Margaret Thatcher – class warrior?

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I had an interesting Twitter exchange last night with somebody attacking the late Margaret Thatcher who claimed that “most of the working class hated her.”

I have no doubt that a great many people who would consider themselves to be “working class” or would be so classified by social demographics models now or back then would indeed hate her.

Mrs T was a lady who inspired love and hate, and not much in between. I don’t recall the “don’t know” response when asked for an opinion about her, but I bet it was negligible. Real leaders are people who have conviction, belief and something in their heart and soul worth us following.

She polarised opinion because everybody knew exactly what she stood for. To me that is one of the most desirable attributes for any leader in any walk of life at any time.

She stood for the individual against the state, for freedom of thought and action, for aspiration and meritocracy, for the ability to support family and community.

These are the things in which I believe most, which is why I supported her from the beginning. She spoke for my aspirations. She was a class warrior in the sense that she did not see class as a barrier. She judged everybody by their character and their ability.

Her famous or infamous “no such thing as society” answer to an interview question captured that spirit, if you bother to read the whole quote that is and understand that by “society” she meant the state. It was meant as a statement of simple common sense:

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.” – Women’s Own, 31 October 1987. 

She stood for people of all classes who shared this conviction.

She believed that people are more important than the state.

Even people who might have “hated” her, invariably said they respected her, in the same way that I had and will always have respect for politicians of opposite politics to my own who had honest and clear conviction and like her were masters of rhetoric. Although I would never say I hated them or anybody else.

In this category I would place Tony Benn, Clement Atlee and in most recent times Robin Cook. Admirable men who had honesty, conviction and belief, and great rhetorical skills.

I joined the Conservative Party at the age of 16 in 1973 to join a group of Young Conservatives who were supporting Sir Keith Joseph and as it turned out two years later, his mentoree Margaret Thatcher who stood instead of him to remove the failed and compromised party leader Edward Heath.

There was huge prejudice against her at the time. Partly because she was a woman, partly because she was extremely clever (something Tories usually really hate), and partly because she was from the north of England, but mainly because of her class, she was put down by the grandees as “the grocer’s daughter.”

I was immensely privileged 14 years later to be appointed as the great lady’s political agent in her Finchley constituency, the seat she represented for 33 years. I was proud to serve her for five of those years as one of her only four agents through that time.

This picture of us was taken in the week I was appointed with my immediate predecessor Andrew Thomson, and Roy Langstone who served her almost from the beginning of her political career, after Major Bertie Nervard fought her first election in Finchley with her in 1959.

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Major Nervard, who she had inherited when she became the candidate to his horror, was “old school” and more than a little disconcerted apparently by the arrival of this young mum as his candidate. Roy, who she loved, came from a working class East End family like me and swore (at her) like a trooper, and Andrew was a no-nonsense proud Scot hailing from Glasgow.

Mrs T once told me (with a smile) after I was selected to be her agent that a party grandee had told her that I was “an opinionated oik… he comes from south London … a secondary modern boy.” The fact that she had taken this attempt to belittle me as a recommendation spoke volumes to me about this former state grammar school girl from Grantham.

All three comments about me were true of course, particularly the “opinionated oik.”

Mrs T was never an Establishment person. She was loathed by the Establishment and the people who we would now call “the elites” both inside and outside her own party.

Her main support came from the likes of her three agents. We were very representative of the people she felt she spoke for most. The aspirational working and lower middle classes.

Her constituency of Finchley was a north London suburb which had welcomed, and still welcomes, waves of immigrants to this country.

Mrs T connected with those communities in her political home town as well as any other MP I’ve seen. She understood their aspirations and they understood that she was someone who above all else wanted they are most of all their children to “get on.”

I  believe that Mrs T was greatly misunderstood and misrepresented in her attitudes to the parts of the UK where she was undoubtedly “hated” and still is by people who think she destroyed their industries and communities.

The fact is that when she came to the party leadership in 1975 those industries and communities were already dying. Disastrous years of socialist and semi-socialist government in the UK, world oil prices, and the beginning of globalisation had already sealed their fate.

What we came to call “Thatcherism” was the politics and economics of a new world to be re-built from the rubble of those ruins. She did not create the ruins, she rebuilt the country. We were facing oblivion and she turned us around.

I don’t expect everyone to accept that. I respect that many have very different views and prejudices. She was a person we loved or hated.

I’ve found Thatcher admirers in the most unlikely places. I was a speaker at a PR agency conference in Buenos Aires in 2001 and shared the platform with a former minister in the Argentinian government during the time of the Falklands War.

The day I was due to speak it turned out to be “Malvinas Day,” the moment the Argentinians remember their dead of the war. Outside the conference venue there stood the Malvinas War Memorial.

When the chairman introduced me he mentioned that I had worked for Mrs T. in my previous life in politics. My heart sank, I looked across at the former minister and thought this is not going to go well. But as I got up to speak he took my arm, smiled and said “I thought she was splendid you know. A real leader.”

In response to the little twitter spat I made reference to at the beginning of this post I was touched by the biggest response I have ever received on Twitter from people mostly agreeing with the case I argued, which was that although of course some working class people hated her, it was not true that all did as was stated.

It is a fact that in the UK electoral system it is not possible for any party to win a general election unless they win the working and lower middle class vote. In 1979 that was as true as in 2017.

 

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I was particularly touched by many comments such as these posted on my timeline last night. I’m sure that Mrs T would have loved to read them.

“Big shout out to you Mike. My first chance to vote was in 1979, a key date. I was working for London Transport and had to join TGWU to do so. A lifetime Tory because of Maggie, I took a day of annual leave to attend her funeral procession in London.”

“She was my Dads Hero and he was a Miner.She also enabled the working classes to buy their Council homes my Dad included.”

And one that many of us would endorse:

“We sorely need a leader of her stature now, she would be running rings around the EU.”

Of course I’m biased because she was my inspiration, mentor, friend and boss. But I would say similar things of political figures who were none of those things and whose politics I did not and do not share.

I have always respected people with conviction. Those are the people who should be leaders. As someone who has always been a follower and never a leader, I respect and envy the light of destiny which shone so brightly in Mrs Thatcher’s heart and soul.

She lived for her convictions. Everything else in her life served those convictions. She had no other interests in life except politics. She knew that it was down to her to act when others talked.

We are lucky she was the right person, in the right place at the right time, like her hero Winston Churchill before her.

Leadership is about leading. Leaders don’t always lead in the direction we like. But what sets them apart is that they take on the responsibility and burden of that role.

 

 

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