Powerful role model on paper, but she was too divisive to inspire
Published 09/04/2013 | 05:00
Instinctively, she understood the power of imagery. In her own way, she was as iconic as Madonna, also blazing a trail at that time
POWERFUL role models for young women were few and far between when I was starting out in the workplace in Thatcher's Britain. In theory, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was the shining exception – in practice, she proved too divisive to be a genuine source of inspiration.
It didn't help that she proved inflexible over the Long Kesh hunger strikers, dismissing their demands for political status in 1981 with, "Crime is crime; it is not political."
Single-minded or inflexible? A question of perspective, I daresay. But you didn't have to be Irish to be dismayed as, one after another, 10 men died of starvation. I was living in England then, and many English people were chilled by her rigidity.
On visits home to the North, I remember noticing how Sinn Fein was gaining support directly because of Thatcher's hardline policies there. She proved an effective recruiting agent.
However, she alienated sectors of society in Britain as comprehensively as in the North. Her term in office was characterised by protests: striking miners, poll-tax riots, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches and anti-apartheid rallies, where she was excoriated for refusing to impose trade sanctions on South Africa.
Mrs Thatcher ought to have epitomised the virtues of hard work and persistence. After all, she progressed from modest beginnings. And she operated with a certain style, overturning insults: dubbed the Iron Lady, she adopted it as a compliment.
She grew up in a flat above a grocer's shop, studied at Oxford, worked as a research chemist, became a barrister, was elected to parliament, and wound up as not only Britain's first female premier but the longest serving one of the 20th Century.
That CV alone ought to have made her a role model. But it never happened. Primarily because of the approach she pursued.
As a student in Britain during the Falklands War, I remember widespread excitement at her show of strength when the islands were recaptured from Argentina.
Few Britons could have pointed to them on the map. But the pervasive view was gung-ho, encapsulated by that notorious Sun headline 'Gotcha!' which revelled in the sinking of an Argentine cruiser. Possibly, Thatcher was at her most popular then.
Perhaps her finest hour came in Brighton in 1984, when she refused to be daunted by the IRA's assassination attempt at the Conservative Party conference. Five died in the bomb. Indomitable, Thatcher opened the conference the following morning, as planned, saying terrorism would never be allowed to subvert democracy. In the aftermath, admirers referred to her as "Churchillian".
Instinctively, she understood the power of imagery. In her own way, she was as iconic as Madonna, also blazing a trail at that time. Thatcher's style never varied. I recall recognising her instantly in the distance, at an event – who could mistake that teased-up, spun-sugar confection of hair?
Her props were her trademark. At her neckline, pussy-cat bows frothed, offsetting the mannish suits. There were pearls at her ears and at her throat, and she was never too busy to lipstick up. Her handbag was omnipresent, sparking as much speculation about its contents as Queen Elizabeth's.
While the head girl aura never left her, she tried to soften her image, signing on for lessons with the National Theatre's coach to modulate her voice – the Lincolnshire accent was already purged by the time she took office, except memorably when she used the dialect word "frit" in parliament, accusing Labour's front bench of being afraid.
She never gave the impression of being "frit" of anyone, or anything, as she ploughed ahead with deregulation, privatisation and attacking the power of trade unions.
There was no denying it took backbone to reach her position. Thatcher faced down not just sexism but snobbery. In certain circles, I remember there was still a tendency to sneer at her origins.
And so the conflict for me, as a young woman – who wished to respect someone who showed that anything was possible, but struggled with Thatcher's policies.
Steely though she was, she had maternal instincts. A colleague was accorded an interview at 10 Downing Street in the late 1980s – with all the stateliness of a summons to Buckingham Palace – and reported back that Thatcher insisted on pouring the tea, and pressing biscuits on her.
"She was so kind," she said, more than a little starry-eyed. Not kind enough to give her anything worth a headline, though.
When Mark Thatcher was lost in the Sahara for six days, his mother shed a rare tear in public. She was not seen moist-eyed until eight years later, when she was forced out as prime minister. Her departure smacked of an era ending.
But she had lasted for more than 11 years, winning three general elections in succession. That should have been inspirational, too. Except it wasn't. Not after policies which spawned the term 'Thatcherism': only the well-heeled and able thrived under them.
Still, consider her successors: who mentions Cameronism, Majorism or Blairism? Thatcher will be remembered. Although not with affection, I suspect – at least, not on these shores.
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