Iron Lady

Thatcher, Jews, and Women

01.12.12 10:10 PM ET

As part of a series dedicated to The Iron Lady, I have written my column for the National Post about Margaret Thatcher's role in bringing outsiders (such as Jews and women) into the British government:

That joke about the political associations of Margaret Thatcher is usually attributed to former British prime minister Harold Macmillan, himself an Old Etonian. 'Estonians' here was a euphemism for Jews, of whom many traditional Conservatives thought Prime Minister Thatcher over-fond.

Thatcher was elected from a heavily Jewish north London constituency, Finchley. Altogether, five Jews served in her cabinets, including her strongest Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, and her ideological mentor, Education Secretary Keith Joseph. She was served by a Jewish chief of staff, David Wolfson.

Thatcher’s sympathy for Israel especially worried and frightened British officials. When she became party leader in the mid-1970s, she succumbed to pressure and resigned from pro-Israel groups (as David Cameron was pressured to resign as honorary chairman of the British chapter of the Jewish National Fund). Yet she had her revenge on the civil service. One of her favorite ministers, Malcolm Rifkind, went on to serve under her successor John Major as the first Jewish foreign secretary — voiding the taboo that had descended after the creation of the state of Israel against Jews in UK national security positions."

An episode of Yes Minister in the mid-1980s satirized the attempt by anti-Israel civil servants to manipulate a pro-Israel prime minister:

PM: I gather we’re planning to vote against Israel in the UN tonight.

Foreign Secretary: Of course.

PM: Why?

Foreign Secretary: They bombed the PLO.

PM: But the PLO bombed Israel!

Foreign Secretary: Yes, but the Israelis dropped more bombs than the PLO did.

In the episode, the prime minister has the last laugh, entrapping his virulently anti-Israel foreign policy adviser into appearing for once sympathetic to Israel — destroying the poor man’s career by appointing him ambassador to the Jewish state.

Margaret Thatcher fought (and won) many of those same battles, alongside her great American partner, Ronald Reagan.