Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

TV Interview for Channel 4 Parliament Programme

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: No.10 Downing Street
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Journalist: Sue Cameron, Channel 4
Editorial comments: 1415-1510.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 3720
Themes: Autobiographical comments, Executive, Parliament, Industry, Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Labour Party & socialism, Local government, Media

Interviewer

Prime Minister, you were originally against televising the Commons, why?

Prime Minister

I think the reason I gave, I said you will never televise the House of Commons, you will only televise a televised House of Commons and the televising changes it—that is inevitable. But nevertheless I find quite a number of people like watching it.

Interviewer

And have you changed your mind now?

Prime Minister

I think we still had better debates and better Question Times when we were not televised. I think people are very conscious of the cameras and maybe they in some slight way alter their tactics or the way they say things. And I was also very worried about the noise. You know it is a very noisy House, people do not somehow expect that, they think Britain, the mother of Parliaments, it will [end p1] be calm, dignified, an absolute object lesson to everywhere else in the world and an absolute example to young children as to how to behave in courtesy, etc. And then they turn on and it is so noisy and I know it is noisy because I kind of sit in the pit, you know on the bottom layer of seats, and sometimes I cannot hear the precise question because the noise is so great. I did not think that would be a good example at all and it is still very noisy, much noisier there even than it appears on television.

Interviewer

But do you think that the public has perhaps got used to it now?

Prime Minister

I think the public may have done but the impression you get from television is actually different from the impression you get when you are there. You see when you are there and I am, as I said, right down and listening, trying to catch not merely the drift of the question but the detail, and you may get the beginning and then one side or another is irritated either at the question or the way in which it is put, you cannot necessarily hear the end and sometimes I have to get up and say: “Look, insofar as I heard that question, the answer is this.”

But when I get up they switch my microphone on and they tend to cut out quite a lot of the noise that is going on in the background. Now that therefore sounds as if I am raising my voice, because the audience cannot hear the noise, and I know I am having to raise my voice because otherwise my own side would not hear me. [end p2] Because do not forget in Parliament your own troops are behind you, it is like an army.

Interviewer

The televising of the Commons has proved very popular, particularly in America and one American review of Prime Minister's Questions talked about a sensual blonde, ritually humiliating several hundred balding middle-aged white males in public. Does that kind of comment make you see yourself in a new light?

Prime Minister

No, I think it is just journalist language, you know I think they are more concerned to get quite a lot of rather bright adjectives out, rather much too lurid adjectives out.

Interviewer

When you realised that the cameras were going to come into the Commons, how did you actually prepare yourself for it?

Prime Minister

First I had to go in and see where the cameras were, because you want to know roughly the angle you are going to be shot at. And of course the first thing is that your camera is right up there underneath the Gallery and the first thing I noticed as I did a trial shot is that if you are not careful and you look down at your notes what they see is not your face but the top of your head so you have to hold your chin up a good deal more and look down at your notes a good deal less or hold them up—that is the first thing. [end p3] And I hope if it is going to be permanent they will adjust the cameras and get a much better shot.

Now the other thing which we found out when we were doing this trial was that you are naturally fairly animated, much more animated in real life than before the cameras, and if someone from behind you asks you a question you naturally turn to the person to answer, it is just plain courtesy—like that. First you lose your camera shot there and second, the camera there takes quite a time to come in so you get some pretty strange camera angles. But even more important, you have lost your microphone there and the microphone here takes a time for them to switch that on and then it is in a different position and sometimes you get the difficulty that maybe the audience, the television audience can hear your voice but your own side cannot and the other side cannot.

So then they shout and they shout and they shout and they say: “Turn and address the Speaker.” So you then turn that way, different camera angle here, camera shot coming in there, and turn to address the Speaker.

It is quite a lot you know whereas normally all I had to think of was what I am saying, not what I am looking like or whether I am on camera or whether it is a bad camera shot. And believe you me when you go down to a Prime Minister's Question Time, and really there is not another Prime Minister's Question Time in Europe like ours where the Prime Minister, question after question, can be asked about anything at all, your whole mind wants to be concentrated on finding the answer and finding it quickly and just to have to slow down your movements and to have to think about something else, well it took me quite a time to get used to it. [end p4]

Interviewer

What about your clothes, what are your favourite things for going to Prime Minister's Question Times, what do you think looks best on camera?

Prime Minister

What looks best on camera is always something fairly tailored and really plain or with a different neckline, but fairly plain, perhaps either patterned or a white pique neckline, but you cannot be in that the whole time, it almost becomes a uniform. Once or twice I have gone in in something patterned and very soon been told off by those who are watching television to say that it does not look good. And I do not always have time to change but I did go in in quite a big check one day because it was soft and it was cool and I had not anything else as cool as that, and they said: “We looked more at your dress than listened to what you said” , so back I go—plain, open-neck collar.

Interviewer

What are your own personal favourites as far as your clothes go?

Prime Minister

I much prefer something tailored, it suits me, I can put it on and forget it and I like the recipe of a jacket and skirt and it looks tailored, it looks executive. But also in a strange way you know a very tailored thing with a special neckline can also look very soft. [end p5]

Interviewer

What about colours?

Prime Minister

Colour we have to watch, sometimes the colour changes on camera and also we are against a green background. Now that green changes, it does not look the same on camera as it does in real life. Now that does not matter if the House is full, as it usually is at Question Time, very full, and so what you are seeing is a lot of suits and they are usually fairly neutral suits behind you and one or two women in brighter things who stand out. So you do have to think of it a little.

They would not expect me necessarily to go in in a bright red and I think that might get a bit of comment and yowls as I went in. They would expect me to be in a blue, a grey, and green I love. I did wear coral once because it is a little suit I am very very fond of, but that was in the House on a Friday morning when I had to do a statement and there were not really many people there.

Interviewer

What about the brooch, I think it is the brooch you are wearing now, you often wear that?

Prime Minister

I often wear it, it is a nice tailored brooch but it lifts some things, you have got just the plain tailor with just a little bit of sparkle. Anything larger would not look good and it just fits because if you do not wear a brooch or pearls, the outfit is not quite finished. [end p6]

Interviewer

When you go in there for Question Time what are you setting out to do?

Prime Minister

Oh goodness me, just answer the questions. You ask me what am I setting out to do, my main thing is to try to think, now goodness me what questions are we going to have today? Because if you look over a period of three weeks the questions change quite a lot and that is because the ones they like to get you on are the topical questions and I think that they must go through, listen to the news the night before, at breakfast in the morning and look at the newspapers. Because the things that television will choose are the topical things, they are not the deep questions to which you would give a long constructive answer, they are the topical ones. And what I am thinking about is, goodness me, have I spotted all the questions I might be asked today.

I should think we get about 70 per cent and the other 30 per cent you have to really think on your feet quickly because I can be asked about anything to do with any department. It has an enormous benefit that I know what is going on in pretty well every department, but what am I thinking about? I am concentrating the whole time just as someone in the Open the other day, I saw Nick Faldo concentrating on every shot. I am concentrating on every question or at any rate on the answers.

Interviewer

What about winning the argument? [end p7]

Prime Minister

Yes, I think to some extent you have to win the argument but you tend to get a pretty false question put to you. You know, they try to get a question which does not in fact give you a chance to give a reasonable answer and you have got to beware of that.

Interviewer

One of the clips that you have chosen was the Peggy Fenner episode, what were you trying to achieve there with that answer?

Prime Minister

With that particular one I was trying to get across the difference between councils who really manage their affairs very well indeed, I mean they do collect rents from their tenants because if the tenants cannot afford to pay they get housing benefit, they do look very carefully at the money which is rate-payers' or taxpayers' money and they spend money well.

I was brought up very much with the idea that there are good managers and bad managers and the housewife who is a good manager, she can make a pint of milk go further than anyone else, she does not put on the oven just for one thing but for two or three things at the same time, she manages everything well and the house is spick and span and turns out her children well. And it is not the amount of money you spend on it, it is how well you manage it.

And that answer tended to give, did give the impression of which councils in fact managed everything well, got the money in they should and spent it in a very careful but effective way. [end p8]

Interviewer

But as well as giving out information, are you sometimes thinking, particularly when it is a difficult subject, of for instance the morale of the people behind you?

Prime Minister

Yes, to some extent. And you know we are not a nation that compliments ourselves, we do tend to be a nation that tends to run ourselves down a little bit and sometimes I do have to give statistics, comparative statistics. Some of our companies, for example, you heard me give this answer, 28 of the 50 top performing countries in Europe are British—28 of the 50 top performing. Now that is really very very good indeed and quite a large number, when this comes to the 500 top companies, the United States, Japan and Europe, of the 500 top companies we are third, it is the United States that is top and Japan next and we are third, not Germany but it is us. And people begin to look at things a little bit differently whereas otherwise they had only thought of the things that were perhaps rather difficult.

Interviewer

Prime Minister's Question Times are obviously a highlight of MPTV. When you think you are doing well, when you feel you are winning, does it give you a lift?

Prime Minister

Yes, it does, but you do not think of that during Question Time because you can do well on one question and then get a very difficult one next time. So the tension is on the whole time, from [end p9] the time you walk in to the time you come out. The days that are particularly difficult is when you have not only to do Questions but at the end of Questions you have got a statement to make. It might have been that we have had the Economic Summit at Houston, the European Summit at Dublin or another, possibly a NATO Summit, and immediately you finish Questions you will read out a statement, I do not give long statements, I should think ten or twelve minutes, and then for another hour you have to answer questions.

Now when you are Prime Minister you have not got a Junior Minister, you know a Minister of State at Trade and Industry or Chancellor of the Exchequer has several Junior Ministers. When it is me I have not got a Junior Minister so I am up and down the entire time and it is totally concentrated. And sometimes I will look up and the Speaker will say after a statement: “Three more questions each side” , and so how quickly the time has gone. Or sometimes I look up towards the end of Questions and say: “Has it come to an end?” Because in fifteen minutes sometimes it is a fast day, you give very brief answers, and then you might do seventeen questions in fifteen minutes. Other times it is a slower day because someone in asking their question has prefaced it by putting two or three things in which I would argue with and I cannot let go. And sometimes it is such a long, long question that it would take you a long, long time to give a full answer.

Interviewer

What is the hardest type of question, what is the hardest thing that you have to answer? [end p10]

Prime Minister

Sometimes people try to catch you out by giving a very short, very short answer [sic].

Interviewer

What about the questions that you are not ready for in terms of having done the research for it?

Prime Minister

You will have a general reply and sometimes a general reply is better than a lot of statistics because by the time you have had quite a long time as a Member of Parliament and then I was a Junior Minister, then a full Cabinet Minister and then Prime Minister and people forget we are all of us constituency members, so most of the subjects that come up in the House will have come up in our own correspondence. Unless, for example, supposing you have a constituency that has a lot of fishing or, I am a suburban constituency, you might have a certain number of things on fishing, coastlines, maritime questions that you are not familiar with but you know from another viewpoint.

Interviewer

You do sometimes come out with some quite good one-liners, how much are those carefully rehearsed? [end p11]

Prime Minister

They are not, they either come or they do not.

Interviewer

You do not rehearse them first?

Prime Minister

I cannot do a carefully rehearsed one-liner, they either come or they do not and you are very grateful when they do.

Interviewer

Do they usually come to you?

Prime Minister

The ones that I do come to one. I am not an actress, you cannot rehearse, it loses its spontaneity for the same reason as [Half a page missing]. [end p12]

Prime Minister

You know I have never done that, it is a phrase absolutely invented by journalists. But it did me a very good turn when I was over in the States one day and George Shultzthe Secretary of State, their Foreign Minister, gave a luncheon for me and I was doing a speech to him and he to me and he said: “You have a reputation for what is contained in your handbag, not for handbagging people but for what is contained in your handbag.” That is true, anything I want to keep quiet is usually in my handbag so it is not left lying around the place. And then he gave me a handbag which I keep, it is much too valuable to use—valuable in the sentimental sense that it was a great occasion—and he simply pulled out a list of quotations from a number of my speeches that I had made in America.

But that was handbagging in a different sense, that is putting things inside my handbag, I usually say my handbag is the safest thing in Number 10, things do not leak from my handbag—they leak from everywhere else I might say!

Interviewer

People do talk about you handbagging people in the sense of really cutting them down from under their feet?

Prime Minister

What do you think they mean, do you mean giving as good as you get? Well, they deserve it. I am better than you get [sic] and they deserve that too. [end p13]

Interviewer

You do not have, on the other hand, much of a reputation for having a sense of humour, is that fair?

Prime Minister

I would have thought some of the one-liners did indicate a sense of humour and you could not get on in this job without a sense of humour, you really could not.

Interviewer

What about when some of your own side occasionally praise you very very extravagantly, do you ever find that a bit embarrassing?

Prime Minister

Well, it is very nice, because you do not get very much of it. If you look at Question Time, supposing you get the first five or six questions come from the Opposition, it is very nice to have a little compliment from your own side.

Sometimes you get a piece of help from the Opposition, that happens when there is a difference of view on that side for real, genuine reasons. We got a marvellous bit the other day from Ted Garrett after Nick Ridley 's resignation because what Ted was saying was look, there are differences on both sides, but most of us, particularly of his generation and of mine too, with a united Germany naturally feel a little bit of apprehension. And it was so true and he did not have to say it but he, too, wanted other people to know that there was that feeling about and it did not mean that in any way you are anti-German as far as the future is concerned, because Germany has been a democracy now for some considerable time, [end p14] since the last War, but it just meant that if you do not learn from the lessons of history then you may have to undergo some of them again. It was just very nice and when that happens, you know that person commands more respect than less, much more.

Interviewer

What about when the Opposition has a dig at you, perhaps in a fairly humorous way?

Prime Minister

I am used to them having a dig at me.

Interviewer

There was the occasion when Frank Haynes called you Duckie.

Prime Minister

Well yes, I think I did reply to him that I think I was very pleased with the term of endearment used.

Interviewer

You quite enjoyed that?

Prime Minister

Yes he is great fun, he is great fun Frank Haynes. There is something very strange, he manages to get his questions down, he usually somehow manages to get the last one to me. Now if he is down on the list, whether the Speaker calls more supplementaries or not, but frequently Frank gets the last question. Sometimes I have [end p15] not been able to hear the questions because, as I indicated, the background was noisy, Frank has a voice like foghorn, he stands up, he puts his head back and he blows it. It is all great fun and it is all really in the best possible spirit.

Interviewer

Mr Kinnock often says that you do not actually answer the questions.

Prime Minister

Well, if it is the sort of question of “Have you stopped beating your wife or husband?” of course you do not answer it because it is a trick question. What Neil Kinnockhe really means is that one recognises trick questions.

Interviewer

And as far as Mr Kinnock goes, he would say that some of them are not trick questions and you still do not answer them?

Prime Minister

Neil KinnockHe gets all his questions worked out very carefully, he gets the first question and the first supplementary and the second supplementary worked out and he takes no account of the answers in between. Now you really ought to in the House of Commons be able to think on your feet very quickly. When I was doing that job I would work out what the Prime Minister would be likely to say and then obviously adjust the question according to the previous answer. [end p16]

All his questions come out as if they have been worked out and very highly studied and it is not possible then to change them even though I have answered that. Because if you are thinking of your next question and you are trying to remember it you do not hear the answer. You know what it is like, you do quite a lot of interviewing, you will have two sorts of interviews: one, the questions that have been worked out and people move on to the next question; you will have other interviewers who actually listen to what you say, pick you up on something and then you can carry on quite an interesting conversation. It is the same in the House.

Interviewer

Do you see Question Time to some extent as a kind of game?

Prime Minister

Not in any way. It is not a game, it is a very serious business. As you indicated, the answers go round the world, they are on peak time with the United States—nine o'clock Friday night. And also I do regard it as some kind of example to the rest of the world of the kind of cross-examination I will have to undergo, or accountability, to our Parliament when I get back after meeting them.

They do not, there is not a single person in Europe that has quite that kind of Parliament and quite that kind of cross-examination. And it makes you, when you are negotiating on behalf of your country with other countries, and negotiating in the European Community, I always think now can I get a majority if I agree this in my House of Commons, will they accept it, is it [end p17] reasonable, is it fair, is it a fair deal for Britain, is it in keeping with our traditions which go back far longer in Parliamentary terms than most of theirs, we have by far the oldest Parliament. No, it is a very very serious business and it matters, every word matters.