A new face at old Number 10

Angela Ferrante May 14 1979

A new face at old Number 10

Angela Ferrante May 14 1979

A new face at old Number 10


Angela Ferrante

They didn’t like her carefully cultivated middle-class accent. House-wives said she was too snobbish and out of touch. The press said she was too preachy, and political opponents merely dismissed her as “that woman.” She certainly dressed like the legions of flowered Tory matrons who pour tea quietly but never taste real power. Right through the election campaign, in personal standings, she trailed behind the oh-so-likable Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan. And near the end of the campaign she seemed almost singlehandedly to have blown the 20-point lead of her Tory party.

But when Britons went to the polls in record numbers last week, Margaret Thatcher, the tough daughter of a Lincolnshire grocer, became the West’s first woman prime minister, with a strong majority (see table) and a middle-class mandate to reverse the democratic socialist trend begun in 1945. Weary of strikes and the dreary economic status quo, voters took to heart her message, if not her style, ignoring Callaghan’s proven steadiness and his warnings that the untested, free-enterprising Thatcher was “too big a gamble.” A jubilant Thatcher merely crowed: “We have everything we asked for.”

As roses piled up outside her Chelsea home, Britain’s new leader, dressed in Tory blue from earrings down, celebrated at party headquarters in Westminster—obediently, if reluctantly (“Oh no!”), giving the two-handed victory wave for cajoling photographers. After a campaign in which her shrill adversary image, a liability which almost sunk the party, was kept strictly under control (“packaged like cornflakes,” said Callaghan), Thatcher is learning quickly the importance of the beau geste. As the outgoing leader


Party Seats

Conservative 339

Labor 269

Liberal 11

Welsh Nationalist 2

Scottish National 2

United Ulster Unionist and others 12

Total 635

slipped off to his farm in Sussex, Thatcher moved swiftly into Number 10 Downing Street, pausing at the threshold to recall the words of St. Francis of Assisi, renowned for his gentleness: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. Where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

The reassuring words were particularly well chosen. Now that the time has come for her to stop preaching and to start practising her credo of less government, lower taxes, less union power and more free-market jostling, she will probably be cautious in bringing about change in a country which—the election so clearly revealed—is far from united behind her. The Tory vote swing was a healthy 5.2 per cent over the 1974 election (even the Welsh island of Anglesey went Tory for the first time since 1700), helping to swamp the Scottish Nationalists who had brought on the election by withdrawing their support from the minority Labor government. Even the Liberals, hoping to emerge with the balance of power, lost their leader, a strained Jeremy Thorpe (who goes on trial this week for conspiracy and in-

citement to murder a former male model), in the North Devon seat he had held for 20 years.

But Tory strength drops off notice -ably in the less prosperous industrial north of England and Scotland, where ailing industries like shipbuilding and steel face massive layoffs if Thatcher proceeds to slash job-saving subsidies (“yesterday’s jobs,” as she calls them). Labor leaders like Sidney Weighel of the railwaymen’s union were quick to warn: “We are going to have a confrontation situation if they do what they say.” And Shirley Williams, the popular education minister who, sent down to defeat in her London suburb seat, added that only the “affluent south” could afford Thatcher, calling this “an election of the haves and have-nots.”

Although Thatcher is expected to proceed slowly to unscramble the socialist omelette, it is almost inevitable that problems will arise. For one thing, the Tories have failed to explain adequately where they will get the money to pay for the estimated $6 billion a year of promised tax cuts—which Thatcher

says are “paramount in the strategy” to get the economy moving again. Inevitably, along with selling off nationalized industries and town council housing, the government will have to resort to cutting some services. Thatcher’s own experience as education minister under former prime minister Edward Heath, when she was branded the “milk snatcher” for cutting free milk in schools, must remain a stinging memory. Her promise to pull the government out of wage bargaining may initially spark pressures for big hikes (under Callaghan, wage demands were somewhat successfully kept in control through a voluntary wage restraint agreement with unions). With the country’s productivity still lagging behind everyone but Italy in the European Community, Britain cannot afford to return to the bad days of 30-per-cent wage jumps. And Thatcher will be stuck with the results of the wage comparability studies for public-sector workers, which may push the government wage bill much higher than expected this year.

The biggest fear, however, is that in her attempt to bring union power into line, she will be brought to her knees by union recalcitrance, as was Heath by the miners in 1974. After all, Heath started out with the same basic platforms but soon found himself bringing in an incomes policy, loosening the money supply and subsidizing industry to a generous degree. Even more gutwrenching will be the emotional de-

bates likely to ensue if Thatcher proceeds to drop economic sanctions against Rhodesia, allow a free vote on hanging and tighten up immigration.

But the crucial factor in the debate about whether Thatcher will be able to stand up to the bruising pressures of the mammoth job she has cut out for herself is 53-year-old “Maggie” herself. No one underestimates her courage and doggedness (although references are made to her popping vitamin C and her visible signs of strain in moments of crisis). As she herself says, “Don’t forget, I’m the grocer’s daughter. I lived over the shop.” Hard-working, high principled, she was a small-town student who won a bursary to Oxford, a degree in chemistry and then went on to become a lawyer. After several tries (and a marriage and birth of twins) she won her first seat, Finchley in London, which she has held ever since. Her toughness in debate, especially on the shadow treasury bench, marked her as a rising star. And her cool usurpation in 1975 of the twice-in-a-year defeated Heath, despite some formidable party in-fighting, marked her as a durable tactitian.

Nor do her opponents underestimate the return to the roots within the Tory party which her ascendancy signifies, bringing to prominence what she chummily calls “our lot”—the right-wing monetarists like Sir Keith Joseph, her mentor, who have been essentially on the sidelines throughout two decades of middle-of-the-road politics.

But Thatcher’s very drawing card, her absolute faith and tanker-style determination, may also be her downfall. She has said of herself, “I’m not a consensus politician or a pragmatic politician. I’m a conviction politician.” In power, brittle politics often makes for quick breakage. But for the moment, the U.S. and Europe are nervously assessing the new convictions Thatcher brings to the world scene; in Canada, Tory leader Joe Clark, rejoicing in the psychological boost her victory brings to his campaign, sent a congratulatory telegram. Britain’s new leader, meanwhile, was coolly getting on with the job. As Thatcher put it on entering Number 10, “Now there’s work to be done.” She knuckled down to it immediately, naming her cabinet on Saturday. Heath was not on the list.