Commentary (The Times)

Conservatism: "Margaret Thatcher: the early promise" (Matthew Parris) [MT as revealed in Times Archive]

Document type: Press
Source: The Times , 20 June 2008
Journalist: Matthew Parris
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 1,589
Themes: Autobiography (marriage & children), Conservatism, Conservative Party (organization), Education, Leadership, Conservative (leadership elections)

Margaret Thatcher: the early promise

A controversial politician is revealed in the Times Archive

A newspaper archive is real life, as it happened, as it seemed at the time. It's a mess. It's incoherent. The shards of reporting we come up with may not even look like the pieces from which the famous vase would eventually be pieced together. Often they just look like rubble. I was reminded of that before diving into the new Times Archive . My quest was to look at the emerging image of Margaret Thatcher from when she entered politics to the days when, as party leader before the 1979 elections, her perceived personality had more or less imprinted itself on the national mind.

The archive is not hard to use: much like Google, except that because imperfectly printed text has been scanned in unedited, the occasional word or letter comes out wrong and there are times when reconstructing the text (you almost always can) feels like reading and deciphering medieval English. The detective work is fun.

I did not need to go back two centuries - only half a century, to October 5, 1951. Amusing now to think that the first reference I could find to Margaret Thatcher was an appearance in the media for which she (or her father) had had to pay.

“MR D. THATCHER AND MISS M. H. ROBERTS. The engagement is announced, and the marriage will take place shortly, between Denis, only son of the late Mr T. H. Thatcher and Mrs. L. K. Thatcher, of 25, Buckingham Court, Kensington Park Road, London, W11, and Margaret Hilda, younger daughter of Mr and Mrs A. Roberts, of Allerton, North Parade, Grantham, Lincolnshire.”

Our newspaper seems to have taken no interest at all in the young Tory woman's selection to fight the (for her, hopeless) Labour seat of Dartford. Apart from the bare election result when she won Finchley, she was still attracting no notice in 1959. Only when she was made - unusually fast - a junior minister (pensions) two years later did Times parliamentary reporters decide to reread her maiden speech and find it interesting.

We quote a Labour MP who thought it “a rather beautiful maiden speech”. We quote a fellow minister referring to its “brilliance”. We find the welcome “auspicious” (in fact, all maiden speeches are lavishly praised) and note that “Margaret Thatcher, a fair-haired mother of twins, who, at the age of 35, and after only two years in Parliament as the member for Finchley, gets promotion to the ministerial bench” has “ignored the tradition which condemns new making pedestrian, non-controversial speeches” and “grasped the nettle of controversy”. She had argued for a Private Members Bill to give the press access to meetings of local councils. The Times approved!

“Sir Keith Joseph complimented her on her ‘cogent, lucid and composed manner’ and thought that this would not be her last venture into legislation. With her trim feet on the first rung of the ministerial ladder, it is likely that his prophecy will be fulfilled...Her undoubted intellectual gifts, her charm, her youthful appearance and her debating ability have impressed Ministers whenever she has spoken. Those who know her well detect a strong will, some might say almost a ruthlessness, behind her smiling appearance. Not for Mrs Thatcher the route to office that might be achieved by meek acquiescence with the Government's policies ...

“A woman Minister who has a young family to look after is something new to the Commons, and if Mrs Thatcher felt a little hesitation about accepting the chores of office it must have been caused by the thought that she may have less time to be with her husband and her eight-year-old twins, Mark and Carol. Her day begins with the children at her home in Farnborough, Kent; she breakfasts with them, gets them ready for school...”

And off we go, into a recitation of domestic fidelity that she was to inspire in a thousand profiles and interviews to come. “Often it is said,” The Times concludes, “that for women, family life and a political career are incompatible. Mrs Thatcher's progress demonstrates that this is not so.”

So - noticed at last. But thereafter, as a junior pensions minister from 1961, she caused no stir at all in The Times. Up until 1966 (by which time she had been an MP for longer than it took David Cameron to rise to the leadership of his party) she hardly resurfaces. She is not tipped for the Cabinet. But in 1966, by which time she is an Opposition Treasury spokesman, The Times raises an approving eyebrow when she demolishes a dull Treasury Minister, a Mr Diamond. “Budget Debate Sparkles” is our headline, and it amused me to detect an unsung but rather witty predecessor-sketchwriter at work:

“For Mrs Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons today Diamond was a girl's best friend. Mr John Diamond, that is, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. For it was Mr Diamond's unbrilliant display on this, the third day of the Budget debate, that allowed Mrs Thatcher to sparkle as she did...

“With her blonde curls a constant bobbing reminder of the prospective increase in hairdressing charges, she attacked the whole structure of the tax with incisive feminine logic. Mr Diamond, and Mr Callaghan at his side, soon found themselves assaulted with every female weapon short of a rolling pin. Fancy taking 25s away from some people in order to repay the same amount six months later. Fancy taking 25s from others and then repaying 32s6d, instead of just paying them 7s6d...

“...Mrs Thatcher had certainly been doing her homework. She had read, or so she said, every Budget speech and finance Bill since 1946. The Commons received the news with little short of awe.”

In later years Margaret Thatcher took to displaying a conspicuous lack of interest in feminist causes; but I always thought she was a sister at heart and was delighted to find her rounding on poor Mr Diamond for reminding her, after she spoke of women's occupations, that the House was discussing “a tax on employers”.

“Mrs Thatcher turned on her most feline smile. ‘Precisely,' she replied. “These women are employers. Clearly the front bench have not even thought of this.”

To the extent, however, that anything like an attitude to Thatcher is emerging from the pages of The Times, it is as an engaging, competent and rather pretty curiosity. Even promoted to the Cabinet as Education Secretary - even when (as “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk-snatcher”) she ends the Government's programme of free school milk - she attracts little commentary as a personality.

But when the Tory Government falls in 1974 and doubts lurk about whether Ted Heath will carry on as party leader, one senses a sniff of interest in her as a real front-ranker. “One hundred senior civil servants,” we report, “laid on a splendid farewell party for Mrs Margaret Thatcher on Monday night at the Department of Education and Science. As one of them remarked: ‘Never before had an outgoing education secretary been given a parting on this scale'.”

We note, incidentally, praise for the speed with which she proceeded with the abolition of the 11-plus examination (and grammar schools). There is no hint, here, that saving grammar schools might ever be a Tory cause. The Times, in a lengthy report, quotes civil-servant admirers calling her “the queen of her Department”. It goes on: “She had proved a doughty fighter in preserving educational interests from the onslaughts of the Treasury. She had the bearing of a schoolma'am, an inability to suffer fools, and an irritating habit of reducing educational arguments to legalistic principles.”

Now the columnists move in. In early 1974 the late Bernard Levin fingers the idea that her party might choose her as its leader, and decides that she is estimable but that her gender is decisively against her. By the end of the same year, though, he has executed a handbrake turn:

“With one exception, [Heath's] rivals for the party leadership, if they exist, have so far shown markedly less courage and character. The exception, of course, is Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who must be reckoned not only the woman politician of the year but also of the decade.”

By now (he says) he can see her as a Chancellor of the Exchequer. And by February 1975 his volte-face is complete:

“...she would, of course, have a colossal advantage over any possible rival; her sex would work for her...”

Meanwhile the Times political editor, David Wood, has plumped decisively for Thatcher, astutely observing, after a successful party conference performance that year, that “Mrs Thatcher is known to her rank and file so far not by precise...policies, but by her standpoint”.

In my view this remained true until the end. It allows us, even now, to read into her story positions to which she never attached herself, policies she didn't pursue.

I've enjoyed this excursion into our archive - and profited from the reminder that the past bears a shape which we have afterwards imposed upon it. It did not have that shape at the time.