When Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the British Conservative Party in February, she became the first woman to lead the official opposition in that country’s House of Commons. If the affections of the British electorate were to swing from Labor to Conservative in the next election, she would become the first woman to be prime minister of the United Kingdom and the first female head of government in the advanced democracies of the Western world. Humbly born, the second daughter of a grocer in a small market town in the east of England, she has risen to the top of a political party that traditionally has been led by aristocrats, men of wealth and social standing. This achievement is all the more remarkable in a political environment in which, as women in British political life will attest, a woman must be twice as able as any man to succeed. Britain’s prime-minister-in-waiting, as she is now sometimes called, was interviewed in London recently by Kenneth Harris of The Observer.
Harris: What is the real Margaret Thatcher really like? Some people have the impression that you are a cool, collected, very controlled type of person and therefore, perhaps, lacking in feeling, rather a cold person. Thatcher: I can understand why some people might think that. I try to be controlled. I was brought up to be. My parents, who were the main influence in my life and on my attitude to life, including politics, taught us—my sister and me—to be controlled. I was brought up to think that you never lost your temper, at least not in public. That you didn’t complain, you counted your blessings. You never spoke of your failures—of course, you had failures and disappointments, but you didn’t talk about them—you just got on with the job. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t compassionate in the face of other people’s failures and disappointments; it means you don’t indulge in self-pity, and you don’t encourage anybody else to. If I feel let down, if I am hurt by what is written or said about me, and I sometimes am, I don’t think it right to bemoan my fate in public. Or to brood over it in private. It’s harder to feel this way when other people are hurt on one’s account, one’s family or one’s friends. But tomorrow is a new day and how one deals with that is what really counts.
Harris: Do you think that a person might display so much self-control as to put people off? Seem to be a cold fish? Which could be a shortcoming in a political leader?
Thatcher: I don’t think it would be the self-control that would put people off I think people recognize the difference between a person who is self-controlled and a person who is a cold fish. Cold-fish people put one off, and a cold fish would not be effective in politics, because politics— what I mean by politics—is about helping people to live a better life.
Harris: Could you tell me a few things about your parents that you feel have a relation to what kind ofa person and what kind ofa politician you are?
BRITAIN HAS THE SAME ABILITY AND POTENTIAL AS 30 YEARS AGO, BUT NOT THE SAME CONFIDENCE
Thatcher: It’s difficult to think about my parents so clinically. My father—he made his living by running a grocery shop—was a religious man, a Methodist, who believed that your religious belief should show in the way you live every day. You went to church three times on Sundays, but you didn’t then give your religion a rest for the other six days of the week—you practised it. He was a lay preacher for nearly 50 years, but he had a great sense of public service. As far back as I can remember, he was on the council, then an alderman and mayor. He also had a great sense of neighborliness. I can remember walking to school in the mornings and passing queues outside the Labor Exchange. There were many who got their groceries on credit in our shop. Debts in a grocer’s shop are what
worry you most, but he would not press for payment in difficult times. In small businesses there isn’t much margin, so you can’t afford many bad debts.
But though he had a Christian belief in the strong helping the weak, the better-off helping the poor, he believed the principle that should activate people was a wish to stand on their own two feet. He had done that himself. He had worked in somebody else’s shop, and had saved enough to buy a shop of his own. My mother, too, was much the same. She was a dressmaker. She was very practical. Good in business and good with her hands. Her values were the same as my father’s. She was a good neighbor, too. When she baked, twice a week, she baked enough for us to give to somebody who was poor or sick: I sometimes used to take the cakes round to them. My parents both worked very hard, they never put their feet up. But I don’t mean that life was all church, trade and public service. My father loved reading and discussing what was going on in the world. They were attractive people—he especially tall, sixfoot three, and blond. They were both very neat and tidy, always well turned out. Harris: What did you learn from your father that has had a lasting influence on your political thinking?
Thatcher: Example rather than precept, I think. Nothing very specific. It was the atmosphere that was created in the home. There was a great sense of effort, of always doing something. Not necessarily work— talk, discussion, playing the piano—but always something. You worked hard, not because work was everything but because work was necessary to give you what you wanted. There was also the feeling that idleness was a waste. You worked hard at school, not only to improve your mind but to enable you to get a job that was interesting and demanding. It was very important to use your life to some purpose. The more you put into your life the more you would get out. To pursue pleasure for its own sake was wrong.
Harris: When you think of your father’s example to you, what comes immediately to your mind?
Thatcher: His simple conviction that some things are right and some are wrong. His belief that life is ultimately about character, that character comes from what you make of yourself. You must work hard to earn money to support yourself, but hard work was even more important in the formation of character. Money was not as important as character. There were many things which ought never to be done for money—marriage, for instance. Money was only a means to an end. Ends never justified means.
Harris: Do you think your strict upbringing as a child may have given you any sense of deprivation?
Thatcher: No, life was very full. I would have liked some things to have been different. For instance, on Sunday nights some girls at my school would go to dances or parties. It sounded very nice. I would have liked to have gone. But my sister and I didn’t go dancing. I would have adored to have been good at tennis, but I wasn’t. When I was 16,1 gave up studying the piano. I loved music, and I was really getting quite good at the piano, but I could see I would have to give it up if I was going to get to university. That was hard to do. There were those setbacks, yes, but nothing more important.
Harris: Do you feel any tension nowadays between the comparatively comfortable, free and varied life you live and the rather strict life you led as a girl?
Thatcher: No. The differences don’t suddenly happen. They take place over a long period. As I got older, I was able to do things I hadn’t been able to do earlier on. I went out to parties much more and came to love ballroom dancing. Also, my father’s ideas were modified by his experience in wartime. Sunday cinemas, for instance. Before the war, he was against them. During the war, we had a great many troops in and around our town: they needed something to do on Sundays. So my father supported Sunday cinemas. So I live now, differently in some respects from how I used to live, but hard work and personal effort are still predominant.
Harris: Do you feel guilt?
Thatcher: What have I got to be guilty about? What I have and where I am is the result of continuous effort and the courage to take the next step. There may be some politicians who are so conscious of being born into wealth that they are inhibited for fear they seem to be perpetuating their own privileges. I think that if a person is born to wealth, he shouldn’t waste time feeling guilty about it: he should act, and use his good fortune to improve the lot of other people. One of my favorite quotations is: “That which thy father bequeathed thee, earn it anew, if thou wouldst possess it.”
Harris: How old were you when you became conscious of party politics?
Thatcher: I remember when I was about 10 years old my mother was at the local Conservative committee room and we were both putting candidates’ election addresses into envelopes for the 1935 general election. Members of the council would come to the house to talk with my parents. My father liked to talk. He was practical— you can’t be a successful shopkeeper unless you are practical—but he was philosophical, too. I used to listen to the adults talking. Avidly. Even if I didn’t understand what they were saying. I felt drawn to the conversation. The main issues were international. I don’t remember Hitler reoccupying the Rhineland, but I remember him going into Austria—I was 12 years old, and we listened to every news bulletin. Harris: When you were young, did you think one day of becoming an MP? Thatcher: Not at all. When I went up to Oxford in 1943 I joined the University Conservative Association. I worked all day—I read chemistry, so that meant a lot of laboratory work in the daytime and lectures in the early evening. I spent a good deal of my spare time talking and discussing political matters, as I had done at home. But I knew I had to get my qualifications, then a job, and that political activity would have to come second to that. So I saw politics in terms of voluntary parttime activity on a local level. Looking at it from a strictly financial point of view at the time we are speaking of, MPS were paid nine pounds ($36) a week. I couldn’t have done a proper job as an MP on nine pounds a week, to cover secretarial help and living in London as well as a constituency. I had no private income or trade union to back me. I just didn’t think of being a Member of Parliament.
AT WEEKENDS I COOK AND DO SOME HOUSEWORK. AND CLOTHES NEED WASHING OR MENDING OR PRESSING
Harris: In the period between the end of the war and 1951, when you became a political candidate, what did you see as the major issues ofpolitics?
Thatcher: On international affairs, the main problem was the reestablishment of a world peace without the fatal flaws in the treaties made after the First World War. I think the main thing that young people today don’t understand is the value of peace. They take peace for granted. In that immediate postwar period we knew what it felt like to be free of the threat of war, and we knew that the peace had to be rebuilt. We knew that the mistakes of the old League of Nations had to be avoided. On the domestic front, the main problem was how to stop a whole way of life being swept away by the Labor government’s policies of nationalization and controls. It looked as if they would nationalize everything and control everything. They seemed to like controls for their own sake, and several new ones were introduced after the war was over. What worried us most was that some young people were growing up who had known no other kind of society. Harris: But what did you feel about other things the Labor Party was doing—for instance, the establishment of the welfare state? Were you opposed to that?
Thatcher: No. The measures that became the basis of the Welfare State were planned by Churchill’s wartime coalition government and supported by Conservatives, who were in a very great majority in that government. Even in the depths of the war we had great faith in the future of Britain. I remember going for a walk with my father during the war when the news was at its most frightening. Neither of us had the slightest doubt that we were going to win. We were typical. We all had faith in the future, in our ability to rise again. Churchill was constantly thinking about the problems of reconstruction. Churchill’s concept of the welfare state was that society needed a ladder and a safety net—a ladder by which people could improve their lot by effort, and a safety net below which nobody could fall. Postwar Labor governments produced the safety net but have cut down the ladder. Harris: You imply that we haven’t the same faith in the future now.
Thatcher: I have never known such a lack of confidence as now. It may be that I was a youngster then and 30 years on see things differently. But I don’t think that is it. We have the same ability and potential as we had then, but there is not the same degree of confidence.
Harris: What do you most admire in political leaders?
Thatcher: I tend to admire what I would like to have myself. Churchill and Harold Macmillan had great powers of persuasion: they were great speakers, and great writers. Churchill could sway men’s minds, but he was the opposite of a demagogue. Demagogues rouse people to action by inciting them to destroy. Churchill roused people to action by urging them to build. He was always positive, constructive. It was incredible what he was able to persuade people to do. Perhaps it was because of his reading and understanding of history that he knew what he could get out of people, however dark the times.
Harris: What is the main virtue in a political leader?
Thatcher: I think it is courage. Politics is about compromise, but there comes a point at which the compromising has to stop. To face that requires courage and foresight. And patience: that’s very important. Very often having made a decision, you need to explain it to the people directly affected and try to persuade them that you are right. Yesterday. I spent an hour and a half on the telephone talking to colleagues to try to persuade them that what I was preparing to do was the right thing to do. Because you have come to a decision and are going to implement it. that doesn’t mean that you should behave as though your colleagues no longer exist. Churchill and Macmillan were great persuaders of their colleagues and of the people.
Harris: It is said that former Prime Minister Heath believed in managerial politics and that you believe in the politics ofpersuasion. What does that mean?
Thatcher: Managerial? But good management includes the practice of persuasion. I think we went through'a period of technocratic politics in the past, by which I mean trying to get political solutions by implementing a set of economic and industrial policies, which may have been theoretically correct but which were not necessarily acceptable. There’s a limit to what you can arrange: more is achieved by people doing things for themselves. The function of leadership is to persuade people that this course of action is wiser than that. Whatever rules, regulations, guidelines—whatever you like to call them—you draw up. you are still left with human nature, its problems and its potential. You can present people with ideas they may come to believe in, and as a result of them they will act, if they have the opportunities. Presenting people with ideas and opportunities is part of what politics is about.
Harris: If there were a genera! election tomorrow., would you expect the voters’ conception of your party to be different from what it was in the last election?
Thatcher: Yes. I’ve said before that, after the last election, there was a feeling among some Tories that Tory ideals had not been upheld and defended explicitly enough. We all have to share the blame for that. In the next election, we shall be fighting with a clear philosophy which asserts and protects the rights of the citizen and his family against ever-increasing power and direction by governments. In a democratic society, there must be a balance of pow'er between the rights of the individual and those of the state. This balance now needs redressing in favor of the individual. There must be more personal control of one’s own life. Too much is now controlled by the state. At the moment the state spends what it considers suitable and leaves the remainder in the hands of the taxpayer. Currently this is about 46%. In the next election, the Conservative Party will go to the country asserting the need to leave more of what is earned in the hands of the taxpayer to spend for himself.
Harris: When you’ve met foreign statesmen, have you been conscious of being treated differently from how they would treat a man in the same situation?
Thatcher: No. Of course, I don’t know how they would behave if I were a man, but so far as I know they treat me in the same way. After all, there are, or have been, a number of women who are heads of state or prominent in government. So I’m not unique.
Harris: How do you relax?
Thatcher: I’d like to have more time to listen to music, especially to go to the opera. I like detective thrillers. You can really switch off with a good thriller. I like historical novels. I’ve just read Maurice Edelman’s Disraeli In Love. More and more, I enjoy reading history and biography. I have just read Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Rise Of Christian Europe, one of the best books I have read for a very long time. I also like House And Garden books. I wish I could go to the theatre more often—but the fact is that it’s heaven to be at home. It’s such a treat, and these days a rare treat. Just being able to relax and talk with the family. We exchange the day’s experiences. At weekends, I cook and do some housework, because there is no one else to do it. And clothes always need either washing, mending or pressing. I like home decorating— but I always have to choose schemes that can be done at maximum speed and with minimum skill.
THERE HAVE BEEN DISAPPOINTMENTS, BUT THEY ONLY BECOME SETBACKS WHEN YOU DON’T TRY AGAIN
Harris: Many people, especially women, wonder how it is possible for a woman to have a public career and a successful family life. Is there a problem here?
Thatcher: There are several problems. The house is not as perfect as I would like, because I haven’t time to make it so. We rarely sit down together for a meal, except breakfast, during the week. We all lead rather “irregular” lives, in the sense that there is no routine. If, during the parliamentary recess, I am working at home, the house becomes an office and people are constantly in and out. I always have to see that there is enough food in the fridge for the family to help themselves.
Harris: How did you feel about marrying, in relation to politics? The husbands of some women who have risen to great responsibilities in politics hardly seem to exist. Is it difficult for a woman to be a political leader and yet share the kind of everyday relationship that, for instance, your father and mother had?
Thatcher: It depends on the kind of woman you are. Whether you can play a number of different roles simultaneously and change easily from one to another. The times when it must be very trying for everyone else are when I am under not merely physical strain—that is easy—but under great nervous strain, because of some important meeting or speech the next day. Then everyone has to be very understanding.
Harris: Did you have any problems in bringing up children? What are your views on discipline within the family?
Thatcher: You always worry about your children—one of mine caught every possible bacteria and virus, but grew out of it in the middle teens. You worry about their progress at school, about what career they should follow. Discipline? We taught them clearly what we thought was right and what was wrong. Then we left it to them. They did not always follow our advice— but then it would have been strange if they had. They soon learned to make their own decisions.
Harris: Should girls be brought up and educated to be wives and mothers, or to do any jobs, within reason, that men do?
Thatcher: They should be educated to make the best use of their talents, whatever those talents may be.
Harris: What is the worst setback you have had?
Thatcher: I don’t remember—there have been many disappointments, but they only become real setbacks if you don’t try again. Harris: After working into the small hours on the last day of the last session of parliament you were reported to have been shopping in a London store at nine o’clock the next morning. Is that really so? Do you like shopping?
Thatcher: Yes. I wanted to buy a carpet and was comparing prices in different places. I like shopping, but often find it difficult because I know exactly what I want and then can’t always obtain it. And then, having been brought up in a shop and as an MP being concerned about prices, there’s an added interest. Nowadays I find I’m recognized by other shoppers, and naturally some of them tell me their problems, so I can’t make my purchases as quickly as I used to.
Harris: What do you do about that? Thatcher: I try to go to the shops early in the day. v