speech made up about three days before. I cannot do it. I can go on putting the information in, but the final thing will probably be done when everybody else has gone to bed and I can be quiet and the telephone isn't going. Somewhere between 11 o'clock at night and 4.30 in the morning, the night before. It is during that time that the ideas that have been gradually forming in my mind suddenly begin to crystallize and the words flow.
How does she react to the criticism that she has too little experience of foreign affairs for a party leader and putative Prime Minister? “In politics you can't have experience of every single department. My main experience has been in education, science and social security, the welfare, spending and caring departments. As a matter of fact, certainly in science and in education, those two subjects took one abroad because they are of universal interest, both to developing and developed nations. So I have been around quite a lot, but on the specific point that I had not made a special study of foreign affairs, agreed.
“The real reason was that foreign affairs during my time in government was so magnificently looked after by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who had been either Prime Minister, shadow Foreign Secretary or Foreign Secretary for about ten years, and therefore we left it to him and it was done marvellously. When you are meeting foreign statesmen frequently it is not difficult to get a grip on the problems. Finding a solution is more difficult of course, but that has always been so. A foreign statesman visiting London will almost certainly make contact with the Leader of the Opposition. You learn faster from meeting people about their problems than you ever learn from mulling it up in books. So I do a combination of reading, briefing and constantly meeting people and I am enjoying every moment of it.
What response has she found during her recent trips to Luxembourg and Paris? “Well, they regard one as a phenomenon because one is a woman. Of course, I don't. But we very soon get to grips with the problems, then it doesn't matter whether you are a man or woman. What matters is your grasp of the problems and the need for action. I don't find it difficult to get on at all, particularly when I am dealing with people who have a similar desire to get on with the job.”
She has remarkable clarity of thought and expression. The sentences come out fully turned, logical and consequential. There are few repetitions or pauses. The more she gets into her subject, the straighter she sits up, hands clasped in her lap, with the occasional downward glance in search of the exact phrase. The sheer quickness and organization of her mind is impressive and she can look back to her childhood as Margaret Hilda Roberts, born above a grocer's shop in Grantham, with total recall: My “Muriel Robertssister and I were brought up in the atmosphere that you work hard to get on. Alfred RobertsMy father and Beatrice Robertsmother set that atmosphere. They both worked very, very hard. To start up your own business from nothing implies that while you have been working for someone else you have saved. You have saved when you weren't earning very much and you have saved with an objective in mind. Both my father and mother saved.
“Although you wanted a lot more things in the house, you didn't live beyond your means. They embedded in us very strongly that work and cleanliness were next to godliness. Our house was spotless. There was not a speck of dust anywhere. It was always beautifully polished, the grate black leaded. Although we hadn't got all mod. cons. it was as bright as a new pin. We painted our own walls and we painted regularly, we distempered and scrubbed everything else.
“We were brought up in a very religious background. There was more than just having to work to live, there was work as a duty. Caring for others ran very, very strongly, so there was a tremendous amount of voluntary work. If you knew someone was in difficulties you quietly helped. My mother used to bake twice a week. Always there would be something baked for someone else and we ran round with it—‘Mummy sent this. She has just baked and she thought you might like this.’ She was a very good cook incidentally.”
Young Margaret won a scholarship to the Kesteven and Grantham High School at the age of 10 and was top of her class every year but one. The political bug bit early: “We used to stand in the shop sometimes late on a Saturday evening. It was quite a big shop. It had a grocery section, a bacon and provision section, with all the beautiful mahogany fitments that I now see in antique shops and beautiful canisters of different sorts of tea, coffee and spices. There was a post office section, confectionery section, chocolate and cigarettes. A lot of people came in, and with father on the Council, and knowing we were all interested in what was going on in the world, we would talk quite late.
“By this time politics was in my bloodstream—an interest much as theatre is, or music. It isn't that you consciously say you will be a musician, you are naturally interested in music. My interest came from a family life in which education was very highly valued. When you haven't had a good start, self-education counts for much more than the education which you receive at school. But there was no question of my thinking I had a political future. We could not have afforded it. In those days if you went into politics you had an income or you were sponsored by a union.
She won a bursary to Somerville College, Oxford, where she became President of the University Conservative Association and chose to read chemistry. “I had a marvellous Miss Kaychemistry teacher at school who got the best out of her pupils. So often you go the way where you have a good start. We had been brought up against the background of uncertainty in the rest of the world. If you had a qualification you were more likely to be able to get a stable job than if you hadn't. So my sister became a physiotherapist and I took chemistry.”
After a spell as a research chemist, 1951 was the year everything happened. She stood for Parliament unsuccessfully for the second time at Dartford, married Denis Thatcher, whose family had a paint firm at Erith and changed her profession. “My father had sat on a Justice's Bench at one time, at Quarter Sessions with the then Recorder, a man called Norman Winning. I used to go along as soon as I was old enough and sit and watch in court in our local town hall. I would go and have lunch with them after. I liked the law from my first contact. By that time I was 16 or 17 and I used to have talks with Norman Winning and say that I wished somehow I hadn't taken up chemistry. As a barrister you need to join an Inn, to go to London. We couldn't afford it. Everything we had was ploughed back into the business, or given to the church, or saved up for the house that we wanted.
“Norman Winning said, ‘finish your chemistry degree and go into the law afterwards. The way to do it is to go to the Patents Bar for which you need scientific degrees and law. So complete your science degree, then get a job near London which will give you an income and do law the hard way’. So that gave me something to work for, but this is before I ever went to university. So again, so many of my ideas were influenced by early contacts. I only hope I did as good a job for my children as my father and mother did for me.”
What has this steady, order by progression, this intense application, provided in the way of a political philosophy? It is all of a piece, and rooted in her family background: “Politics really are to enable people to live better. Everyone is born with some combination of talents. You try to have an education system, an economic system that enables him or her to develop those talents. If you don't, you can't use them properly and if you can't use them it is not only the person himself who feels frustrated, it is the whole of society that is the poorer because it can't benefit from those abilities.
“But then a person is a member of a family. The father and mother are primarily responsible for their children and for their family, for teaching them the right things and for setting some kind of example in life. You can't really shift this responsibility on to anyone else, nor should you try, because the main lines are probably laid down long before the child ever goes to school.
“Then you have larger responsibilities, because you are also part of a community. You just can't cut yourself off as a family or isolate yourself from the community. I don't believe that you should leave all the help to be done through the state. I remember my Alfred Robertsfather saying to me, ‘if you think that something needs doing it is not enough to make a speech in the market place, protest about things as they are, but then say the state must do something about it. You ought to be prepared to take some kind of action which involves you in doing something or giving something yourself’. So you have the duty to make the general life of the town or village and country in which you live as good as it can be for yourself and everyone else. This is often easier in a small town than it is in a large city.
“The view we took was, you make your country the very best place you possibly can, and then you are proud of it because it is the very best place. Pride in one's country played a tremendous part in one's early life. It was quite something to have a British passport. You bought British because the goods were well made, the engineering was well done and because they were reliable. So we have to create the kind of political atmosphere which lets the human spirit free to do its level best.
“It is difficult for me to specify the difference between myself and Mr Heath. I think perhaps there is just one thing on the economic side. In retrospect it strikes me that we were doing some things which were not, looking at them together, going always in the same direction. We had a prices and incomes policy but at the same time we were letting the money supply go ahead very fast. The prices and incomes policy in fact was meant to curb inflation. I believe that letting the money supply go ahead very fast tends to increase it. It would have been better if we had had both things going in the same direction. I think we've learned a good deal from that time. Now that I am back dealing with economics again more closely than I was when I was a member of the last government, we have available the results of a lot more research on cause and effect and on time lags than we had at that time, and it is up to us to use it.”
What personal characteristics does she look for in the people around her?— “Some people are obviously trying to sell themselves to you and you recoil from that completely. There are others who are very much better talkers than they are doers and you are very well aware of that. Mostly it is the modest people, the people who are not absolutely sure in their view, because they know full well how many pitfalls there are, who are the ones you are most likely to value. The person who can give you the quick answer on any single thing at any moment of the day or night will probably not be one with a complete appreciation of the complexities of any situation. You are also looking for someone who knows that in politics you can't find a formula, that your ultimate weapon is persuasion. It is always the human factor which is the one that determines what policies you pursue rather than the economic factor. You have got to get your economics right, but they have got to be right in acceptable human terms. You must have someone who understands how people react. Now curiously enough, Winston ChurchillWinston always did and so I think did Harold Macmillan.”
She is a trim and comely woman, quintessentially English in her features and manner. Her face is fine-boned, her eyes grey-blue, frank and alive. She was wearing a pinhead black and white Donegal tweed dress and jacket, the lapels and pockets braided, with black leather buttons and sensible black shoes. She wears all the jewelry she has—every piece her husband's gift—two modest rows of pearls ( “a present when the twins were born” ); a sapphire and diamond engagement ring and a small diamond half-hoop ring; a slim gold watch; a marble-sized amethyst ring on her right hand and a jangle of cairngorms on the wrist; a nice pearl and diamond display brooch on her right lapel, pearl and gold filigree earrings and an aquamarine brooch on the dress under the jacket. Her foulard scarf matched it. How much of a help or hindrance has it been to be a good-looking woman?
“I suppose it must have made some difference. The words that come to mind must sound very strange—it never bothered me. I really was not very much aware. As soon as I came into politics people would say ‘brains and beauty’. I thought, well, how silly. Many, many beautiful women have had brains and many brainy women are beautiful. Madame Curie was a very good-looking woman. I have not had the kind of training or background which could, or knew how to, use it any way. All my training was the logical, reasonable, work hard, prove your case training, and I don't think I was really very conscious of it.
“By the time I've been writing a speech at three o'clock in the morning, my hair is looking dishevelled. I haven't even got a mirror in this room, I must get one. You look in the glass of a bookcase or something, but you make up before you go out in the morning, you put on something reasonably tidy and you hope it remains reasonably tidy. When the recess comes around you have to repair zips, hems, buttons and seams. Sometimes I have to say to my office staff ‘You mustn't give me too many tours in quick succession, because I've got to see that my clothes are properly ready and in good condition. It has got to be done, there's no one else to do it.’ It is difficult and it gets more difficult, because I need more clothes than I have ever had before. You come off one tour and you have to go and do something the next day. It's expensive and I resent having to spend that amount on clothes.”
What does that cool gaze see on the other side of the House of Commons? Nothing it likes very much: “The people who will have to deal with the left wing of the Labour Party during the lifetime of the present Government ought to be the moderate wing of the Labour Party. The disappointing thing is that although we believe many of them do not approve of what the left wing wants to do and do not agree with it, they are nevertheless acquiescing in it, and in politics acquiescence and approval amount to the same thing.
“You have the curious situation developing that for the larger overseas matters, like Europe and defence, both of which are vital to the future of the people of this country, the Harold WilsonPrime Minister cannot rely on his own people. He has to rely on us. He has to rely on the fact that we are a very responsible Opposition and wouldn't let Britain down. We wouldn't put our party political purposes before the needs of the country. He knows that if he dropped his left-wing policies he could rely on us to support him on the things which need to be done. If he doesn't, of course, then we shall have to consider what our future action should be. Some of these extreme left-wing policies are damaging to Britain and they are one of the factors which are preventing the restoration of confidence.
“It is perhaps one of our tragedies that we are a more responsible Opposition when we are out of power than the Socialist Party are when they are out of power. Even with that, they are not able to get things right. Even with that help, things are getting worse and worse. That's because of their own left wing and sooner or later they will have to deal with it.”