The Iron Lady
Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister
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The Iron Lady, the definitive Margaret Thatcher biography, is available just in time for the movie starring Meryl Streep as one of the most infamous figures in postwar politics.
Whether you love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher's impact on twentieth-century history is undeniable. From her humble, small-town upbringing to her rise to power as the United Kingdom's first female prime minister, to her dramatic fall from grace after more than three decades of service, celebrated biographer John Campbell delves into the story of this fascinating woman's life as no one has before. The result of more than nine years of meticulous research, The Iron Lady is the only balanced, unvarnished portrait of Margaret Thatcher, one of the most vital and controversial political figures of our time.
A FORMER town clerk once described Grantham as ‘a narrow town, built on a narrow street and inhabited by narrow people’. It is a plain, no-frills sort of place, brick-built and low-lying: at first sight a typical East Midlands town, once dubbed by the Sun ‘the most boring town in Britain’. Yet Grantham was once more than this. Look closer and it is a palimpsest of English history. Incorporated in 1463, it was a medieval market town. Kings stopped there on their journeys north: Richard III signed Buckingham’s death warrant in the Angel Hotel. St Wulfram’s church boasts one of the tallest spires in England. England’s greatest scientist, Isaac Newton, was born seven miles south of the town in 1642 and educated at the grammar school.
Beatrice Stephenson – Margaret Thatcher’s mother – was Grantham born and bred. She was born on 24 August 1888. Her father, Daniel Stephenson, is euphemistically described as a railway - man: he was actually for thirty-five years a cloakroom attendant. He married, in 1876, Phoebe Crust, described as a farmer’s daughter (which might mean anything) from the village of Fishtoft Fen, near Boston, who had found work in Grantham as a factory machinist. Beatrice, one of several children, lived at home in South Parade until she was twenty-eight, working as a seamstress. Her daughter says she had her own business; but whether she worked alone or employed other girls there is no record. In December 1916 Daniel died. Five months later, on 28 May 1917, Beatrice married an ambitious young shop assistant – four years younger than herself – whom she had met at chapel: Alfred Roberts.
He was not a Grantham man, but was born at Ringstead, near Oundle in Northamptonshire, on 18 April 1892, the eldest of seven children of Benjamin Roberts and Ellen Smith. The Roberts side of his family came originally from Wales – but had been settled in Northamptonshire as boot and shoe manufacturers for four generations. Alfred broke away from shoemaking. A bookish boy, he would have liked to train to be a teacher, but was forced to leave school at twelve to supplement the family income He spent the rest of his life reading determinedly to make up for the education he had missed. He went into the grocery trade and after a number of odd jobs over the next ten years came to Grantham in 1913 to take up a position as an assistant manager with Clifford’s on London Road. It was while working for Alderman Clifford that he met Beatrice Stephenson. They are said to have met in chapel; but she may well have been a customer as well. However they met, Alfred soon began a lengthy courtship.
As a young man born in 1892 Alf was lucky to survive the Great War. He was tall, upright and good looking, but seriously short sighted. All his life he wore thick pebble glasses. He tried to enlist, but was rejected on the grounds of defective eyesight. Spared the fate of so many of his contemporaries, he was free to pursue his chosen trade. He worked hard and saved hard, and by 1917 he and Beatrice – he called her Beatie – had saved enough to marry. At first Alf moved in with Beatie and her mother, but within two years they were able, with a mortgage, to buy their own small shop at the other end of town in North Parade. Phoebe came to live with them over the shop. Their first child, christened Muriel, was born in May 1921. Their second, another daughter, did not come for another four years, by which time Beatrice was thirty-seven. Margaret Hilda Roberts – the choice of names has never been explained – was born over the shop on 13 October 1925.
The shop was a general store and also a post office. This is something which the iconography of Thatcherism tends to overlook; yet it subtly changes the picture of Alfred as the archetypal small businessman and champion of private enterprise. He was that; but as a sub-postmaster he was also an agent of central government, a sort of minor civil servant. The post office franchise was an import - ant part of his business. The Post Office Savings Bank was the only bank most people knew; and old-age pensions had been paid through the post office since their introduction in 1908.The elderly of north Grantham collected their weekly ten shillings from North Parade. To this extent Alfred – even in the 1920s and much more so after 1945 – was an agent of the nascent welfare state; and Margaret was brought up with first-hand knowledge of its delivery system.
The post office was open from 8.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m., Monday to Saturday, with Thursday early closing. During these hours either Alfred or Beatie was always in the shop – Alfred normally at his corner by the bacon slicer – but they also employed two or three assistants, plus another permanently in the post office. In the early years Grandmother Stephenson served in the shop too; and later, as they grew up, the girls helped out when they were not at school – not only serving, but weighing out the sugar, tea, biscuits and lentils in the back. From an early age young Margaret gained a close awareness of the market in its purest form.
Alfred’s move into politics was a natural extension of his business. In a place like Grantham most members of the town council were tradesmen of one sort or another, effectively representing the Chamber of Trade. It happened that in April 1927 the council was expanded from twelve members to eighteen. Alfred was one of six candidates put up by the Chamber of Trade to fill the additional vacancies. He represented St Wulfram’s for sixteen years until he was elected an alderman in 1943.
His overriding purpose in local politics was keeping the rates down. He very quickly became chairman of the Finance and Rating Committee, and retained that position for more than twenty years. He established a formidable reputation for guarding the ratepayers’ pennies as carefully as his own. One need seek no further for the origin of Mrs Thatcher’s visceral hostility to public spending. In 1936 he successfully opposed a proposal that the council should employ its own direct labour force to maintain the town’s newly built stock of public housing. ‘I do not believe’, he argued, ‘that there is an instance where jobs done by direct labour save money over jobs done by contract.’ He faced his greatest embarrassment in 1937 when he was obliged to ask for a seven pence rate increase to fourteen shillings in the pound. Characteristically he blamed his colleagues for having approved excessive commitments; his job, he protested, was merely to find the money. ‘It is just brought to your notice now’, he told them, ‘what exactly you have been approving.’ On top of his seat on the council and chairmanship of the Finance Committee, Alfred was active in many other areas of Grantham life. In 1943 he was elected the town’s youngest alderman and in 1945–6 served as mayor. He was a good mayor in a particularly testing year, presiding not only over victory celebrations and Remembrance Day parades but also the rebuilding necessitated by Grantham’s extensive bomb damage.
The most celebrated episode in Alfred’s political career was its ending. By 1950 Labour had won a majority on Grantham council for the first time; they naturally installed one of their own councillors as chairman of the Finance Committee. Two years later they used their majority, quite legitimately, to elect their own aldermen, thereby displacing Roberts from the council after twenty-seven years. His removal was widely deplored as an act of petty ingratitude to an outstanding servant of the local community. Thirty-three years later his daughter famously shed tears when she recalled his deposition in a television interview.
At the heart of all Alfred’s community activity was his religion. As a devout Methodist, he made no distinction between commercial, political and religious values. Simultaneously shopkeeper, local politician and lay preacher, he conducted his business on ethical principles and preached business principles in politics. In all three spheres he prided himself on hard work, high standards and integrity. He was indeed a proud man, with a powerful sense of his own worth – tempered by proper Christian humility.
Alfred Roberts’ Methodism was a religion of personal salvation. His preaching was fundamentalist, Bible-based, concerned with the individual’s responsibility to God for his own behaviour. Unlike the nonconformist tradition which played such a large part in the foundation of the British labour movement, it was not a social gospel, but an uncompromisingly individualistic moral code which underpinned an individualist approach to politics and commerce. A man’s duty was to keep his own soul clean, mind his own business, and care for his own family. At best it was a philosophy which instilled a further obligation to look after neighbours in need and thence, by extension, to wider community service and private charity. At the same time, however, it carried a strong undercurrent of selfrighteousness and moral superiority.
Margaret’s childhood was dominated by her parents’ faith. Sundays – the only day in the week the shop was closed – were almost wholly taken up with church attendance. Sunday school at ten was followed by morning service at eleven. There was just time to get home for lunch before afternoon Sunday School at 2:30 at which Margaret, from the age of about twelve, played the piano for the younger ones; then it was back again for evening service at six. During the week, too, the family’s social life was almost entirely church-based. Beatie attended a sewing circle on Tuesdays, often taking Margaret with her; Muriel and Margaret attended the Methodist Guild on Fridays. Life at home was austere, teetotal, governed by strict rules, particularly while Beatie’s mother was still alive. Grandmother Stephenson, Margaret told one of her first biographers, was ‘very, very Victorian and very, very strict’. The greatest sin of all was wasting time. Every minute of the day was to be filled with useful occupation. Never was a childhood lesson more thoroughly taken to heart.
Alf Roberts was not poor. As a successful shopkeeper he belonged by the 1930s to the middle middle class; he could scarcely have devoted so much of his time to politics had his business not been securely profitable. At a time when quite ordinary middle-class families up and down the country were discovering the liberation of vacuum cleaners, washing machines and even cars, he could certainly have afforded his family the luxury of a few modern conveniences; at the very least hot water. They did in fact have a maid before the war, and later a cleaning lady two days a week. It was for religious and temperamental reasons – puritanism and parsimony – not economic necessity, that Alfred kept his family in such austerity. The flashes of rebellion that illuminate Mrs Thatcher’s recollections fifty years later betray a sense that she felt the parsimony, like the churchgoing, was taken too far. Ironically Alf and Beatie did move to a larger house with more home comforts soon after Margaret left to go to Oxford.
The family did get a wireless set after Grandmother Stephenson died in 1935 (when Margaret was ten). This was such an event that she remembers running all the way back from school that day. The wireless was the one form of popular entertainment that was allowed. Margaret unquestionably longed for a bit more glamour than her parents’ principles allowed. The highlight of her whole childhood was a visit to London, without her parents, when she was twelve. She was sent to stay with friends – a Wesleyan minister and his wife – in Hampstead. ‘I stayed for a whole week’, she recalled, ‘and was given a life of enjoyment and entertainment that I had never seen.’ As well as all the usual sights – the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard, the Houses of Parliament and the zoo – ‘we were actually taken to the theatre’. The show was the musical The Desert Song at the Catford Theatre. ‘We saw the crowds and the bright lights and I was so excited and thrilled by it that I’ve never forgotten that week.’
What she did do during her childhood was to read precociously. This was undoubtedy the medium of her father’s most direct and lasting influence. Alfred was a voracious autodidact, reputed to be ‘the best-read man in Grantham’ (though one has to wonder when he found the time). ‘Each week my father would take two books out of the library – a “serious” book for himself (and me) and a novel for my mother.’ From an early age Margaret shared her father’s – rather than her mother’s – taste. Reading was a means of self-improvement and advancement in the world; perhaps because he had no son, Alfred encouraged his younger daughter to read influential books of the moment, like John Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power, and discussed them with her. He was a member of the library committee, so he got first pick of these topical books. Of course she read some classic fiction too; but she confessed that her favourite Dickens novel was A Tale of Two Cities, because it was about politics.
This utilitarian attitude to literature was reinforced by her education. At school she specialised in science, went on to read chemistry at Oxford, and then took up law. From Oxford onwards she devoted most of her spare time to politics. As a result she never had much time to enlarge on her youthful reading. What she read and learned in her first eighteen years, under her father’s influence, remained the bedrock of her literary education. In this sense it is literally true that she learned ‘almost everything’ from her father. She always insisted that the most important lesson he taught her was to follow her own convictions. ‘Never do things just because other people do them,’ he told her when she wanted to go dancing. ‘Make up your own mind what you are going to do and persuade people to go your way.’ ‘Never go with the crowd,’ she paraphrased his advice in 1982. ‘Never, never, never.’ The paradox, of course, is that she went on, with no sense of contradiction, to pride herself on taking all her ideas from him. ‘He brought me up to believe all the things I do believe and they are the values on which I fought the election.’
It is a curious thing for a strong-minded woman to proclaim in this way her debt to her father, as if she was no more than his echo. In fact she exaggerated the extent of her fidelity to Alfred’s teaching – presumably to divert attention from the important respects in which she had abandoned it. Once she had got away from Grantham and embarked upon her own career she quickly adopted a style of life and political values a world away from his spartan ethic. Symbolically, she abandoned her parents’ church and gravitated to the Church of England. She gave her own children an upbringing as different as possible from the puritanical austerity she always claimed had been so good for her. Mark and Carol were not made to go to church, she told Patricia Murray, ‘because I’d had so much insist - ence myself ’. ‘There was not a lot of fun and sparkle in my life,’ she told an audience of children in 1980. ‘I tried to give my children a little bit more.’ An alternative interpretation is that Mark and Carol were smothered in material comforts in guilty compensation for their mother’s absence, for most of their childhood, in pursuit of her political career.
Yet clearly much that Alfred taught his daughter did go into the forging of her creed. The political personality that Margaret Thatcher became was moulded by her upbringing. Essentially she took three things from her father’s example. First, it was Alfred who instilled in her the habit of hard work, as something both virtuous in itself and the route to self-advancement. Second, it was the example of Alfred’s tireless community activity which bred in his daughter a powerful impulse towards public service. The third, and perhaps most important, legacy which Alfred gave his daughter was an exceptionally powerful moral sense. More than anything else in her political make-up, it was her fierce confidence that she knew right from wrong – even if what was right was not always immediately attainable – which marked Margaret Thatcher out from contemporary politicians. She believed absolutely in her own integrity and habitually disparaged the motives of those who disagreed with her. This rare moral certainty and unreflective selfrighteousness was her greatest political strength in the muddy world of political expediency and compromise; it was also in the end her greatest weakness.
The most extraordinary thing about Mrs Thatcher’s mythologisation of her father is that it was entirely retrospective. Having once escaped from Alfred at the age of eighteen she saw very little of him for the remainder of his life. In 1951 she took her fiancé to meet his prospective in-laws. Alfred Roberts and Denis Thatcher had nothing in common. Once they were married, Margaret and Denis went back to Grantham very rarely. When Beatie died in 1960, Alf remarried – a local farmer’s widow called Cissie Hubbard, with grown-up children. ‘I suppose that’s a good thing,’ Margaret witheringly confided. ‘She’s a nice homely little woman.’ He lived until February 1970. He was proud of his daughter being a Member of Parliament, and was said to have been listening to her on a radio discussion programme just before he died. But he did not live quite long enough to see her in the Cabinet – though, curiously, she believed he did. Perhaps she was thinking of the Shadow Cabinet; but her mistake suggests that he did not share very closely in her triumphs. He had only a graduation photograph of her in his house: nothing more recent, and no pictures of his grandchildren. Mark and Carol were sixteen when Alfred died, yet appear to have little memory of him. The impression is inescapable that Margaret was very much less devoted to her wonderful father while he was alive than she became to his sanctified image after he was dead.
The key to Margaret Roberts’ escape from Grantham was education. Her formal schooling began a few weeks before her fifth birthday, on 3 September 1930, at Huntingtower Road County Elementary School, reputed to be the best council school in Grantham. According to her own account she could already read by the time she went there, and she quickly moved up a year. She was already formidably diligent and competitive. At the age of nine she won a poetry recital competition at the local music festival When the head congratulated her, saying she was lucky, she denied it indignantly: ‘I wasn’t lucky. I deserved it. She would always believe that if she worked hard she would deserve to win. The following year, when still only ten, she won a scholarship to the fee-paying girls’ grammar school, Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School (known as KGGS), where her sister Muriel had already gone before her.
In fact Alfred paid Margaret’s fees too, since the scholarship was means-tested; it was nevertheless a useful insurance, and a considerable achievement.
Her reports give a clear picture of her character. At Christmas 1936 she was said to have ‘worked steadily and well throughout the term. She has definite ability, and her cheeriness makes her a very pleasant member of her form. Her behaviour is excellent.’ The following July she won praise for ‘neat and careful work’. The next year she was ‘a very helpful member of her form’ and ‘achieved a high standard in every subject’. In her fifth year (the summer of 1941) she sat her School Certificate: she passed well in all subjects, but her methodical approach naturally directed her towards specialising in the sciences.
An interest in chemistry was not something she derived from her father, nor was it the most obvious subject for a girl precociously consumed by current affairs; later, when she had set her sights on a political career, she regretted having been sidetracked into science. At the age of sixteen, however, chemistry was her best subject. It suited the practical bent of her mind, and – most import - ant at that age – she liked her teacher. It was a sensible subject, leading to good employment prospects.
Margaret was not quite fourteen when the war began, nearly twenty when it ended; it overshadowed her entire adolescence and was overwhelmingly the formative influence on her political development and specifically her approach to international relations. She came to political awareness in the mid-1930s at just the moment when international crises – in Abyssinia, the Rhineland, Spain and Czechoslovakia – began to dominate the news. Her first political memory was the so-called ‘Peace Ballot’ organised by the League of Nations Union in 1934. At a time when most Methodists inclined towards pacifism, Alfred appears to have been exceptionally aware of the threatening European situation, convinced of the need for rearmament to resist Nazism, and also – more unusually – concerned about the plight of the Jews. In 1938 the Roberts family briefly gave sanctuary to a seventeen-year-old Austrian girl – the penfriend of Margaret’s sister Muriel – sent to England by her parents to escape the Anschluss. She did not stay long – Alfred persuaded other Rotary families to take her in turn – but she brought the reality of what was happening in Central Europe home to North Parade. The war itself was a formative influence for Margaret Thatcher’s whole generation, yet it affected her in a crucially different way from her male contemporaries. She was not only just too young to fight: she was the wrong sex. She could have joined one of the women’s services when she left school, which would have got her into uniform and closer to the action; but still she could never have gained that first-hand experience of combat which left such a deep and lasting impression on practically all the young men who became her rivals and colleagues in the years ahead. Mrs Thatcher’s experience on the home front – listening to Churchill in the blackout, following the campaigns with little flags on maps – taught her different lessons.
Unlike those who served during or after the war in France, Germany, the Mediterranean or the Far East, Mrs Thatcher never set foot out of England before her honeymoon in 1952, when she was twenty-six. Seen from Grantham, the peoples of the Continent were either odious enemies to be defeated, or useless allies who had to be saved from the consequences of their own feebleness by the British and Americans. By contrast the Americans were cousins, partners, friends: powerful and generous, the saviours of democracy, champions of freedom, prosperity and progress. Nor was this a merely abstract admiration: from 1942 onwards there was a large presence of American airmen stationed at bases around Grantham. Though they excited considerable interest among the local girls, there is no record that any of them tried to take up with Margaret Roberts. She never had much time for that sort of thing. But she saw the Americans around the town, noted the spending power they brought to the local economy, and could hear them flying out each day to bomb Germany.
We are dealing with simplistic stereotypes here. But there can be no doubt that Mrs Thatcher’s instinctive and lifelong belief in the Atlantic alliance as the first principle of British foreign policy, and her equally instinctive contempt for the continental Europeans, both derived from her particular experience of the Second World War – an experience unique among British politicians of the postwar era. It is impossible to overemphasise the significance of this gulf of perception. It was not just her sex which made Mrs Thatcher different: the most important consequence of her sex was her lack of military experience.
Though she did not sit her Higher School Certificate until 1943, she had already received offers from both Nottingham (‘our local university’) and Bedford College, London, before the end of 1942. However, she was determined, with Alfred’s support, to try for Oxford. (‘I regarded it as being quite simply the best, and if I was serious about getting on in life that is what I should always strive for . . . I was never tempted to opt for Nottingham.’) So she sat a scholarship exam in December 1942. She narrowly missed the prize (she was, as she points out in her memoirs, only seventeen); but she was offered a place at Somerville College, Oxford, for October 1944. The lost year was important since, under wartime regulations, unless she went up in 1943 she would only be allowed to take a two-year degree before being called up for National Service. Still, it was a considerable achievement to have won a place. With a university place secured, but a year to fill before she could expect to take it up, the natural thing for a patriotic eighteen year- old in the middle of the war might have been to do as many of her contemporaries had already done and join one of the women’s services; or, if that would have committed her for too long a period, at least find some other form of war work while she waited to go to Oxford. It is a little odd that she chose instead to go back to school for another year.
The autumn term began in August, three weeks early to allow an October break for potato picking. Just three weeks into the term, however, there came a telephone call from Somerville: a vacancy had arisen – another girl had presumably decided that she had more compelling priorities – so Miss Roberts was offered the chance to take up her place immediately. She therefore left KGGS in the middle of the term, left home and Grantham and went up to Oxford in October 1943, with the opportunity, after all, to enjoy a full three years.
Going to Oxford was the great opportunity which changed Margaret Roberts’ life, opened doors to her and set her on the way to a political career. Yet Oxford was not for her, as it was for so many others, a golden period of youthful experiment and self-discovery. In the four years she eventually spent there she made no lasting friendships, underwent no intellectual awakening. She did not light up the university in any way: none of her contemporaries saw her as anything remarkable, still less picked her as a future Prime Minister. Yet she was already more than half-determined to go into politics and used her time at Oxford quite deliberately to make connections which would be useful to her in years to come. The fact that no one noticed her was largely a function of her sex: Oxford in the 1940s was still a predominantly male society. The Union, in particular, was barred to women, who were obliged to confine their political activity to the less glamorous back rooms of the Conservative Association and the Labour Club. But even within the Conservative Association Margaret Roberts seemed no more than diligent. The most remarkable thing about her Oxford career, in fact, was how little the experience seemed to change her.
Admittedly, Oxford in wartime was a shadow of its normal self. There were more women than usual and fewer young men; rather than giving the women more opportunity to shine, however, the men’s absence seemed to drain the place of much of its energy. Margaret was given rooms in college, but was slow to make friends. ‘Yes, I was homesick,’ she admitted to Patricia Murray. ‘I think there would be something very wrong with your home life if you weren’t just a little.’ She gradually filled her rooms with familiar pictures and bits of furniture brought from home.
Her principal antidote to loneliness was work; but in some ways this only increased it. Chemistry is an unsociable course of study, involving long hours alone in the laboratory: years later she recalled that science was ‘impersonal’, compared with arts subjects which gave more opportunity for discussion and debate. She was probably already beginning to regret having chosen chemistry; but she stuck at it conscientiously and she was more than competent at it, combining as she did a clear mind with an infinite capacity for taking pains. In her third year she devoted more of her time to politics and less to work. Had she dedicated herself single- mindedly to getting a first she might – by sheer application – have succeeded. As it was she won a university essay prize, shared with another Somerville girl. But she was not so single-minded. Moreover she was ill during her final exams. In the circumstances she did well to take a solid second. It was good enough to allow her to come back for a fourth year to do a B.Sc.
Outside her work, her most active commitment in her first two years was the John Wesley Society. This was a natural refuge for a shy provincial girl of Methodist upbringing, an opportunity to meet people like herself with similar habits and assumptions. She attended the Wesley Memorial Church on Sundays, and her social life revolved around the Methodist Study Group and tea parties run by the Students’ Fellowship. It would be easy to conclude that the re - assuring familiarity of Methodism was simply a comfort blanket while she found her feet: ‘a sober but cheerful social life’, as she put it, ‘which I found the more valuable in my initially somewhat strange surroundings’. But she took it more seriously than that. The Wesley Society used to send its members out in pairs to preach in the surrounding villages – exactly as Alfred preached in the villages around Grantham. Margaret readily joined in this activity. Fifty years later, a Somerville contemporary and fellow Methodist clearly remembered a sermon she preached on the text ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you’, which was regarded by all who heard it as ‘outstanding’. No doubt it owed a lot to Alfred; but it should not be forgotten that when, much later, she was invited to expound her faith from a number of famous pulpits, she had done it before. She was a preacher before she was a politician.
By far the most important thing she did in her first term was to join the Oxford Union Conservative Association (OUCA). There was no question of her joining any other party, or all the political clubs, as some new undergraduates did. She had no doubt of her allegiance; Winston Churchill was her hero and she already took her political commitment very seriously.
To Janet Vaughan, Principal of Somerville and proud of the college’s left-wing reputation, Miss Roberts was an embarrassment, a cuckoo in her progressive nest.
She fascinated me. I used to talk to her a great deal; she was an oddity. Why? She was a Conservative. She stood out. Somerville had always been a radical establishment and there weren’t many Conservatives about then. We used to argue about politics; she was so set in steel as a Conservative. She just had this one line . . . We used to entertain a good deal at weekends, but she didn’t get invited. She had nothing to contribute, you see./
It would be hard to overestimate the effect of this sort of snobbish condescension on the formation of Margaret Thatcher’s character. The discovery that all the trendy people were against her only confirmed her certainty that they were all wrong and reinforced her righteous sense of persecution. She encountered the same patronising attitude when she first became Leader of the Opposition in 1975. She had probably met it already at school, where she was used to being a loner who was not allowed to go to dances: it was precisely the attitude Alfred had tried to arm her against by urging her to follow her own – or his – convictions and ignore the crowd. But nowhere can it have been more brutal than at Oxford, where she went up naively expecting to find rational inquiry but met only arrogant superiority. This was her first encounter with the liberal establishment and she did not like it. It hardened her heart: one day she would get even.
Miss Roberts made her first recorded political speech during the 1945 General Election. As soon as the term ended she went back to Grantham to work for the Conservative who was trying to regain the seat from Denis Kendall – an Independent who had won it at a by-election during the war. The new candidate was Squadron Leader Worth. The twin themes of his campaign were encapsulated in an advertisement in the Grantham Journal: ‘Worth stands for Agriculture and Churchill.’ Margaret Roberts, still only nineteen, acted as warm-up speaker at meetings before the Squadron Leader arrived. At one such meeting on 25 June, the Sleaford Gazette reported, ‘the very youthful Miss M. H. Roberts, daughter of Alderman A. Roberts of Grantham’, did not talk about agriculture, but spoke with pre cocious confidence about the need to punish Germany, to cooperate with both the Soviet Union and the United States, and to ‘stand by the Empire’ – as well as the importance of confirming Churchill in power. Having lost Roosevelt, she urged, the world could not afford to lose Churchill too.
If she expected Kendall to lose and Churchill to be returned, however, she was wrong on both counts. Kendall held Grantham by a huge majority while the Conservative Government was swept from office by a totally unanticipated Labour landslide. Miss Roberts was shocked by the result. ‘I simply could not understand how the electorate could do this to Churchill,’ she wrote. She was still more shocked to find that others whom she had assumed to be right-thinking Conservatives were not equally dismayed but elated by the election of a Labour Government. She always had difficulty believing that otherwise decent people could genuinely hold opposite opinions to her own. Looking back over half a century she portrayed the 1945 election as the start of the rot which did not begin to be set right until she herself was elected in 1979.
Returning to Oxford for her third year she found a university transformed by returning servicemen, older than normal peacetime undergraduates, keen both to build a new world and to celebrate their own survival. Lady Thatcher claims to have enjoyed the seriousness of the new influx; but she also allowed herself to unbend slightly and enjoy a little of the new hedonism. ‘It was at this time’, she wrote in The Path to Power, ‘that I first went out to dances and even on occasion drank a little wine.’ She tried smoking, did not like it and decided to spend her money buying The Times every day instead. She went to the theatre. But she was not, so far as we know, tempted to act: nor did she develop any lasting interest in the theatre. What she did discover was a love of ballroom dancing, a taste which stayed with her, though rarely indulged, all her life. But who did she dance with? There is no record that she had any serious male friends at Oxford, let alone a boyfriend. The fact is that her social life was wholly subordinated to politics. By her third year, despite competition from the returning servicemen, she was senior enough to stand for office within OUCA. She was first elected to be Secretary, in which capacity she attended a Conservative student conference in London; then Treasurer in the summer term; and finally President in Michaelmas 1946, when she went back to Oxford for a fourth year to take her B.Sc.
In her memoirs Lady Thatcher described her time at Oxford as an important period of intellectual foundation-building. Yet the only books she specifically mentions having read are Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which was first published in 1944, and Who are ‘The People’? by the anti-socialist journalist Colm Brogan, published in 1943. Reading chemistry for her degree, rather than history or PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) like most aspiring politicians, she was not exposed to the discipline of sampling the whole spectrum of political thought; she was free to read only what she was likely to agree with. But if she did read The Road to Serfdom at this time, she also read Keynes’ seminal White Paper on Full Employment, published the same year. Many years later she produced a heavily annotated copy from her handbag to berate the young Tony Blair in the House of Commons. She made very little acknowledgement of Hayek’s influence over the next thirty years.
But this is not surprising: she was always a gut politician, to whom intellectual arguments were no more than useful reinforcement. It is only retrospectively that she would like to claim an intellectual pedigree that was no part of her essential motivation. Then, in early October 1946, she attended her first party conference, at Blackpool. She loved it. One of the sources of Mrs Thatcher’s strength in the 1980s was that – almost uniquely among Tory leaders – she was in tune with ordinary party members. That love affair began at Blackpool. Now she met for the first time the Tory rank and file en masse already reacting defiantly to the outrageous impositions of socialism. She was impressed by the sheer number of the representatives, disproving any idea that Conservatism was an extinct creed, and she felt that she was one of them.
From now on she was on the inside track. No one she met at Oxford directly helped her or advanced her career; but having been President of OUCA gave her a standing at Central Office which helped her on to the candidates’ list. What Oxford did not give her was a liberal education. She did not mix very widely or open herself to new views or experiences. She arrived in Oxford with her political views already settled and spent four years diligently confirming them. Undoubtedly her scientific training gave her a clarity and practicality of thought very different from the wishful woolliness of much arts and social science thinking. At the same time she read little or no history at university; and neither then nor later did she read much literature.
This amounted to more than a gap in cultural knowledge. More important, she did not receive the sort of education that delights in the diversity of different perspectives or might have exposed her to the wisdom of philosophic doubt. Her mind dealt in facts and moral certainties. She left Oxford, as she went up, devoid of a sense of either irony or humour, intolerant of ambiguity and equivocation. Her study of science at school and university chimed with her strict moral and religious upbringing and reinforced it, where a more liberal education in the arts or humanities might have encouraged her to question or qualify it. This rigid cast of mind was a source of unusual strength in Mrs Thatcher’s political career. But it was also a severe limitation, exacerbating a lack of imaginative sympathy with other views and life-experiences which ultimately restricted her ability to command support.
She left Oxford in the summer of 1947, a qualified research chemist. For the past year she had been working under Dorothy Hodgkin, trying to discover the protein structure of an antibiotic called Gramicidin B, using the same technique of passing X-rays through crystals that Professor Hodgkin had successfully applied to penicillin. As it happened Gramicidin B was more complicated than penicillin, and she failed to crack it. There was no discredit in this: success was not finally achieved until 1980. She was still awarded her degree, but it was not the degree she wanted. In the short run it was the only qualification she possessed: it was as a chemist that she must start her working life. But she had already set her mind on going into politics.