The Magazine

Iron Lady Rising

The historic ascent of Margaret Thatcher.

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By JOHN O’SULLIVAN
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The Thatchers’ marriage was a happy one, and Denis’s death more than 50 years later hit Margaret Thatcher very hard indeed. But there is no doubt that, at its start, it was also a marriage of mutual comfort and practical advantage. As Moore points out, both were nursing romantic wounds. Denis appreciated her character and intelligence; Margaret saw him as a decent man who could provide her with the economic means to fuel her political ambitions; they were fond of each other. Things worked out well, but she paid a price in emotional self-control. 

She was a passionate woman in every respect. She loved poetry and enjoyed reciting Alfred Noyes’s highly romantic poem, “The Highwayman.”  Her first boyfriend confided that she delighted in physical intimacy. It was noticed in later years that she liked the company of conventionally good-looking, upper-class men of the Henderson type. But the serious, practical woman triumphed over the yearning romantic girl. As Moore reports, years later she said of Henderson: “And then Denis came along. It is no good regretting what might have been.” 

Whatever the cost, she paid it faithfully, found it far from exorbitant, and set about enjoying its benefits. By the time she could exploit her new prosperity to study for the tax bar while giving birth to twins, moreover, she had already been a parliamentary candidate in two general elections and was within grasp of a safe seat. 

How had the shy, socially insecure undergraduate managed to get so far? The answer is twofold: Though she had been socially insecure, she was always politically self-confident, and the male-chauvinist Tory party gave her the warm welcome that the progressive women dons at Somerville College, Oxford had denied her. Its principal, Janet Vaughn, later said that Thatcher “was set as steel as a Conservative. .  .  . We used to entertain a good deal at weekends, but she didn’t get invited. She had nothing to contribute, you see.” 

By contrast, the middle-aged men who ran the Tory party from the engine room to the bridge relished the arrival of this clever and pretty young woman who, as soon as she stood up to speak, became a forcefully glamorous performer who could out-debate veteran socialists and bring audiences to their feet. Though she encountered a little antiwoman prejudice (often from other women) in her search for a winnable constituency, it was more than outweighed by the favoritism that senior male Tories displayed towards her and her advancement. She was elected to the House of Commons two days after her 34th birthday and became a junior minister two years after that.   

Up to this point, Margaret Thatcher’s opinions had not mattered very much. Candidates and junior ministers can’t afford such luxuries. In 1964, however, the Tories went into opposition and embarked, by degrees, on a fierce ideological debate that would last almost 20 years. As this happened, it slowly dawned on the Tory leadership that Thatcher presented a unique problem: Here was a woman MP of first-class abilities and unfashionably conservative views; she could neither be sidelined into “statutory woman” jobs nor promoted to prominent posts reserved for safe loyalists. The Tory faithful throughout the country realized much the same thing—i.e., she’s one of us—when she delivered a major “think-speech” that she had written herself to the 1968 Tory conference. As Charles Moore rightly observes, the speech sounds, in retrospect, like a manifesto for the conviction politics of Thatcherism. Prime Minister Edward Heath and his colleagues never really solved the problem she represented. She advanced, uphill, toeing the party line when necessary, while mastering the details of the dullest legislation and putting in the long hours needed to achieve triumphs in debate. She performed well the tasks that were given to her, even when she disagreed with them. Heath reluctantly promoted her to increasingly prominent positions until, in 1975, after two election defeats, she rode a wave of discontent among MPs and the party faithful to defeat him in the struggle for the Tory leadership.