More Than Brave: Margaret Thatcher and her Era

Margaret Thatcher’s courage, both personal and political, shone like a diamond held up to firelight, naturally emphasized in countless tributes since her death. But few of these tributes really looked at the singular way her character and actions played out in the wider story of British and world politics in the last third of the 20th Century.

I started picking up pieces of this story when living in England in the early 1970s. As a McGill history Ph.D. student, I was then doing three years of research there, living in North London with my wife and two children. We were watching a large upheaval then rapidly taking place in British secondary education, as the Heath Conservative government was attempting to replace a multi-tiered system of secondary schools with a more unified ‘comprehensive’ one. We lived in Finchley, and Thatcher was not only then the Minister of Education, but also our M. P. It didn’t mean I got to know her, but she came and spoke at one of the secondary schools I was checking out, so I saw and heard her close up.

She was then in her mid-forties, and quite attractive. She had a somewhat hectoring, ‘firm schoolmistress’ manner of speech, although she later learned how to moderate this a little. However, I thought she more than compensated for any deficiencies in mellifluous tone by her forceful, articulate, informative, no-nonsense delivery. In that small gathering, she was also a great deal more charming and pleasant than she usually appeared in her highly combative speeches on the hustings or in the Commons. But I was most impressed by her complete command of her brief.

It never crossed my mind that she could become party leader and Prime Minister by the end of the decade, nor that it would be as a free market revolutionary, that stance then more assocated with Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph, although I later learned that Joseph was one of her political and economic mentors. I had already concluded, however, that the Britain of the time was in very serious trouble, including in its current political leadership. My recognition of a deep malaise was shared by my fellow graduate students who I met regularly at the Institute of Historical Research, British and American as well as Canadian. From other English people I met, of otherwise widely varied political views, I heard the same bleak assessments, some close to compete despair.

I had lived in England a decade earlier, and had already seen that the Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home governments, although led by intelligent aristocrats of the noblesse oblige traditional Conservative elite, seemed unable to ‘connect’ with postwar, less deferential, more irreverent, welfare state Britain. They had been succeeded in 1964 by Labour’s Harold Wilson. Wilson, probably impressed by C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, a popular buzzword book of the 1960s, at first tried to portray himself as the leader of a’white-hot, technological revolution’. He did not aim at the ‘cloth-capped’ working class, but ‘the man in the white coat’. However, he soon had to give all of his attention to industrial strife and inefficiency, and a declining pound sterling. His England looked more grey, lethargic, and fretful than white-hot.

The Conservatives had been returned at the end of the decade, by then under Edward Heath. The early 1970s were grim for all Western economies, not only due to spillover effects from the Vietnam War and OPEC’s 70% increase in the price of oil, but because of what had once been thought impossible: a combination of rapidly rising inflation and high unemployment. Richard Nixon, already being felled by Watergate, was complaining that international and domestic gridlock had turned the U. S. into a ‘pitiful, helpless giant’, but Edward Heath’s England looked worse; not just helpless, but sick, even terminally sick.

Like Wilson, Heath was a middle class Oxford graduate in economics. Neither seemed to have benefited much from this. Like Thatcher, Heath was also the offspring of a grocer, but had not inherited a comparably steely spine. His big idea was to commit the country fully to the European Common Market, fondly imagining that, once in, Britain would ‘lead’ it. His ‘pro-Europe’ politics drew him into a domestic tangle with both public opinion and with the House of Commons. ‘Europe’ has been consistently popular with the political centre in both the major parties, but has always been bitterly opposed by their more hardline wings. Heath had to contend with Michael Foot and Richard Crossman on the left and Enoch Powell on the right, all three far more articulate than he was. But he failed most spectacularly in his inability to withstand the economic paralysis being perpetuated by the giant trade unions, especially the Transport and General Worker’s Union, the world’s largest, and the unions of the engineering workers and miners. Their leaders were bloody-minded enough, but the unions’ worst effects came from the power of the militant and Marxist shop stewards, who regularly called not just strikes, but illegal and uncontrolled ‘work stoppages’, ruinously expensive for industry, interfering with train and truck freight, ship docking, and ordinary provisioning for food, shelter, and heat.

There is an irony now forgotten in the rise of Thatcher in her party and the country. Harold Wilson had not been entirely wrong in recognizing the rising political importance of graduates in science and technology rather than in the hard knocks schooling of their working class and lower middle class forebears, or in the liberal arts studies of the traditional political elite. But it turned out that the future had not belonged to dirigiste technocrats, what Malcolm Muggeridge called the Abominable Snowmen. The new arrival was not the man in the white coat, but an iron lady in one. Thatcher was not just the first, and so far, only female British Prime Minister, she was the first, and so far only, P. M. educated in natural science. More ironically, although she only managed a Second Class in her Oxford degree, in her final year of chemistry, she studied X-ray crystallography under Dorothy Hodgkin. Hodgkin, like her own mentor in crystallography, the Cambridge Marxist-Leninist John Desmond Bernal, was on the far left. She was also one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, using crystallographic research to map the internal structure of penicillin, vitamin B12, and, eventually insulin, later winning the Nobel Prize. She accomplished this in spite of being stricken, in the 1930s when only 24, with severe rheumatoid arthritis. By 1947, when she taught the young Margaret Roberts, she had been confined to a wheelchair for many years, hindered also by badly crippled hands, but persevering nonetheless.

Even the youthful Margaret was never influenced by Hodgkin’s politics; she had already become President of the Oxford University Conservative Club by the time she got to know her remarkable scientific mentor. But she clearly admired her; she had a portrait of Hodgkin installed at 10 Downing Street in the 1980s. It will be interesting to see how much attention the new Thatcher biography by Charles Moore will assign to this influence. Crystallography requires very close observation and attention to detail, not usually a strong suit among politicians. But whether the direct influence was major or minor a quarter of a century later, Thatcher’s science background probably helped explain what the Conservative Party at first thought they were getting in Thatcher: a voice of both men and women ‘in white coats’, in a more ‘classless’ England. She was also influenced by reading Friedrich Hayek in her young years, but that may possibly have been true of Heath, perhaps even Harold Wilson. The difference was that Thatcher had far more confidence that it was not only possible to learn valid and non-subjective truths about the world, but to act effectively on this knowledge as well.

Thatcher could be more cautious than many people realize by now. While she introduced some individual choice and market discipline innto the Nhs, she did not directly confront the whole National Health system, and actually left a great deal of the British welfare state in place. But by doing things like giving union members the power to vote by secret ballots, and using police to defend the rule of law and counter the remaining use of violence and the intimidation of ‘secondary picketing’ (which had brought down Heath), she did a great deal more than win what had been previously regarded as a hopelessly snarled and unending industrial conflict. She restored confidence in democratic government, and in the possibility of making beneficial changes in the social and economic structure. She was as effective in standing up to IRA terrorism, and the wailing of an army of academic economists about her policies.

That kind of achievement makes most of the carping about her look silly. Thatcher was not infallible, and not all of her policies were good ones, but four decades ago she was as indispensable as Churchill had been in 1940. She was certainly courageous above all, and as fiercely determined, but that was inseparable from her penetrating intelligence and recognition of what had to be done. The present world could certainly use some more of that combination.

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