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O’Sullivan: The Rise of an Iron Lady

O'Sullivan: The Rise of an Iron Lady

The following is an excerpt from The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World by John O’Sullivan.

How was it possible to combine the outspoken expression of firm Thatcherite views with loyalty to a party and government that at times embraced very different ideas? The general answer is that until New Labour both major British political parties exercised a very wide ideological tolerance. Heath was in many ways a natural autocrat, but he was reasonably relaxed about the expression of different views provided that such dissent did not spill over into the voting lobbies or into an orchestrated cabinet rebellion. As she climbed the ladder, Mrs. Thatcher kept to those rules.

Her front-bench career began in 1961, when she became a very junior minister at the pensions ministry in the Macmillan government. She rose steadily through a succession of minor front-bench posts in government and opposition until the 1966 Labour landsl
ide. In those years she could have endorsed the flat earth theory without anyone much caring; junior front-bench spokesmen are the pond life of Westminster. Her promotion by Ted Heath to serious front-bench positions after 1966 was doubly lucky; it coincided with the Tory Party’s drift to the right on policy. Her CPC lecture neatly anticipated the coming orthodoxy—tax cuts, no incomes policy, reducing government intervention in industry—that was adopted in full in the 1970 general election manifesto. When the Tories won a solid victory, Thatcher was appointed to the middle-ranking cabinet position of secretary of state for education and science.

At this stage Thatcher was seen as a Heath clone. The irreverent male chauvinists on the Tory benches used to refer to the new education secretary as “Ted with tits.” But Ted himself knew better—or at least he knew himself better. A natural corporatist who had adopted the free market as a managerial technique rather than as a governing philosophy, Heath exiled the two cabinet colleagues most committed to it to non-economic ministries. Thatcher went to the Department of Education and Science, Sir Keith Joseph to the Department of Social Services.

More on the life of Margaret Thatcher from Human Events:

Thatcher performed competently at the DES but left its left-leaning ethos fundamentally unchanged. As she concedes in her memoirs, she failed in particular to halt or even obstruct the drive toward closing down the selective schools favored by the party’s middle-class supporters in the country. Such a radical policy shift, certain to be bitterly opposed by the educationist establishment, would have required the full backing of the prime minister. It took her fifteen months to get Heath even to attend a meeting to discuss the principles of education. His growing dislike was indicated by the consolatory minute from one of the Downing Street civil servants setting up the meeting: “I doubt it would be practicable to exclude her from the discussion, but you might perhaps like to bring in a number of non-officials to liven things up.”

(Story continues below.)

The meeting proved to be a pointless rehash of the department’s conventional policy mix of more spending and specific educational initiatives, such as raising the school graduation age. Overall, the best that could be said about Thatcher’s stewardship of education was said by Annenberg: “Believing strongly that educational policy is not an issue on which her party could expect to gain political advantage, she has concentrated . . . on making sure that it does not become a disadvantage.”

But the DES had one advantage that accrued to Thatcher personally. When Heath performed his famous “U-turn” during 1971 and 1972— nationalizing Rolls-Royce; imposing control of incomes, prices, and dividends; abandoning his attempt to reform the labor unions; subsidizing “lame duck” industries; and embarking on a massive expansion of the money supply to stimulate growth—Thatcher was out of the loop. So was Sir Keith Joseph. They prudently stayed out of the loop. They neither resigned nor tried to organize cabinet opposition to the new corporate Toryism that was so little different from socialism that a Marxist group urged its members to vote Tory. Indeed, Thatcher was praised (“held in high esteem in the party. . . has kept us out of trouble”) and recommended for cabinet promotion by the chief whip, Francis Pym, in a secret memorandum to the prime minister. She might have been embarrassed by the offer of an economic ministry that would have required her to administer a near-socialist policy, thus ensuring that she would never be heard of again. But fate intervened in the form of a crisis over incomes policy and an early election called to resolve it.

Not enough Marxists voted Conservative in the spring election of 1974. Nor enough voters of any kind. Before he could offer Thatcher a job, Heath lost his own in a narrow election defeat and the Tories went into opposition. As no party enjoyed a parliamentary majority, everyone knew that a second election would follow very soon. But Heath took his defeat as an instruction from history to move the Tories further left in pursuit of an all-party Government of National Unity. It was then that Sir Keith, supported by Thatcher, broke with Heath (or rather with his policy, as both remained uncomfortably in the Shadow Cabinet), established a new think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, to advance their common agenda of economic freedom, and launched a series of major speeches repudiating the U-turn policies to which Heath was now indissolubly attached. It was bold; yet it was prescient too. Most Tories had never been comfortable with Heath’s corporatist socialism, and now it had provoked both a crisis and an election defeat. If he lost the next election, he would have to be replaced, almost certainly by a more conventional Conservative.

When the defeat duly occurred in the fall election of 1974, Sir Keith let it be known that he would stand against Heath when a leadership contest could be held. Thatcher was the only member of the Shadow Cabinet to endorse him. Sir Keith was everything that Thatcher had said of him in the conversation with Gleysteen—“brilliant, versatile, and full of further promise.” But he was also highly strung and full of self-doubt. When he came under a viciously ludicrous attack as a supposed advocate of eugenics, it distressed him and his family more than he expected. He came to the conclusion that he was not leadership material and withdrew. Thatcher announced, with his backing, that she would stand in his stead.

Not even her natural supporters believed she was likely to win. At a meeting of sympathetic journalists, the Daily Telegraph’s Frank Johnson asked her what she would do after the leadership election.

“I shall be leader of the Conservative Party,” she replied.

“No, I mean, really,” said Johnson, slightly nettled at being treated like
part of a public press conference.

“Frank,” she responded. “I would not run for this job if I did not really
think I could win it.”

Others shared Johnson’s skepticism, including Dirk Gleysteen’s colleagues at the U.S. embassy and the U.S. State Department. Thatcher was, after all, a mere middle-ranking opposition spokesman, internationally unknown, taking on a former prime minister. Nonetheless, on February 4, 1975, Brent Scowcroft at the White House received a memorandum from George S. Springsteen at State informing him that Heath had been “unexpectedly defeated” as opposition leader on the first ballot. But, it was “doubtful that Mrs. Thatcher will win on the second ballot,” a week later.

A more likely victor was “popular Willie Whitelaw,” a more centrist figure whose last position in government had been secretary of state for energy.

One week later, however, Springsteen had to inform General Scowcroft that Thatcher had soundly defeated four other candidates, including Willie Whitelaw, to capture the leadership of the Conservative Party. Her victory was as unexpected as popular Willie’s “poor showing”—Thatcher got about twice as many votes as her opponent. That merely established her acceptability to the Tory Party, however, not to Britain as a whole. Springsteen added to his list of predictions by pointing out that “to win a future election she will have to move an appreciable distance from her position on the right wing of her party.”

She was, in the now familiar term, “too conservative.”

John O’Sullivan is author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.

 

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