10 things you thought you knew about Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street years...
... but beware, such 'facts' are not all they seem
There has been a febrile, sub-hysterical mood abroad since the announcement last Monday that Margaret Thatcher had died. At one extreme are the posturing, self-conscious celebrations of those – both born and yet to be born when she left office in 1990 – anxious for us to know how radical, angry, and compassionate they are. At the other, are those crossing themselves and mumbling devotions at the shrine to the Blessed Margaret. From childish "The Witch is Dead!" messages to the preposterous claims that she was a greater figure than Churchill, and efforts to identify anyone sceptical of Thatcher's canonisation as bad or mad, the clash is reminiscent of nothing so much as rival football fans chanting abuse. Both extremes are fuelled more by the mythology of Margaret Thatcher than by the reality. So may The Independent on Sunday humbly offer some modest correctives...
Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Myth! Myth! Myth!
There's no shortage of definitive statements about Britain's first woman PM, but few pass The IoS test:
She commanded the support of the silent majority
Margaret Thatcher won three elections, two of them by large margins, but she was never as popular as her ardent admirers imply. The Conservative share of the vote in Britain fell from the 44.9 per cent she won in 1979 to 43.5 per cent in 1983 and to 43.3 per cent in 1987. She benefited from divided opposition in her second and third elections, with Labour and the Liberal/SDP Alliance winning a combined total of 54.3 per cent and 54.6 per cent. The only Tory by-election gain in her period was as a result of Labour's split, when Bruce Douglas-Mann, the Labour MP, stood down to re-fight Mitcham and Morden as an SDP candidate in 1982. She set a record for unpopularity as PM that has not been matched by John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron: 16 per cent satisfied and 79 per cent dissatisfied in March 1990 (Ipsos Mori).
She called Nelson Mandela a 'terrorist'
We have searched the record and spoken to one of her most recent biographers and can find no such comment. She did say, in answer to a question at a press conference at the 1987 Commonwealth Summit in Vancouver on reports that the ANC said they would target British firms: "This shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is." Also, she did not, as frequently maintained, say: "Anyone who thinks the ANC is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land." This is a misquoting of her spokesman, Bernard Ingham, who, when asked if the ANC might overthrow the white South African regime by force, replied: "It is cloud-cuckoo land for anyone to believe that could be done." There are plentiful records of Thatcher condemning apartheid; as far back as 1961 she was proposing a bill of rights for newly independent Commonwealth countries; and her government's efforts in lobbying for Mandela's release were crucial.
She was a dyed-in-the-wool anti-European
Who said this, and when? "Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community." The "who" was Margaret Thatcher. The "when" may surprise those for whom she has become the patron saint of Euroscepticism. The line comes from the founding text of Conservative Euro-truculence – her speech to the College of Bruges on 20 September 1988. Admittedly, she went on to say: "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels."
No other British politician "surrendered" more sovereignty to Brussels than Thatcher. She campaigned for Britain to remain in the Common Market in 1975. She signed the Single European Act, in 1986, which removed the national veto in scores of policy areas to speed up a barrier-free European trading zone. Her government negotiated the Common Fisheries Policy. And yet, as Sir Geoffrey Howe, the Foreign Minister, commented privately after the Bruges speech, she often spoke as if the EU required no "sacrifice of political independence". "Willing and active co-operation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community," she said in Bruges. This was a wilful distortion of the truth. The EU, née EEC, has always been a supranational body, backed by binding treaties and laws.
Thatcher helped to make those laws and treaties even more binding. She accepted that the single market could be achieved only by enforceable rules, not "co-operation". But her simplistic rhetoric, and the anti-European Thatcher myth fostered since she lost power, have framed, and diminished, the European debate in Britain ever since.
She was no democrat
In fact, she was a secret supporter of open government. Well, open local government, anyway. One of the very first things she did as an MP was to introduce a Private Member's Bill to open council committee meetings to the press, thus shining a light on these hitherto murky gatherings. It was the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill in 1960, a year after she was elected MP for Finchley. She introduced it in her Commons maiden speech, which is something no MP has done before, or since, for a Bill which became law. She said then: "The public has the right... to know what its elected representatives are doing … In England and Wales, local authorities spend £1,400m a year and, in Scotland, just over £200m … The first purpose in admitting the press is that we may know how those monies are being spent … The paramount function of this distinguished House is to safeguard civil liberties rather than to think administrative convenience should take first place in law."
A true Conservative, she cut tax and slashed public spending
Despite the fury of opponents over "Tory cuts", and the ardour of supporters of tax cuts, Mrs Thatcher while in No 10 was notably unsuccessful on both scores. The tax burden (measured by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the form of total government receipts as a share of national income) started at just above 40 per cent in 1979, peaked at 45.4 per cent in 1982, then fell below 40 per cent in 1990. Similarly, public spending rose as a share of national income, then fell to a level below that which Thatcher inherited from Labour in 1979. For all her time as Prime Minister, public spending rose in real terms, but after 1982 it rose less quickly than the rate of growth of the economy as a whole.
Thatcher won the Cold War
Well, not exactly – even though some embellishers of the legend would have it that her patented mixture of handbag and argumentative charm was too much even for Mikhail Gorbachev. The truth is that, although Thatcher was even more of a Cold War warrior than her partner Ronald Reagan, the unravelling of Moscow's external empire in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the internal empire that constituted the Soviet Union was brought about by none other than the Kremlin itself.
To be sure, Thatcher's Britain punched well above its weight as a middling Western power, partly because of her close relationship with Reagan, and partly because of the Falklands War. That victory impressed the Russians, who respect determination and the readiness to use force. It was a Soviet newspaper moreover that coined the moniker "Iron Lady". But irrespective of Reagan and Thatcher, the Soviet Union of the early 1980s contained the seeds of its dissolution: an utterly dysfunctional domestic economy and, as a result, the lack of resources to keep up militarily with the US. Its demise was certain. That it happened so fast is due to Gorbachev.
And, as history has repeatedly shown, once authoritarian regimes stop being authoritarian, they collapse, almost by definition. To her credit, Thatcher was quick to recognise that Gorbachev was serious. "I like him; we can do business," she said when he came to London in December 1984. But even she did not foresee that, seven years later, the Soviet Union would be gone.
She was a strong champion of grammar schools
The truth is that, as the Education Secretary in the Heath government between 1970 and 1974, she was responsible for the closure of more grammar schools than any other holder of that post in history. Of the 3,612 applications from local education authorities or schools to abandon selection at 11 and go comprehensive, she turned down only 326. During her tenure of office, the percentage of secondary school pupils going to comprehensives rose from 32 per cent to 62 per cent. Not a single new grammar school was opened in her 11 years as Prime Minister.
As she was a former grammar school pupil, it would have been right to depict her as being ideologically in favour of a grammar school/secondary modern school system. Her government did give local authorities powers to initiate ballots on a return to selection at 11. However, the only authority to take advantage of this – Solihull – found itself roundly defeated in the parental vote and it was never tried again. She did float the idea of allowing grant-maintained schools – which could opt out of council control – to become selective, much to the chagrin of her then Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker. It never happened, though.
She transformed Britain into a property-owning democracy
Thatcher famously gave council tenants the right to buy their homes (at a discount), thus becoming, in the eyes of her mythologists, the leader who hugely expanded "the property-owning democracy". Well, up to a point. She did not ensure the proceeds from these sales were spent on building further homes for rent, or affordable ones to be subsequently bought. And, as new research shows, a large number of these homes ended up owned by wealthy private landlords and property companies. In the London borough of Wandsworth, the GMB union has found, nearly 40 per cent of the 15,874 homes in council blocks where tenants acquired the right to buy are now owned by private landlords. One private landlord owns 93 such homes; another owns 32, and 98 own more than five each. If those figures are replicated across the country, many of the owners of former council properties are not ex-tenants pulling up themselves by the boot straps, but, as GMB says, "private businesses making vast profits from the public purse while the people these homes were built for sit on waiting lists that never move".
She was rich beyond the dreams of avarice
One thing we can all agree on: if you're going to bow out, it might as well be at the Ritz. But like so much about Margaret Thatcher, all was not quite as the image suggested. To the casual observer, a widow who, upon feeling unwell, abandons her Belgravia townhouse for London's smartest hotel is probably sitting on a healthy fortune. But Thatcher was not personally rich. Sources close to her have indicated that she was supported by wealthy friends. Her stay at the Ritz was as a guest of the owners, the Barclay brothers. The house in Chester Square, where similar properties sell for more than £6m, was bought on a 10-year lease for £700,000 in 1991, and renewed a decade later. In 2006, it was bought for £2.4m by a company based in the British Virgin Islands, presumed to belong to a friend, and it's unlikely to pass to her children. Two years after she was ousted from office, her wealth was put at £9.5m. Speaking engagements at £40,000 a pop and a memoir deal worth £3.5m helped to top up the coffers. Sir Denis left £1m between her and the two children on his death in 2003. But how much remains, after years of care, remains unclear. In the end, it may turn out that the grocer's daughter who encouraged us all to make loadsamoney omitted to do so for herself, and certainly not on the Blair scale.
She never had any dealings with the IRA
She twice authorised extensive contacts with the IRA via both the intelligence services and senior civil servants. In 1981, during the republican hunger strike in which 10 prisoners starved themselves to death, messages were sent back and forward, says Michael Oatley, an MI6 officer who is now retired. The republicans sought concessions which would differentiate themselves from non-paramilitary prisoners. Thatcher refused to grant anything that could be presented as political status, describing the hunger strike leader Bobby Sands as "a convicted criminal".
But she did allow exploration of some of the strikers' demands, including the right to wear their own clothes. The talks broke down after weeks of intensive contacts. In her memoirs, Thatcher wrote: "It was possible to admire the courage of Sands and the other hunger strikers who died, but not to sympathise with their murderous cause." In 1990, not long before her resignation, she authorised secret contacts with Martin McGuinness and the IRA while the republican campaign of violence was still going on. This was at the request of John Deverell, head of MI5 in Northern Ireland, who proposed exploratory contacts. Deverell later died in a Chinook helicopter crash. A back channel was opened, with at least one face-to-face meeting taking place with McGuinness. Extensive documentation was passed in both directions, as the authorities and the IRA explored each other's positions. The exchanges came to be regarded as an important component of the peace process.
Memories of Margaret away from the limelight
Edwina Currie, 66, former junior health minister
"I came into the Commons in 1983, and new Tory MPs were invited in batches to have tea with the Prime Minister. I'd been warned to go with a subject to talk about, because she [Thatcher] hated silence. So, eventually, she turns to me and says: 'How are you getting on, Edwina?' I say, we are having problems with rooms because the defeated MPs haven't moved out yet. She says, 'Oh. Have you got a desk?' I say yes, I found a desk. 'Have you got a secretary?' I say, yes, I've brought someone down from Derbyshire. 'Have you got a filing cabinet?' I say, yes, I've got two, actually. So she says: 'Well, I think you are doing rather well, I should stop complaining if I were you.'"
Tessa Phillips, 72, receptionist for Finchley Conservatives
"On the day the troops landed in Goose Green during the Falklands, she arrived and was clearly very emotional while she waited for news. 'They are but a heartbeat away,' she said."
Derek Phillips, 80, helped to select her as Conservative candidate for Finchley
"There were two men and one lady. I said that I would not vote for a lady. You didn't in those days. But when I heard her speak, I just thought she was fantastic. You could tell she knew what she was talking about. She was always extremely caring. I remember waking up from an operation and seeing a handwritten card from her next to my bed."
Tory councillor John Marshall, 73, former MEP
"She was very good at doing things for constituents. I remember there was one who came and said that she had paid some money to Barnet Council in cash and the council records didn't show they had received it. Mrs Thatcher was so convinced it was genuine that she gave one of her party workers the £100 and said: 'Take that money and tell them it's from a well-wisher.'"
Roger Bolton, 67, former BBC television producer
"She hated being interviewed on This Week or Panorama. She said: "I hate, hate, hate it." She got terribly worked up about being interviewed, but when it was over, she would sit and talk, with a glass of whisky in hand, for one or two hours with Bernard Ingham, and she would really let rip. After she first met Mikhail Gorbachev, it was extraordinary to see the mind working over what this person could mean in terms of the relationship between East and West. She often gave the impression of a woman without great imagination, but she had extraordinarily acute intelligence."
Keith Britto, 64, Tory party worker, 1974-1995
"I was acting director of communications at the time of the Brighton bombing. I'll never forget seeing her at the police station afterwards and her determination that the conference would run the next day. Her comment was: 'I don't care what you do, our conference runs tomorrow and I will be speaking.'"
John O'Sullivan, 70, senior Tory policy adviser and speechwriter
"On one occasion I went a bit too far insisting on a particular line. Obviously, she was the Prime Minister with a lot of her plate and here was one of her aides fighting for a particular line to the point where it was unreasonable. She suddenly lost her temper and blew me out of the water. Everyone backed away and this gale seemed to sweep around me. She left the room for a while, returned and said: 'I think I threw a slight tantrum there, John, I'm sorry.'"
George Jones, 68, former political editor of The Daily Telegraph
"Her trips behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s were groundbreaking. She was mobbed by thousands who saw her as a beacon of freedom. Communist bosses did not know how to handle such a phenomenon – and probably had little inkling of the cataclysmic changes she helped set in motion that resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall."
Carol Thatcher, 59, daughter
"My mother regarded food simply as fuel. The late playwright Ronnie Millar, who used to come in for speechwriting sessions often on a Sunday evening, used to raise his eyebrows and mutter: 'Lasagne again.' My mother had total tunnel vision when it came to work. I think she was the most practical, efficient and organised person I have known."
Francis Pym, former foreign secretary, died 2007
"The trouble is, we have got a corporal at the top, not a cavalry officer."
ICI personnel department assessment, rejecting an application from Margaret Roberts in 1948
"This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.'
Glenda Jackson, 76, Labour MP, Hampstead and Kilburn
"Our parents, teachers and pupils spend an inordinate time fundraising to provide basic materials such as paper and pencils. The most dramatic and heinous demonstration of Thatcherism was, we were told, going to be called care in the community. It was actually no care at all in the community."
David Winnick, 79, Labour MP, Walsall North
"It would be hypocritical if those of us who were opposed at the time to what occurred – the mass unemployment, the poverty – were to remain silent when the House debates her life. This will be an opportunity to speak frankly. Obviously, when a person dies, one regrets it. But I regret first and foremost the immense harm, certainly in the West Midlands where deindustrialisation occurred. Even if it could be argued that some of it was inevitable, the manner in which it was done – the brutal contempt towards those who were innocent victims – was disgraceful."
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