Could it be that far from the all-powerful ‘Iron Lady’ that Margaret Thatcher was actually a little more vulnerable and isolated than many people actually understood?
By Matthew Flinders
Can it really be almost a quarter of a century since one of the most defining moments of my own personal political history? I can still remember the day as if it were yesterday. An A-level Politics seminar on the fifth floor of Swindon College; the 28 November 1990; a bright and clear day; and suddenly the door bursts open and someone screams, ‘She’s gone! It’s over! She’s gone!’ Exactly who had gone and what was over were not immediately obvious to me but in a strange way they didn’t need to be because at a deeper level what was obvious from the reactions of everybody around me was that a distinct chapter in British political history had ended. Two decades on and as a Professor of Politics I clearly have a much sharper awareness of exactly who Mrs Thatcher was and what was thought to be over (or not over as the case proved to be) in terms of a distinct approach to governing. But the announcement of her death takes me back to that seminar room and to that strange feeling that a distinct chapter in British political history has — once again — ended.
But what can I say that has not already been said about this grocer’s daughter? What can I write that will separate this obituary from the countless others that are at this moment being written (or — more accurately — rapidly retrieved from pre-prepared files)? The answer to these questions lies not in outlining the contours of Mrs Thatcher’s political career (an already well-furrowed literary terrain), but in teasing-out exactly why her approach to politics provoked such strong reactions and how she managed to cast such a long shadow over the past, present, and future of British politics. Approached in this manner at least three inter-linked issues deserve brief comment — her ideology, her style, and her vulnerability.
First and possibly foremost, Margaret Thatcher forged a new relationship between the state and the market. Having witnessed the trials and tribulations of the Heath government in the mid-1970s and then the ‘Winter of Discontent’ in the late 1970s, Mrs Thatcher was adamant that the relationship between the state and the market had to change. From reforming the state to reducing the power of the trade unions, from privatization to economic reform, and from European affairs to selling-off council houses, Mrs Thatcher undoubtedly shifted the political-economy of Britain in ways that subsequent Prime Ministers have sought to modify or amend but not significant alter. Indeed it is possible to argue that a post-Thatcherite consensus appears to exist in a thread that runs through Major, Blair, Brown, and Cameron. Whether this is viewed as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing is for the moment secondary to the fact that Mrs Thatcher’s legacy has cast a shadow both far and wide. If her policies were distinctive then so too was her uncompromising political style. The ‘Iron Lady’ was a conviction politician in the sense that she believed in the capacity of her political philosophy and economic convictions to deliver positive social change. There was no middle-way; you were either with her or against her. From her ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech to the Conservative Party in October 1980 through to her European Union rebate negotiations, Mrs Thatcher was in many ways the original ‘Ronseal politician’ — to steal a coalition phrase — in the sense that her rhetoric was generally backed-up by subsequent political reality.
There is, however, a need to dig a little deeper. An obituary should expose the essence of a person and not simply repeat their achievements (or failures). To highlight Mrs Thatcher’s ideology or style — even to dissect the various subsequent forms of Thatcherism — are hardly new additions to a congested historical canvas. The twist or barb in the tail of this obituary is therefore not a focus on Mrs Thatcher the politician but on Mrs Thatcher the person qua politics. Framed in this manner what one achieves is a quite unique perspective on a quite remarkable but possibly isolated and vulnerable woman. To describe the ‘Iron Lady’ as vulnerable might appear to some readers as an almost ridiculous statement but even the mighty Achilles had a weak heel. Indeed, if — as I will argue — Mrs Thatcher exhibited three potential vulnerabilities in her life then it is possible to use these to further underline her remarkable career and achievements.
First and foremost, Mrs Thatcher was a woman who succeeded in a man’s world. She became an MP in 1959, the first woman to lead a major British political party in 1975, and the first female Prime Minister in 1979. There is little doubt that in some ways being a women brought advantages when faced with a political party that had overwhelmingly been educated in single sex public schools and were therefore ill-prepared to deal with a powerful woman. But it also brought with it a sense of exceptionalism and difference. A second source of vulnerability stemmed from the fact that Mrs Thatcher was not ‘one of them’. Born the daughter of a grocery shop owner — indeed being brought up in the flat above the shop — she was not born into the ‘great and the good’ British political establishment. Indeed, resting between the lines of almost every political biography of Mrs Thatcher is a sense that she was always in the Conservative Party but never quite part of the Conservative Party; never quite accepted or respected by Tory grandees or elements of the political establishment. This is a critical issue as her outsider-within status arguably helps explain her style of governing and her almost clinical approach to defining friends and enemies. The final element of vulnerability has, I would argue, become clearest since her departure from frontline politics. Since leaving the House of Commons at the 1992 General Election — saying that this would allow her more freedom to speak her mind — what has been most striking is the manner in which she generally refrained from heckling from the political sidelines. Her illness may have played some role in this but I sense there was also a degree of social and political isolation; a sense that she no longer fitted in; a frustration that her ‘there is no such thing as society’ speech was always taken out of context and used against her; or a fear that no one would want to hear what she had to say. I could be wrong but deep down I can’t help but think that maybe the ‘Iron Lady’ was a little softer than many of us understood.
13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013
U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Library of Congress.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance at the University of Sheffield. He was awarded the Political Communicator of the Year Award in 2012 and is a member of the Advisory Board for the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘The Future of the United Kingdom and Scotland’ Programme. Jack Straw’s response to his criticisms can be found in the journal Parliamentary Affairs (Vol.63, 2010). Author of Defending Politics (2012), you can find Matthew Flinders on Twitter at PoliticalSpike and read more of Matthew Flinders’s blog posts on the OUPblog.