The Iron Lady

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

“High moral earnestness in belligerent abundance, absolute assurance that she knew all the ultimate answers to the riddle of the universe, and an evangelical zeal to subdue others for her convictions.” In his recent book about the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, The Politics of Paradise, the former leader of the British Labour Party, Michael Foot, quotes the above description of Lady Byron and offers the impish comment, “I thought for a moment he was writing of Mrs. Thatcher.” Foot, whose party was savaged by Thatcher in the 1983 general election, no doubt found that retiring to contemplate the revolutionary Byron was far preferable to trying to stop the revolutionary Thatcher. Indeed, the Margaret Thatcher who emerges from British political journalist Hugo Young’s admirable biography certainly fits the above description. Thatcher also emerges, however, as a formidable political leader, a woman who has helped put Great Britain, which had been in steady decline since the end of World War II, back on its feet again as a thriving nation with a respected voice in world affairs. Thatcher’s creed is in essence simple:

“I am in politics because of the conflict between good and evil, and I believe that in the end good will triumph.”

Margaret Thatcher, nee Roberts, was born in 1925 in the small Midlands town of Grantham, in Lincolnshire. The greatest influence on the future prime minister was her father, Alfred Roberts, a self-made man who owned a grocery store and who also played a leading role in local politics. It was from her father that the young Margaret learned the value of self-reliance, self- discipline, prudent economic management, and a sense of family and civic duty. It was a rather narrow and dour upbringing: Although the family was not poor, self-indulgence of any kind was frowned upon. In high school, Margaret Roberts was not considered an outstanding or brilliant student, but she was hardworking and an excellent debater.

Her horizons expanded when, in 1943, she won a place at the University of Oxford, where she studied chemistry. It was at Oxford that her lifelong devotion to Conservative politics began. She became an active member of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA) and canvassed for the Conservative candidate in Oxford in the 1945 general election. Later she became president of the OUCA and had the opportunity to meet many of the leading Conservative politicians of the day. After graduation, she worked for nearly three years as a research chemist; at one job she was responsible for testing the quality of cake fillings and ice cream.

At the age of twenty-four, Margaret Roberts was the youngest woman to contest the 1950 general election. She stood as Conservative candidate for Dartford, a safe Labour seat which she had no chance of winning. At this time she also began to study law and passed her bar examinations in 1953. In 1951 she had married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy and successful businessman, and this enabled her to enter politics full time. In 1958 she was fortunate in being selected to contest a safe Conservative seat in the general election of the following year, and in 1959 she was duly elected as the Conservative member for Finchley, in North London. Quickly making her mark, in 1961 she secured a position in the government of Harold Macmillan as parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Pensions. Young points out that at this stage in her career being a woman was actually an advantage: It was a well-established convention to have a few women in government, and at the time there were few other suitable candidates.

During Thatcher’s first years in Parliament she formed a close professional relationship with Sir Keith Joseph, the man who more than anyone else helped to develop the collection of economic and social policies that later came to be known as Thatcherism. During the years from 1965 to 1970, however, when the Conservatives were out of office, Thatcher made little contribution to the vigorous debate within the party about the future of Conservatism. She has never been an original thinker.

When the Conservatives, under Edward Heath, unexpectedly returned to power in the General Election of 1970, Thatcher was appointed Minister for Education. She gained national notoriety when she passed a measure stopping free school milk to children between the ages of eight and eleven. One British tabloid tagged her “The Most Unpopular Woman in Britain,” and she was thereafter known as “Thatcher the milk-snatcher.” It was while running the Ministry of Education that Thatcher’s belligerent attitude toward the Civil Service first became apparent, an attitude that continued throughout her years as prime minister. She regarded the Civil Service, with its emphasis on continuity and its skeptical attitude toward radical change, as an obstruction to her plans to break with the status quo. As prime minister she acted extremely aggressively toward most of her Civil Service officials, constantly challenging their point of view—an example of the “us against them” mentality that is fundamental to the Thatcher style. On one occasion, she summoned a group of top civil servants to a meeting and told them that together she and they “could beat the system,” only to be reminded by one of their number that “we are the system.” (American readers who wish to get a picture of the adversarial relationship between British government ministers and their civil servants would be well...

(The entire section is 2249 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The American Spectator. XXIII, February, 1990, p.41.

The Economist. CCCXI, April 8, 1989, p.103.

Library Journal. CXIV, September 1, 1989, p.202.

London Review of Books. XI, April 20, 1989, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, November 12, 1989, p.7.

The New Yorker. LXV, February 12, 1990, p.95.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, August 11, 1989, p.448.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, November 5, 1989, p.1.