When she was first elected, Margaret Thatcher was one of only twenty-five women in the British parliament. During her first years in office she was ridiculed by her peers who viewed her as weak because of the tone of her voice and appearance. However, the election of 1979 demonstrated her ability to change minds. Many still resented Thatcher for her strict policies, but her ability to relate to the common man and woman helped her to gain the majority vote and to become Britain’s first female prime minister.
Thatcher positioned herself for success following Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet from 1970-74. During her time under Heath, “she was an unquestioning supporter of the official Heath ‘pro-European’ line.” In the interest of achieving integration with the rest of Europe, both Heath and Thatcher pushed for “political and economic unity,” which eventually led to the European Union. Originally called the European Economic Community, its goal was to create free trade in western Europe. After becoming the leader of the Conservative party in 1975, Thatcher began a “Yes” campaign encouraging the European Movement and inclusion of European states. The horrific memories of the two World Wars still burned in the hearts and minds of many Europeans. A major goal of the movement was to prevent another conflict.
At the time there were ardent nationalistic sentiments in Britain. Many feared that involvement with the European Economic Community would overshadow national British pride. Thatcher did not think this was the case. In a speech to the Liberal Party of Australia Federal Council, she did not praise the state of the British economy. She looked instead at the progress made by Britain and the Western world. In the speech, she did not separate the success of Britain and nationalism from the rest of Europe, but instead she spoke of the two as one. At the time she said, “Political and social changes in the Western world have been just as far-reaching [as communication advances in Britain].”
Policy is certainly an important factor in elections but it is not the only or the deciding issue. What is often more vital is the candidate and the constituents’ perception of him or her. Thatcher was at a disadvantage due to her voice, appearance, and the attendant stereotypes. The daughter of a grocer, Thatcher knew the value of hard-earned income. Seeing her parents work hard to provide for her family with little to no government assistance informed her view of the welfare state. Thatcher stated to Granada’s World in Action, “I represent an attitude, an approach, and that approach is borne out by the development of my life: going to an ordinary state school, having no privileges at all except perhaps the ones which count most – good home background, with parents who are very interested in their children and in them getting on.”
Thatcher struggled to maintain a balance of femininity and strong leadership during her years in office. She was acutely aware that her looks could affect her chances of being elected prime minister. Following an interview with Woman’s Own magazine, she asked the editor for hair tips as well as for a complete makeover. She also enlisted the help of Gordon Reece who suggested she wear suits with contained sharp lines that suggested authority but also style.
After the resignation of Harold Wilson in March of 1976, James Callaghan became prime minister and proved to be a challenge for Thatcher. During his biweekly questions, Callaghan succeeded in prodding Thatcher into rage and eventual embarrassment. Matthew Parris recalls that Callaghan would tell her, “that the Right Hounourable Lady must please stop shrieking and would do best to go away and learn a little more about the subject before raising it in this House.”
Two years later Thatcher prepared herself in earnest to challenge Callaghan. While she was prepared for the election in terms of policy, she had not completed her physical journey. She sought out Tim Bell from the advertising firm, Saatchi and Saatchi, to help her improve the penetration of her voice. Bell sent her to a vocal coach where she re-learned to speak. Thatcher was able to lower her voice so it produced a resonating sound.
While Thatcher had many advisors, her greatest asset was her husband, Dennis. Dennis was the ideal husband for a woman in politics as he was content watching her success and was there for her at all times. A now famous photograph, taken on the day following her election, shows the press surrounding Margaret, but Dennis standing in the doorway of their new home at 10 Downing Street.
As Thatcher was preparing herself for her leadership role, Britain was in decline. Unemployment rose constantly from 1974 to 1978 with 1.5 million people out of work. Unemployment of the working class under Callaghan proved to be his downfall. Thatcher started calling Callaghan “Prime Minister for Unemployment” and used her ties with Saatchi and Saatchi to create advertisements to spur the British people into reconsidering where their party loyalties lay.
Callaghan seemingly never fully grasped the amount of traction Thatcher was gaining in her campaign and therefore did not call an election before the fall parliamentary session of 1978. While the Liberal and Labour parties had come together in the past to block the Conservatives, they were unable to do the same for the upcoming 1979 election; Callaghan was in trouble. A Labour enforced limit on pay raises trigged a wave of strikes throughout the country in different fields. Maddox writes, “The misery of national collapse warranted the Shakespearean allusion, ‘Winter of Discontent.’ Yet for Margaret the disaster was a gift…” as it gave the up and coming leader a chance to condemn his harmful actions and provide her own alternatives.
Thatcher capitalized on the opportunity to distanced herself and her party from the Labour party that was doing anything but supporting the laboring people of Britain. In a speech to the House of Commons in January of 1979, she spoke out against the Unions and their paralyzing affect. She said that picketing was “affecting such items as packing materials and sugar and all vital materials necessary if industry is to keep going.” She criticized Callaghan for “supporting strikes” and for trying to fix the problems of the country with percentages and statistics. Again, Thatcher’s personal history and Conservative economic policies guided her, “we cannot have rigid polices for ever.” She refused to compromise and that coupled with the continuation of strikes and unemployment led to the loss of a No Confidence vote by the Labour government on March 28.
After this triumph, a bomb planted by the Irish National Liberation Army killed Thatcher’s friend and campaign manager, Aiery Neave, as he was driving out of the House of Commons parking garage. Thatcher was on her way to BBC for an interview when she heard of the assassination. She was told of his passing in private, but later came out to face the public and address the loss of her confidant.
Even after sharing her grief with the nation, she trailed Callaghan in personal rankings. While people could relate to her, Thatcher was a hard, matter-of-fact, woman and not particularly likeable. In an interview about Thatcher, Simon Jenkins, the editor of the Evening Standard, commented, “Everything she achieved, she achieved in spite of her personality and in spite of her likability, which was not very high.” Jenkins’ comment hints at the genius of Tim Bell who worked over time finding new photo opportunities showing people she was a typical woman and housewife, drawing attention to her “fortune in having a husband who could pay for a good English nanny.”
On May 3, 1979, the hard work and transformation paid off as Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister. However, she continued to face challenges. She lost the favor of the majority of her party. Even though her opinions were recognized as the minority view in many cases, she was able to stay in power for three consecutive terms and saw her economic and labor policies advance.
Thatcher’s legacy fascinates many people to this day. They marvel at the level of her devotion to her country, a level so great that she was willing to change how she looked, spoke, and acted in order to return her country to its former glory while still maintaining her strong Conservative values.