Matthew Bailey and Philip Cowley are both from the Centre for British Politics at the University of Nottingham, and ran @thatchersrise – which charted the events of 1974 and 1975.
In February 1975, the Daily Telegraph’s Peterborough column reported a howl of pain from Martyn Walsh, the designer at Intellect Games, who produced a board game called ‘Election’. Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the Conservative leadership contest was going to cost them thousands of pounds redesigning the game’s plastic figures to include a woman. Walsh was reported as saying: ‘It never occurred to us to have any woman as party leader.’
It didn’t occur to most of the political establishment, either. Edward Heath, whom she beat, told her bluntly: ‘You’ll lose’. Barbara Castle told her husband (another Ted) that he was mad to think Heath would not be leader at the next election; they put a pound bet on their difference. Despite being the only (serious) declared candidate against Heath, any number of alternatives were endlessly speculated about in the newspaper columns; and many of the better known names consistently out did her at the bookies. Even after she had defeated Heath on the first round, Thatcher was still not the bookies’ favourite to win until the day before her eventual victory.
One of the USPs of Intellect Games was that their games were, well, intellectual – or, at least, often did not rely on chance. There were no dice used in ‘Election’. As the blurb on the game’s box said: ‘Whoever heard of an election with dice?’ Yet although most accounts of Thatcher’s rise to the leadership acknowledge her personal courage, they usually present her victory as owing a lot to chance, being bit of a fluke, a negative choice to get rid of an unloved Heath or, at best, a cunning tactical success achieved by her wily campaign manager, Airey Neave.
For much of the last six months, we have, under the umbrella of the Twitter account @thatchersrise, been charting the day by day events of 40 years ago. We were trying to capture not just the facts of the election of one of the – if not the – defining politicians of the last 100 years, but also the background noise that made it possible politically and located it culturally. And when you do that, it is clear that the conventional account – of accident, fluke, and tactics – is not quite right.
Take the seemingly silly story about Thatcher supposedly hoarding tinned food. This is a well-known part of the narrative about her election to the leadership, but its importance is only understandable when set in the context of a daily grind of reports from the Times’ Food Prices column or of routine reports of shelves bare of the daily loaf, sugar shortages and meat coupons for the elderly.
And yes, the events 40 years ago are a testimony to the elements of luck and fortune that can shape politics and life, but it is also a reminder that even the closest of observers of events can get it wrong and not see what is happening right before their eyes.
Take the idea that MPs just wanted Heath out, and that Thatcher was therefore effectively – and maybe just temporarily – ‘any port in a storm’: a vote for her was a vote to oust the squatting leader. What a vote for Thatcher wasn’t, therefore, was a vote for anything and certainly not a vote for Thatcher or her eponymous ‘ism’.
Yet go back 40 years, and the day-in-day-out reporting of the contest stressed Mrs Thatcher’s dogmatism, and the risks for the Conservatives as a national, centre ground party should they be foolhardy enough to vote for her. Not a single newspaper backed her candidacy largely because of that fact. The full details of Thatcherism may not have been clear – are they even now? – but that she stood for something was. Ideology was a determining factor in how MPs voted and a clear factor in how the election was discussed. In her first major speech after being elected, she acknowledged that people were already calling the party – and her – ‘extremist Right-Wingers’. ‘They’ll dredge up all their tired and silly slogans’, she said, ‘but we can deal with those. We can ask them, how can it be extreme to argue that men should be free?’ The MPs casting their votes in Committee Room 14 on the fourth and 11th of February 1975 had a pretty good idea what they were voting for or against.
In an editorial commenting on that speech, The Times felt that she he had given little of substance to her audience; she had, in their words, been ‘striking an attitude rather than proclaiming a theme.’ But had the paper been watching carefully over the past weeks (rather than – as with the leadership election itself – looking for what it wanted to see) they might have noticed that that was precisely what Thatcher offered. Indeed, her very first words spoken on her first Party Political Broadcast as leader a few days earlier had set the tone: ‘I believe I represent an attitude…an approach’.
Digging through the stories from those months in 1974 and 1975, it becomes clear that there is a spirit abroad yearning for some sort of change; a desire for anything, anything, but business as usual. By late-1974 nowhere more did that spirit reside than in the Conservative Parliamentary Party. They did want to be rid of Heath (even his supporters found it difficult to muster up the enthusiasm to support him) and,, although there was no rounded policy platform or water tight manifesto they recognised change was possible – an attitude, an approach – and that was represented by Margaret Thatcher.