With the Conservative MPs having chosen their shortlist, we know now that the next prime minister will be either Theresa May or Andrea Leadsom. So press comparisons with Margaret Thatcher are inevitable. With luck, they won’t replicate the coverage of Thatcher herself, when she became Tory leader in 1975, as seen in this extract from Alwyn Turner’s Crisis? What Crisis? And maybe Labour might finally learn a lesson…
Margaret Thatcher was an improbable candidate for the simple reason that she was a woman. That was, for the media, the overriding issue, and coverage of her tended to be couched in terms of her appearance, with a particular focus on her headwear. When she was education secretary, the Sunday Telegraph had described her as being ‘sometimes rather pretentious and given to the smart hat and neat pearls favoured by suburban ladies coming to Tory conferences for the first time’, and the image still dominated the declaration of her candidacy.
‘Try to forget her plummy voice and her extravagant hats and her Dresden-shepherdess appearance,’ advised the Daily Mirror. ‘She is the toughest member of the Shadow Cabinet, and even if she doesn’t win the battle for the Tory leadership she may yet be responsible for bringing down Ted Heath.’ But even Enoch Powell, who had as good a claim as any to be her trailblazer, had trouble forgetting these things, insisting that the Tories couldn’t possibly elect her: ‘They wouldn’t put up with those hats and that accent,’ he shuddered. It was an image of which she was well aware, describing herself defiantly as ‘a middle-aged lady who likes hats’.
It was noticeable that when she did emerge as Heath’s successor, in February 1975, it was the handful of women Labour MPs who were the first to celebrate the achievement. ‘I am very pleased,’ said Gwyneth Dunwoody, while Joyce Butler went further: ‘Absolutely splendid. I am delighted. It is time we had women in the top jobs.’ And Shirley Williams added, ‘I cannot help admitting privately, as a woman, being pleased to see that in the Tory Party, of all parties, a woman has broken through.’
This latter argument, that somehow it was a remarkable step for the Tories in particular to have taken, was exploded by Barbara Castle, who had followed Keith Joseph as social services secretary. Reflecting in her diary on the consequences of Thatcher, she wrote of the Labour Party: ‘There’s a male-dominated party for you – not least because the trade unions are male-dominated, even the ones that cater for women.’
Castle went on to identify what was to become a key problem for Labour: ‘The battle for cash wage increases is a masculine obsession. Women are not sold on it, particularly when it leads to strikes, because the men often don’t pass on their cash increases to their wives. What matters to women is the social wage.’ And she concluded, in very unBennite terms, that: ‘To me, socialism isn’t just militant trade unionism. It is the gentle society, in which every producer remembers that he is a consumer too.’
Two years later, an opinion poll was to show that Thatcher’s strongest lead over Labour was amongst working women.