The two ominous booms that split a sunlit holiday evening over Hyde Park last week might have pre-
saged a disastrous debacle. But the fiveday siege of the Iranian embassy in London (see box, page 22) which followed the hostage-taking by opponents of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became an international triumph—the more spectacular because of President Jimmy Carter’s botched attempt to rescue the Tehran hostages.
As Britons watched, transfixed, live TV news transmissions from outside the stately Kensington mansion, now belching smoke and flames, commandos of the crack Special Air Service stormed the occupied building, released 19 hostages, three of them Britons, and brought the drama to an end with surgical precision. Five of the six gunmen were dead, the other in police custody.
Within minutes Home Secretary William Whitelaw, the man who ordered the cleanup after the terrorists had •murdered two hostages, was radiating a tough confidence which contrasted sharply with his usual sleepy image. “We in Britain will not tolerate this,” he told a press
conference. While in Parliament, as congratulations from all over the world rained in, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told ecstatic MP's the storming of the embassy “made us proud to be British.”
Coming a week after a European Community (EC) summit at which Britain’s first woman prime minister had shaped up, as one onlooker described it, like a “she de Gaulle” over Britain’s budget payments, the latest episode confirmed that, after a full year in power, the Iron Lady and her lieutenants are a force to be reckoned with on the international stage; while at home she was again taking on the unions this week over a threatened one-day general strike.
All in all it seemed more like a 1980s replay of the Battle of Britain than spring in Park Lane, and that may have been the thought behind the description of Thatcher by the newspaper The Observer— no Tory supporter—as “the most forceful and aggressive
British leader since Churchill.” But then Margaret Hilda Thatcher, at 54, is a politician in a hurry, with a radical sense of purpose. Those who get in her way, at home or abroad, receive short shrift. “She fixes you with those steely blue eyes and tells you what you ought to be thinking,” says one Tory MP. “The best you can do is hope to outstare her.”
Her tactics at Luxembourg, which at one point reduced France’s aristocratic President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to thumping the table, may not bode well for European partnership. Giscard and West Germany’s Helmut Schmidt were patently bruised and baffled by this difficult woman as they retired home to explain why their biggest concessions yet had been flung back in their faces. But her intransigence did “Cyclone Maggie,” as one French tabloid dubbed her, no harm at all at home, where the average British voter is profoundly bored by Europe and distrustful of “that crew of foreigners” beyond the Channel. It’s not often that Thatcher unites both sides of the Commons be-
hind her, but her rejection of the EC offer, with its strings attached on farm prices and timing, won vociferous applause from both ends of the political spectrum.
All this has followed hard on her biggest foreign-policy success so far—the transition of minority-ruled Rhodesia, a British colony in rebellion for more than 14 years, to the independent black republic of Zimbabwe. It was Lord Carrington, the experienced, wordly-wise foreign secretary, who persuaded her against all her instincts to drop her support of the white-backed Muzorewa government in favor of full-blooded majority rule. It was Carrington and Lord Soames, Winston Churchill's portly son-in-law, who made the delicate, dangerous negotiations work. But it was Thatcher who picked up the laurels: Mozambique’s Marxist President Samora Machel praised her as Britain’s best prime minister in 15 years.
At home, however, the glory is distinctly muted. If you talked to a pensioner unable to pay the steep electricity costs of Thatcherite state-in-
dustry policy, or a patient who had been rejected for treatment on a kidney machine because of hospital spending cuts, you would find a darker side.
To have benefited noticeably from the Tories’ first two budgets—even from their initial round of income-tax cuts— you would need to be in a managerial earning bracket, preferably a company chairman. A ferocious hike in sales tax in their first month in office added four points overnight to the cost-of-living index, and inflation is nearly 20 per cent.
State industries such as the Electricity Board, British Rail and the Post Office, told sternly to pay their way, have squeezed the consumer with higher prices. Even gas users, though Britain is reaping rich harvests of natural gas from the North Sea, are told increased charges are necessary to pay for the industry’s future investment.
Yet opinion polls—volatile as they are—still show Thatcher riding fairly high. If only because she has turned out to be a political leader who actually does what she says she will do, she has won grudging public respect. As one Labor MP said: “After years of Callaghan’s and Wilson’s evasions, she has shown that it is not necessary to be tricky to be prime minister.”
There may also be some sort of gut intuition behind the resigned discontent. The Iron Lady and her monetarist followers have support among some economic experts who feel the Tory strategy of cutting public spending, controlling the money supply and letting market forces work on wage settlements should turn the economic trick if ministers don’t lose their nerve.
Thatcher, a tax lawyer by training (and the only British PM ever to have a science degree), predicts inflation will start falling in August, and some economists think it could be earlier. North Sea oil is now expected to make Britain self-sufficient ahead of schedule, maybe even this year.
Government spending cuts nevertheless have been painful. They have also split the cabinet wide open, between hard-liners and those whom the leader scathingly styles “Wets” (translation: anyone who disagrees with her for liberal reasons).
The most spectacular rift has been with her employment secretary, Jim
Prior, an affable Norfolk farmer who is the acknowledged “Wets” leader. In a supposedly off-the-record briefing, Prior let slip his pithy opinion of the chairman of British Steel, the country’s major industrial loss-maker. Newspapers gleefully printed his remarks and Prior was publicly rebuked on TV by his leader, who told an interviewer in patronizing tones that “Jim is very, very sorry”.
Coincidentally, her latest cabinet embarrassment last week also concerned the government chairman of British Steel—this time the man the government had gone expressly to New York to recruit, investment banker Ian MacGregor. It fell to the austerely rightwing industry minister, Sir Keith Joseph, to deliver the news to Parliament that British taxpayers would be shelling out nearly $5.2 million over five years to MacGregor’s New York employer, Lazard Frères & Co., in compensation for his services.
The ability of Joseph—known as “The Mad Monk” to his enemies—to make damaging boobs is unsurpassed, and on this occasion he got hopelessly embroiled in fatuous references to “transfer fees” for star soccer players. But Joseph is not likely to suffer Prior’s fate. Thatcher relies heavily on, and has a genuine affection for, a few fatherfigure gurus, among them Joseph and Carrington. (The latter is reputed to be the only minister who dares joke with her; during an interminable harangue by China’s Chairman Hua Guofeng last October, the foreign secretary passed the restive Thatcher a note that read: “Prime minister, you are talking too much.” Thatcher was hard pressed to conceal a giggle.) Joseph also backed her hard for the leadership to succeed Ted Heath in 1975, and even stood down in her favor, a gesture she has not forgotten.
Inflation and cabinet spats aside, Thatcher’s government has been spared the winter of industrial discontent many predicted. While the long, drawnout steel strike left the steel towns facing a bleak future, it nevertheless ended without heavy damage to the economy, thanks to shrewd stockpiling by manufacturers.
During this and other industrial troubles Thatcher often seems to have proceeded on the principle of pretending the unions aren’t there. No longer are labor leaders summoned to crisis talks at 10 Downing Street with beer and sandwiches, as in the folksy days of Wilson and Callaghan. The lugubrious face of Trades Union Congress (TUC) leader Len Murray rarely appears now on television. Like the dog in the Sherlock Holmes story, which did not bark in the night, Thatcher in her industrial strategy is remarkable for what she is not doing.
Goaded, perhaps, by government indifference, the TUC has declared May 14 a “day of action” against the government’s economic policy and spending cuts, urging members to mount a oneday general strike. But as the day approached, response appeared halfhearted and, if the strike fizzles, Thatcher will see it as a victory for what she claims is a new awareness of economie realities among British workers. “Attitudes are changing,” she states repeatedly in interviews—and there is some evidence to support her. One veteran labor correspondent, reluctantly conceding the point, added: “Remember, a large slice of her votes came from the shop floor.”
As far as pay raises are concerned, Thatcher’s policy is to let industry make the best bargain it can. But if ministers are nervous over her impromptu policy-making—a technique known as “shooting from the handbag”—no one should underestimate the single-minded determination of this grocer’s daughter who became an Oxford graduate and who, like Heath and Wilson, shares the winner-take-all approach of the bright scholar from the humble background.
Thatcher’s political progress has been actively encouraged by her husband, Denis, a former oil company executive who married her when she was an aspiring Tory candidate named Margaret Roberts. (Gossip has it that Denis has dipped heavily into his pocket over the years to finance his wife’s careerone estimate goes as high as $1.3 million.) Married since 1951, they have twins of 26: Carol, who works in Australia, and Mark, a fledgling racing driver whose antics have been something of an embarrassment in the past year.
Her first cabinet appointment was as
education minister in Ted Heath’s government, a job in which she raised a lot of hackles with her passion for cost-cutting; she was known as “Thatcher the milk snatcher” for stopping free milk to schools. Her snatching of the leadership can be attributed partly to a few influential backers but also to the Tory party’s instinct that here was a trump card they could play against Labor, whose own education specialist, Shirley Williams, was once confidently expected to become Britain’s first female PM.
Older Tories hated the idea of a woman leader, but Thatcher, after initially being carved up in debate by Jim Callaghan, sharpened her attack, improved her stilted TV appearances and schoolmarm voice, and shrewdly played on her cost-conscious housewife image to win an election that was largely about prices and also caught the tide of a country in the mood for radical change.
Like it or not, that is what Britain now has. After years of consensus politics, Thatcher has sharply polarized the parties, some would say society, pos-
sibly to a damaging degree. She is rather pleased with her steely image as the “Iron Lady”—what she feels about her other nickname, Attila the Hen, is not recorded—and she runs cabinet meetings briskly, brooking little argument. “Occasionally we’re told the conclusions before the opening remarks,” says one minister sourly. She terrorizes junior ministers—two of whom are known to have been reduced to tears— and Whitehall civil servants with her caustic comments on memos, accusing them of woolly thinking. Last week she embarked on a blitz on waste and overmanning in the civil service, which will be one piece of Thatcher axemanship popular everywhere but in Whitehall.
In 1978 she let slip to a women’s magazine that she sometimes, late at night, “shed a few tears silently, alone.” It’s doubtful if she does so these days. Power has given her a new presence and assurance—even a new physical glow. The adrenaline of decision-making carries her effortlessly through punishing days.
Her style of leadership has been compared by a friendly minister, Trade Secretary John Nott, to that of a first-war subaltern leading his men over the top. But leadership of any style has been in short supply in Britain. Soon after she became party leader she was asked what she had changed. “I have changed everything,” she replied, £>
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.