Margaret Thatcher Found Her Voice, and Transformed Britain

The woman who transformed Britain based her leadership on a clear, if narrow set of principles.

David Reed/Corbis

At her prime, Margaret Thatcher was a political giant.

I first met her on a wet September evening during the 1964 election campaign, when she was defending her Finchley seat in North London. Little she said to the small meeting in a drab school hall has stayed with me, but I shall never forget my first sight of her as she steamed through the swing doors, blonde hair flowing, stripped off her dripping raincoat, and without a backward glance threw it confidently over her shoulder, to be caught by her ever supportive husband, Denis. She clearly knew where she was going—to the political pinnacle—and that she could rely on her faithful inner group of supporters, those she called “one of us.”

At first we observers were most aware of her limitations: her narrow right-wing vision, inflexibility, lack of humor, and public conviviality. She was then no great orator.

Later from my position in 10 Downing Street (I was senior policy adviser to two Labour prime ministers after she took over the Conservative Party leadership in 1975) I was struck by how narrow and inexperienced she at first seemed. She did not then command Parliament nor the British public.

But how we underestimated her. She slowly found her voice. Then she began to speak not for the outdated right wing but for a new radical right wing then emerging (partly sourced by the Chicago economics school). Of course her private values were old school, fashioned in running her parents provincial grocery shop. But her vision was for a new Britain based on broad freedoms. She saw clearly that the cozy post-war British political and economic consensus, across all the main parties, supporting welfare statism, financing ever-growing public services, and with an uncompetitive private sector dependent on government patronage, was crumbling. It imploded with the 1978–79 Winter of Discontent, when rampant trade-union militancy brought Britain to a standstill. This was her moment and her voice rang true.

Suddenly she seemed to show a way out of the paralysis.

The Labour and Liberal parties were enmeshed in the old regime of inefficient industries and bloated public services, which the nation could no longer afford. As she said, there seemed no alternative.

Come the moment, cometh the woman. And some woman. She was the first woman to lead a political party in Britain and the first woman prime minister, serving longer than any P.M. in the 20th century. As such she gave a great boost to the female cause. She had more balls than most men of her generation—and certainly more than any of the current political leaders in the U.K.

It was at the end of the 1979 election campaign that the outgoing prime minister, James Callaghan, said to me as we drove around Parliament Square, that “every few decades there was a sea change in politics, and this sea change is for Margaret Thatcher.” Coming into government, her true radical mettle and spirit showed. She changed the British political and economic landscape. She had little time for the traditional style of compromise, of avoiding challenges and trying to manage change and decline. She faced issues head on, not afraid to confront anyone and anything—whether the hitherto invincible miners union, her own Tory “wets,” the Russians with President Reagan, the Argentines invading the distant Falkland Islands.

My present wife was injured and her husband killed in the 1984 IRA bomb attack on Thatcher at the Grand Hotel Brighton. And thus were added the IRA terrorists to the list of foes Thatcher implacably faced up to, along with the Argies, the miners, the communists, etc.

She often viewed the state as an enemy and referred to her own cabinet members when they obstructed her as “them,” not “us.”

Negatively of course she helped introduce a rough materialism, an excessive individualism, a lessened concern for the underprivileged, and diminished social values. These may be the price to be paid for securing a more vigorous and competitive economy. But in the eyes of some, including to some extent myself, they have made British society harsher and to some extent less admirable. That has to be set on the downside.

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Margaret Thatcher was above all a leader, though a particular kind of leader—not one guiding, carrying, and shepherding, but one leading straight ahead from the front. She based her leadership on a clear, if narrow set of principles. She stood by them and did not duck or weave.

Although a very British figure, with no pretensions to be cosmopolitan in any way, she did make an impact on the international stage. She was more at home in the U.S.A. than in continental Europe, which came to respect her but was never comfortable with her—nor her with it, which led to lasting problems in her party's relations with the EU.

It is a reflection of Margaret Thatcher’s impact that the word “Thatcherism” is still commonly used in Britain and Europe as shorthand for her whole approach to politics and economics, and sometimes as a term of abuse. Her principles, her prejudices, her confrontational style divided British society and still splits parts of the Tory Party. But only the blind few today refuse to see that this lady was a political leader of immense stature who transformed Britain.