If there had been no Margaret Thatcher, the Brits might have had to invent her.
When she blew into the premiership like a gale-force wind off the North Sea, her island nation appeared to be sinking. The economy was a mess and trade union activism was strangling Britain.
In those days, the morning radio broadcasts listed the areas of “industrial action” — the prevailing euphemism for strikes, mostly illegal — as routinely as the weather. For example, “Traffic at Dagenham in Essex will be adversely affected by industrial action at the Ford plant.” Or, “Expect delays on the London Underground today because of industrial action on the Circle Line.”
Newspapers often weren’t printed, trains slowed down, export orders delayed and power stations ran short of fuel. Flying to London was a gamble on whether the air traffic controllers were peaceful that day. At one point, because of continuing strikes in the coal industry, the government put Britain on a three-day work week and shops were lit with candles. Shakespeare’s “sceptred isle” was a dark place.
The public blamed the government as much as it faulted the unions. Yet Britain remained committed to trade unionism and the rights of the unions were protected fiercely, in the way that the Second Amendment is now protected in the United States.
Edward Heath, who Thatcher deposed as the leader of the Conservative Party, had been powerless against the miners and their feared leader Arthur Scargill. When the Conservatives decisively won the election of 1979, Thatcher was unleashed. She said of Scargill, “Poor Arthur, he’s out on a limb and all I have to help him with is a chainsaw.”
But Thatcher did not break the unions; she simply brought them into the rule of law with the British equivalent of the U.S. Taft-Hartley Act. In a country that treasured unionism, that was a revolution.
Thatcher took no public prisoners. Matthew Parris, a Conservative member of parliament in the Thatcher years, said she was curt with her own backbenchers and often feared by her ministers. Her sharp remarks cut: No one wanted it known how she had characterized them.
Her style in the House of Commons was brutal. It was as though she had brought a club to a fist fight. James Callaghan, leader of the opposition, said to Thatcher, “Congratulations. You’re the only man in your team.” Thatcher replied: “Well, that’s one more than your team has.”
Thatcher said of her critics that if she walked on the water across the Thames River, they’d say that she did it because she couldn’t swim.
For all the harshness, there was a softer Thatcher.
I was in the press gallery of the House of Commons for one of the bitterest debates of the Thatcher years. It involved the future of Westland Helicopters, a British company seeking foreign investment. Thatcher not only had to deal with an opposition that smelled blood, but also with a revolt in her own party led by the defense secretary, Michael Heseltine, who thought he could unseat her. She beat back the opposition and savaged the Heseltine renegades.
Our U.S. press group had been invited to tea at the prime minister’s official residence, Number 10 Downing Street. The contrast between the bravura performance in parliament and the soft hostess who greeted us at her home was dramatic. She was indulgent of her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, who fell asleep, seated to her right, and an older member of our team, Sterling Slappey, who also dozed off, seated on her left. Without stopping what she was saying, she gently shook these men awake to save them embarrassment. The gale had fallen to a zephyr.
Later, I was with her at a conference in Arizona, where she exhibited both Thatchers.
From the podium she was relentless, booming, a steel-on-steel kind of exhortation meant to rally conservative backsliders and pillory neo-socialists. Afterward, she acknowledged old friends and old campaigners in the audience with extraordinary memory and touching sentimentality. How great the change from major to minor.
She also attended every session at that conference, asking questions, taking notes and doing the work of a regular delegate. Even in retirement, Thatcher liked to work. “Men do the crowing, women lay the eggs,” she said once. Some of hers were golden.