Kwasi Kwarteng is MP for Spelthorne, and is PPS to Baroness Stowell, the Leader of the House of Lords. He is the author of ‘Thatcher’s Trial: Six months that defined a leader’.
It’s difficult to remember how surprising it was for the Conservatives to elect a woman leader in 1975 – and sometimes forgotten that one of the four men she defeated in the final ballot was Geoffrey Howe, who died on Saturday. ‘At 49 she [Margaret Thatcher] is attractive in the way good looking women become as they get older’, a column in The Scotsman could observe without any seeming embarrassment in January 1975. Her ‘skin is pale and smooth, her hair a pretty blond, if not entirely as nature intended it, and she wears little make up’.
In 1981, the business of government had become more serious that Mrs Thatcher’s beauty regime. By March of that year, unemployment was hitting record post-war highs; interest rates were at 13 per cent; inflation was in double digits. The country faced a big budget deficit, and members of Thatcher’s cabinet were openly briefing against her. The Thatcher experiment seemed unlikely to last long.
Thatcher went back to first principles. Her biggest influence had been the certainties of her father’s Methodism, and the economic life of the small town, Grantham, where she grew up. Her self-belief through 1981 was sustained by a Manichaean world view, most often associated with religious fundamentalism. To someone of this frame of mind, the world is a place of simple contrasts, of black and white, of right and wrong, of good and evil.
When Geoffrey Howe, the long-standing Chancellor of the Exchequer who sadly passed away earlier this month, introduced his 1981 budget in March that year, 364 economists wrote to The Times complaining about the Government’s policy. Howe famously remarked that “an economist is someone who knows 364 ways of making love, but doesn’t know any women”. To Thatcher, who would never have made a joke like this, these economists were simply wrong and, worse, apologists for failure.
1981 also witnessed riots in Brixton, Southall and Toxteth. Many black youths, among others, took to the streets to express frustration and resentment at police intimidation. The Irish hunger strikes, in which Bobby Sands lost his life, were also a potential public relations disaster for Thatcher’s government that summer. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party’s split from Labour marked a threat to Thatcher, offering a plausible social democratic alternative to what many regarded as Thatcher’s extremism.
Thatcher reduced problems to simple binary propositions. To her way of thinking, the rioters were criminals; the Irish hunger strikers were terrorists and criminals; the SDP and her opponents within the Conservative party, the “Wets”, were confused and wrong.
Her constant refrain throughout the summer was “nothing could justify violence” and that “unemployment had nothing to do with the riots”. In the case of the hunger strikers, Thatcher was outwardly tough and uncompromising. Her view was simply that “crime is crime is crime”. To a woman brought up in the strong Methodist traditions of her youth, there simply wasn’t any compromise to be had with evil and wrong doing. Politicians, in her mind, either upheld truth and honesty, or they showed weakness in tolerating evil. There was no middle way.
Thatcher’s ruthless single mindedness frustrated her political opponents across Westminster. The SDP leaders appreciated her toughness, while seeing themselves as a more reasonable alternative to Thatcherite dogma and self-assertion. Roy Jenkins, the former Labour home secretary and one of the founding leaders of the SDP, himself made the connection between Thatcher’s economic policies and her almost theological self belief: “Some of the sterner religions teach that a mortification of the spirit may be achieved through a mortification of the flesh. But the management of the economy is a practical matter, not a religious one”. For Thatcher, economics was a moral issue, as she would keep repeating throughout 1981 and beyond.
By the summer of 1981, there was open revolt within Thatcher’s cabinet. The cabinet had split into Wets and Dries. It was clear to most people at the time that this open conflict could not continue much longer.
On Monday 14th September, Thatcher struck. The most prominent grandees who had opposed her were either demoted or sacked. Christopher Soames, the ebullient Leader of the House of Lords and the son-in-law of Winston Churchill, reacted strongly to his summary dismissal. He assailed her for twenty minutes on her “various shortcomings”. His booming voice could be heard out of the open window and half way across Horse Guards Parade.
Ian Gilmour, a leading critic within the Cabinet, and Mark Carlisle, the somewhat ineffectual Education Secretary, were also dismissed. Peter Thorneycroft’s sacking as Party Chairman was dressed up as a ‘resignation’. Ian Gow, Thatcher’s ever assiduous Parliamentary Private Secretary, had been despatched to Venice that August to inform Lord Thorneycroft of this development.
The drastic reorganisation of the Government did not mark an immediate improvement in Thatcher’s fortunes. It did mean that she tightened her grip on the Conservative Party, but she still encountered challenges. Thatcher’s leadership style was idiosyncratic and highly charged. It is unlikely that students in modern business schools would be encouraged to follow her examples as a leader. 1981 shows how remarkable her leadership qualities were, but it also shows how difficult it would be for any leader, either in business or politics, to attempt to replicate them.