When Margaret Thatcher said that she did not expect a woman Prime Minister in her lifetime, she was being both characteristically modest, and realistic. In the early 1970s politics was largely a man’s world. There were no female role models of great Prime Ministers or Presidents to turn to.
She was not meant to win the leadership election in 1975. Bold enough to challenge, the Tory grandees expected that in the second round the “true” candidates woulld emerge and produce an establishment male victor. After all, Ted Heath’s modest background had led to disaster with him as leader and Prime Minister. It was time to go back to the magic circle, the charmed Tory training grounds of male political supremacy.
Her bravery and confidence shone through. Tory MPs did the unthinkable, and chose her as their Leader. They knew her better than the party in the country, who were not immediately enthusiastic but did not in those days get a vote. Margaret at the beginning relied heavily on Keith Joseph as an intellectual adviser as he sought to change his own thoughts and the thoughts of the whole party and nation away from the failed state interventions, the price controls, the enforced nationalisaitons, the money printing of the Heath era. She also, on advice, adopted strong words on the international stage, fearing that a woman would be seen as a soft touch or someone likely to change her mind under pressure. The Iron lady image was carefully constructed to tackle what some men thought of as the “woman problem”. Maybe they overdid it a bit.
When she got into office she needed to create a new language, wardrobe and behaviour for a Prime Minister who was a mother of two and very feminine in many of her ways. There is no female uniform for being Prime Minister, in the way there is a male uniform of suits, ties,DJs and morning coats for special occasions. There was no previous experience of how to combine being a mother with the top office in the land, or how to involve your husband without people saying he had too much influence.
Margaret handled all that so well that it rarely became an issue. As a mere male adviser I was not privy to the short but important sessions she spent with female helpers on what to wear or how to do the hair. She always came to the office looking good, and if you remembered to tell her so it boosted her confidence. There were difficult issues like how to dress when visiting a Muslim country, where she settled for a headscarf to show respect for their traditions where appropriate.
After the first reshuffle and the decisive 1981 budget she overcame the early wobbles and the plots of many in the party for change at the top. She developed a new style of being Prime Minsiter. She was very feminine in many ways, but she was respected and feared by many of her male colleagues who realised the lady was not only not for turning, but expected good performance and progress from Cabinet.She did everything by hard work, and sought to understand and influence all the main things going on in the government she led. Some previous Prime Ministers had read less and done less, leaving more to individual departments.
Contrary to common belief she was neither dogmatic nor very ideological. A person who was a keen advocate of the EEC in the 1975 referendum became a Eurosceptic by the time of the Bruges speech. A person who calculated that you could not privatise the nationalised industries in the 70s or early 80s bravely pushed through a huge programme after 1983. A person who claimed to want a smaller state nonetheless battled for money for state education and the NHS and was reluctant to reform them.
I think the fact that she was very much a woman enabled her to cut loose from the clubbable world of the male Conservative MPs, and to speak more directly to electors. Being a woman meant she looked different from most people’s idea of a leading politician, and was different. Just as England’s great Virgin Queeen, Gloriana, Elizaeth 1 presided over an incredible English renaissance , so Margaret Thatcher put the Great back into Great Beritain after a decade of disaster and defeatism. Just as Elizabeth constructed great Protestant alliances to keep England safe from the predatory threats of the Catholic powers, so Margaret built a stronger alliance with the USA to blow the cruel walls of communism down from the west just as the USSR began to realise the game was up from the east.
It could take her months to make up her mind about a new policy or preferred course of action. She would cross examine and challenge every detail of a proposal. Her very long days were punctuated by many small acts of kindness and consideration, both for those in her immediate circle, and for those she had been told about who were suffering and where government might help.