The Magazine

The Victorian Lady

Margaret Thatcher's virtues.

Apr 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 30 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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I was at a reception at the British embassy here in Washington in the early 1990s, I believe, when I was introduced to Margaret Thatcher by John O’Sullivan, her friend and former “Special Adviser.” Gertrude Himmelfarb, he told her, had recently delivered the Margaret Thatcher Lecture in Tel Aviv on a subject dear to her, Victorian values. “But of course, I know Gertrude,” she replied, “we’ve met before. And what a great subject, Victorian values. Let me tell you about Victorian values.” Which she did, eloquently, perceptively, and at some length, while John vainly tried to move her on to more worthy guests who were waiting to greet her. 

The soon-to-be Conservative party leader in her Chelsea kitchen in 1975

The soon-to-be Conservative party leader in her Chelsea kitchen in 1975

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We had, in fact, met a few years earlier in London at a conference on Victorian values chaired by her​—​this a few weeks before the election of 1987 that ushered in her last term in office. Victorian values were a prominent and much disputed theme in her campaign. Replying to a television interviewer who observed, rather derisively, that she seemed to be approving of Victorian values, she enthusiastically agreed. “Oh, exactly. Very much so. Those were the values when our country became great.” In another interview, again responding to a critic, she said that she was pleased to have been brought up by a Victorian grandmother who taught her those values. She went on to enumerate them: hard work, self-reliance, self-respect, living within one’s income, cleanliness next to godliness, helping one’s neighbor, and pride in one’s country. “All of these things are Victorian values,” she assured him. “They are also perennial values.”

Her friend and biographer Shirley Letwin aptly memorialized these as the “vigorous virtues.” In her autobiography, Thatcher makes a point of the fact that she had originally used the expression “Victorian virtues,” lapsing into the more modish “values” when that became the more familiar term. On other occasions she gave those “perennial values” a more venerable, and varied, lineage: Christian, Judaic-Christian, Puritan, Methodist. In one speech during her last campaign, she recommended John Wesley’s famous precept as the guiding ethos of conservatism: “Gain all you can. .  .  . Save all you can. .  .  . Give all you can.”

The Tel Aviv lecture O’Sullivan alluded to when he reintroduced me to Margaret Thatcher could not have been more inauspicious: first in its naming​—​Margaret Thatcher was hardly a revered or even respected figure in Tel Aviv University, the most liberal of Israeli universities (I don’t know whether that endowed series survived beyond that first lecture); and even more, because of the provocative subject I chose for that occasion. The title I gave it was “Victorian Values/Jewish Values,” citing Thatcher on Victorian values and extending it, by way of the “Judaic-Christian” ethic, to Jewish values. I might also have mentioned the frequent references to the large number of Jews in her constituency and, more conspicuously, in her cabinet. As Harold Macmillan’s quip had it: “There are more old Estonians than old Etonians in this government.” One biographer explained: “As a moral code for upward mobility of the kind the MP for Finchley [her constituency] never ceased to preach, Judaism embodied many useful precepts and could produce many shining exemplars.” A reviewer of that biography put it more coarsely: “Mrs. Thatcher instinctively warms to the Jewish nouveaux riches of North London and seems to see Judaism as an exemplary religion of capitalism.” 

It is curious that the champion of Victorian values​—​better yet, Victorian virtues​—​should be accused, by some social conservatives as well as liberals, of elevating the “self,” the autonomous individual, above “society”; indeed, denigrating society in the interest of the self. Margaret Thatcher addressed this objection in her autobiography, insisting that she, like the Victorians, consistently saw the individual in the context of community, family, the other agents of society, and, not least, the nation. It was in that context, she said, that she promoted entrepreneurship, privatization, social mobility, a dynamic economy, and a limited government. She praised “the American theologian and social scientist” Michael Novak for stressing the fact “that what he called ‘democratic capitalism’ was a moral and social, not just an economic system, that it encouraged a range of virtues, and that it depended upon co‑operation not just ‘going it alone.’ ” 

“Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life”​—​that is the title of her chapter on the thorny subject of self and society. The Victorians could not have said it better. Nor can conservatives today, seeking to restore a “way of life” rooted in family, religion, and civil society to counteract the overweening, managerial, programmatic state.

The name, or epithet, Iron Lady has an ambiguous tone, suggesting a strength of character unhappily wanting in humanity. That Margaret Thatcher welcomed it is evidence of her faith in those virtues that are both invigorating and humanizing, which enabled her to resist the currents of the time, domestic and foreign, that were disabling the people and the country. And so we may remember her, an Iron Lady in the most honorable sense of that term. 

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of The Moral Imagination and, most recently, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

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