COLUMN

They’ve come a long way, Maggie

Thatcher has done what Marxism could never achieve: made the upper classes irrelevant without bloodshed

BARBARA AMIEL January 16 1989
COLUMN

They’ve come a long way, Maggie

Thatcher has done what Marxism could never achieve: made the upper classes irrelevant without bloodshed

BARBARA AMIEL January 16 1989

They’ve come a long way, Maggie

COLUMN

Thatcher has done what Marxism could never achieve: made the upper classes irrelevant without bloodshed

BARBARA AMIEL

It was 11 years ago, almost to the day, that Maclean’s sent me to England to write a story on the British disease. The expected chaos greeted me when I arrived: a delivery strike had prevented any bread from getting into the shops; the printers’ unions had blacked the newspapers; half of London’s tube and bus system was at a standstill. It reminded me a bit of my London childhood after the war when the power cuts had us all huddling around candles and listening to crystal radios.

In 1977, you couldn’t get around London for foreign journalists staring at picket lines and scribbling notes about the latest “industrial action.” There was a substantial industry going the other way, as well. John O’Sullivan, now editor of the U.S. biweekly magazine National Review, was working for Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper at the time. He was travelling across America on a tour sponsored by the U.S. Industrial Council Educational Foundation. Its purpose, one supposes, was to warn the American middle classes of the evils of militant socialism. “Ah, yes,” he remembers nostalgically. “ ‘The British disease: many causes, few cures.’ I gave that speech once a night. I miss that time in a way. There was always something to write about.”

The Lady has done it, of course. The nation is transformed and we all scurry about in Britain being as upwardly mobile as possible under the watchful eye of Margaret Thatcher and her “handbag power,” as one columnist in The Guardian felicitously described the awesome spectacle of the prime minister in full flight.

It is ironic, of course. Thatcher may conduct the foreign and domestic policy of Great Britian and Northern Ireland, but as a woman she cannot get a membership in a single one of the Tory establishment clubs. The splendid dining rooms of White’s, Boodle’s, Beefsteak or Turf are not available to accept her as a guest. If anything demonstrates how singularly beside the point are all those great so-called human

rights crusades to get open membership in private clubs, it is the achievement of Margaret Thatcher. She has done what Marxism could never achieve: made the upper classes irrelevant to power without bloodshed or legislative coercion.

At the same time, it is said that Thatcher is not comfortable with the knotty question of a woman’s place. From a purely ideological point of view her stance is unambivalent: the most important role a woman can play in society, according to Thatcherism, is to raise a family and create a home. Thatcher has an almost mystical belief, possibly correct, in the ability of a woman to instil and influence values in the home. She has fought very hard to increase the power of parents, allowing them, for example, to participate in the running of schools in a very direct fashion. Under the new Education Reform Act, parents will be able to vote on whether or not they wish their school to continue under the auspices of local government or whether they would prefer to have it become an independent school funded directly by central government. That is an attempt to give parents a course of action when they are dissatisfied with standards, curriculum or the sort of values

that the schools are teaching their children.

All the same, Thatcher cannot lie to herself about the importance her own work has always played in her life. The daughter of a Midlands grocer who was active in local politics, Margaret Hilda Roberts was 26 years old and a qualified research chemist when she married Denis Thatcher. But her marriage was not allowed to get in the way of her political ambitions. In the first year, she was busy studying law (she is a qualified barrister as well as a chemist), a profession that she thought would aid her parliamentary career.

When with enviable efficiency she managed to have twins a year and a half after her marriage, she put her name down for the final law examinations from her hospital bed. Her children were raised by a nanny and then sent to boarding schools. They were six years old when Thatcher won a seat in Parliament in 1959, and she has been the MP for the north London suburb of Finchley ever since. Thatcher may preach the primacy of the mother in raising children, but I doubt whether there is a woman in the Western world who illustrates the superwoman myth better.

In the end, of course, the personal life of Margaret Thatcher proves absolutely nothing about the rightness or wrongness of her general theories about the role of women in society. Had she based policy on her own personal experience, she would be advocating full-time jobs for all. If her own experience in the upbringing of children were to be standardized, one could only conclude that to bring up two children drug-free and sane speaks well for the British ideal of packing kids off and keeping them seen and not heard.

But, a decade after Thatcher began her cure of the British disease, one thing is clear. What she has done, incredibly, is complete the feminization of Great Britain in a more complete way than even Queen Victoria might have contemplated. Queen Elizabeth il and Mrs. Thatcher stand together, the two indomitable rulers of the land. After a terrible train crash took place last month, in which 34 people died when three passenger trains piled together in south London, the prime minister went down to the twisted railway lines to examine the wreckage, then talked to some of the survivors in the hospital.

When one of the British newspapers ran a headline noting that Thatcher and the Duchess of York had both visited the injured, it came under close scrutiny by purists. It was duly pointed out by various commentators that protocol dictated that the Queen should always be mentioned ahead of the prime minister when she was symbolizing the national concern over a tragedy. However, they continued, perhaps when it was a junior member of the Royal Family, Britain’s second queen might be mentioned first.

It may be America that coined the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby,” but, hey, those breezy, trousered, liberated women in North America don’t wield half as much clout as Britain’s champion of handbag power.