Tag Archives: Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin

The papers of Dorothy Hodgkin held at the Bodleian Library reveal a remarkable relationship between two women at the top of their fields: a Nobel prize winning scientist and a British Prime Minister, whose divergent political views (Hodgkin was a lifelong communist sympathiser) never stood in the way of frank dialogue and mutual admiration.

Margaret Roberts read Chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, 1943-1947, choosing to do her Part II Chemistry under Hodgkin, who had just achieved scientific recognition for her discovery of the structure of penicillin. Under Hodgkin’s supervision, Roberts carried out x-ray crystallographic analysis of Gramicidin S, an antibiotic peptide. Hodgkin recalls, ‘She came up to Somerville just before the end of the war and chose to do her Part II Chemistry with me. I must say I was very pleased with her’, only regretting that the young student did not have ‘the pleasure and experience of actually solving a structure’. In fact the structure of Gramicidin S was to prove elusive for many years.

Margaret Roberts’s career as a chemist was short-lived but her political rise was extraordinary. A draft letter in the archive from Hodgkin to Thatcher, congratulates her on becoming Prime Minister, ‘Yours is a very remarkable achievement, to be the first woman prime minister of this country and also the first scientist. You have wonderful opportunities.’ Although the letter continues rather cryptically, ‘I keep on so hoping that good may come of it but also so fearing quite otherwise.’ Perhaps this was due to their very different political views. Hodgkin was a pacifist, a socialist and an admirer of communism. She travelled widely, engaging with the international crystallographic community and she had friends across the Cold War divide. She was devoted to the peaceful resolution of conflicts and to nuclear disarmament, and actively promoted dialogue between East and West.

During the 1980s there was a cordial and well-informed correspondence between the two women, as she sought to persuade the Prime Minister of the necessity of banning chemical weapons and encouraged her to believe that the Soviets were close to an agreement on the international verification of chemical disarmament.

 

Manuscript note by Hodgkin, ‘Notes for Margaret: Object – to rethink relations with the Soviet Union on the basis that friendship is possible & would be to everyone’s advantage – trade – science – art – the lot’

 

In a letter to Tony Epstein, Hodgkin confessed, ‘I find myself worried about her – she got stuck with these Tory principles when young but she can occasionally be persuaded that different courses should be adopted’. She seems to have been vindicated by Thatcher’s declaration that Gorbachev was a man she could do business with, and by the Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow in 1987. Afterwards Hodgkin wrote, ‘Long ago I meant to write to say how glad I was about your progress in Moscow, especially with Gorbachev. I knew the scientists would enjoy your coming and only hoped you would like them too.’ In return, Thatcher sent her old tutor, six colour photographs of her meetings with the Russian scientists in Moscow.
Margaret Thatcher with Russian scientists in Moscow, 1987.

Hodgkin was delighted with the thaw in relations but took the opportunity to press Thatcher on another subject close to her heart – the cuts to student numbers and the reduction of the student grant, ‘I do feel your talks with Gorbachev have totally changed the East-West confrontation and you could now drop modernization of nuclear weapons and spend the money & the scientists brains on the environment – and education – especially welcoming good young teachers and providing finance for students.’ An earlier response by Thatcher on the issue, shows how cordial their relationship was.

 

Letter from Thatcher to Hodgkin, 1983, ‘I do so much value your advice and guidance’.

 

It’s a tribute to the personalities of these two remarkable women that they were able to maintain a lifelong friendship across such an enormous personal, political divide. The papers are available for consulation in the Bodleian Library’s Special Collections Reading Room.

A Tribute to Baroness Thatcher of Kevesten

Lady Thatcher, who died on Monday, was part of a distinguished line of twenty six British Prime Ministers educated at Oxford University, where she studied Chemistry at Somerville College between 1943-1947 under the supervision of Dorothy Hodgkin, with whom she continued an occasional correspondence well into the 1980s (Hodgkin Papers, and Additional Hodgkin Papers, Bodleian Library).

Her political career is fully captured in documents held within the Conservative Party Archive at the Bodleian, from canvassing in Oxford during the 1945 General Election campaign and her tenure as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946, through her long struggle for election to Parliament, her holding of a range of junior Ministerial and Opposition posts from 1961 leading to her appointment to Heath’s Shadow Cabinet in 1967, as Education Secretary in the 1970-1974 Conservative Government, Leader of the Conservative Party from 1975, and onward through her tumultuous period as Prime Minister, 1979-1990.

Below is a chronological selection of material from the Conservative Party Archive which illustrates Thatcher’s rise through the Conservative Party ranks between 1949-1979.

Margaret Roberts was unanimously selected by the Executive Committee of Dartford on 31st January, 1949 as the only candidate of the 5 interviewed to go forward to the adoption meeting: ‘…Miss Roberts’ platform knowledge and speaking ability are far above those of the other candidates.’

 

 
 

 
Letter from Margaret Roberts to Conservative Party Vice-Chairman Miss Maxse dated 15/02/1949 which accompanied her application form to become a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate. She mentions the rejections which she had received in response to applications for research posts with Unilever and the British Oxygen Company, as well as the forthcoming adoption meeting by Dartford Conservative Association.
 

 

Reference from unknown source [2ndpage of letter missing] to JPL Thomas, Conservative Party Vice-Chairman supporting Margaret Roberts’ application to become a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate, 26/02/1949: ‘She is a good speaker, a good Chairman of Committee, gets on well with men (without resorting to the more obvious feminine arts!) and appears to be able to avoid unpopularity with her fellow women.’
 

 

 

Memorandum from Home Counties South East Area Agent Miss Cook to Mr Watson, Chief Organisation Officer, Conservative Central Office dated 14/02/1950 concerning Margaret Roberts’ outstanding performance in Dartford during the 195 General Election campaign: ‘She excels at questions, and always gives a straight and convincing answer. She is never heckled, they have too much respect for her. When the meeting ends people crowd round her – generally Socialists – to ask more questions, really genuine ones.

 

Margaret Roberts’ election address, Dartford, 1950 General Election. She was the only female candidate at that election, and at that time, the youngest ever Conservative woman to stand.
 
 
Margaret Roberts’ election address , Dartford, 1951 General Election. Despite her defeat in 1950 she was re-selected as the Conservative candidate.
 
 
Newspaper cutting from the Daily Telegraph concerning Margaret Roberts’ marriage to Dennis Thatcher, 14/12/1951
 
Article by Thatcher, ‘Wake up, Women’, published in the Sunday Graphic, 17/02/1952, advocating more women in the work-force and especially at Westmister
 
 
Memo from Area Agent Miss Cook to John Hare, Conservative Party Vice-Chairman, following her interview with Margaret Thatcher on 11/06/1952, concerning Thatcher’s renewed desire to become a parliamentary candidate following her marriage: To quote her own words – “It is no use; I must face it: I don’t like being left out of the political stream”.     
 
Letter from Thatcher to Hare dated 02/09/1953, temporarily withdrawing from politics following the birth of twins: ‘I had better not consider a candidature for at least six months’
 
Letter from Thatcher to Hare dated 13/01/1954 withdrawing ‘permanently’ from politics: ‘I have quite made up my mind to pursue Law to the exclusion of politics. Even if a winnable seat in Kentshould become free, as you suggest – I do not wish my name to be considered.’
 
Article by Thatcher entitled ‘Finding Time’, published in the Conservative Party magazine, Onward, Apr 1954 
 
 
 
Letter from Thatcher to Donald Kaberry, Conservative Party Vice-Chairman dated 28/02/1956 concerning her desire to return to politics: ‘…a little experience at the Revenue Bar and in Company matters, far from turning my attention from politics has served to draw my attention more closely to the body which is responsible for the legislation about which I have come to hold strong views.’
 
Memorandum, Home Counties North Area Agent PRG Horton to Kaberry dated 01/08/1958 confirming Thatcher’s adoption as parliamentary candidate by Finchley Conservative Association: ‘I feel that the adoption of Mrs Thatcher will prove a shot in the arm to Finchley and that we shall see great improvements there from now on.’
 
Margaret Thatcher’s election address, Finchley, 1959 General Election
 
Report of a meeting of the Chelsea Conservative Association on the subject of pensions addressed by Mrs Thatcher – under the title, ‘The blonde in the black fur coat’, featured in Light, the magazine of the Chelsea Conservative Association, (Vol. 1, No. 1), Feb 1964. Mrs Thatcher had been appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance by Macmillan in October 1961
 
 
 
Margaret Thatcher’s election address, Finchley, 1964 General Election
 
 
 
Margaret Thatcher’s election address, Finchley, 1966 General Election [In Opposition between 1964 and 1966, Thatcher was Opposition Spokesman for Land, Rates and Housing matters
 
 
The Conservative Party newsletter Monthly News, Dec 1969, featuring Thatcher’s move from Shadow Transport Minister to Shadow Education Minister
 
 
 
Margaret Thatcher’s election address, Finchley, 1970 General Election
 
 
Profile of Margaret Thatcher MP, the new Secretary of State for Education and Science, July 1970 As published in the Party newsletter, Weekly News (11th July 1970; Vol. 26, No. 22)
 
 
 
 
Margaret Thatcher’s election address, Finchley, Feb 1974 General Election
 
 
‘Control, Enterprise and Savings’ – article by Thatcher published in CPC Monthly Report(No. 101, Dec 1974), as Opposition Spokesman on Treasury and Economic Affairs
 
 
Lead article in Conservative Monthly News covering Thatcher’s replacement of Heath as Leader of the Conservative Party: ‘There is much to do. I hope you will allow me time to do it thoroughly and well.’
 
 
Article in Conservative News on the eve of the 1979 General Election: Margaret Thatcher understands ‘the hopes of ordinary people – of our desire to keep more of the money we earn, to see it hold its value, to own our own homes, to see standards raised for our children at school – and to help our country raise her head high in the world again.’
 

30 years ago: The Falklands War

This week’s press is full of references to the Falklands War, which began 30 years ago on 2 April 1982. The anniversary comes while tensions are once again high over the question of the Falklands’ sovereignty, but the event has been celebrated with solemnity in the UK.

Although many of the Conservative Party Archive’s files on the Falklands remain closed, those that are available help to provide a picture of the UK government’s struggles and decisions during the first days of the conflict.

Politics Today (not pictured) provided background for politicians on current events and legislation, and ‘The Falklands Conflict’ issue (August 1982, PUB 221/40) provides information on the conflict, its resolution and the stance of other UK political parties on it.

The Conservative Research Department was responsible for providing briefs to MPs and Party members on various issues. This 1967 brief (pictured above) was produced after a group of Argentine nationalists forced an plane to land in the Falklands; the event was described by the Argentine President as ‘an act of piracy’ but raised questions over the place of a debate over sovereignty (CRD/B/14/2).

Above, an early CRD/International Office Brief issued shortly after the beginning of the conflict provides background for those MPs going into the Falklands debate in the House of Commons on 7 April 1982. It covers the historical situation, the British response and international reactions. A second brief (not pictured), circulated later that month, provided background on the UN’s stance, international opinion and the sequence of events (CRD/B/14/5).

This Briefing Note published by the Party gives highlights of the Prime Minister’s speech to the Commons on 14 April 1982. Mrs. Thatcher opened with the words:

‘Our objective, endorsed by all sides of the House in recent debates, is that the people of the Falkland Islands shall be free to determine their own way of life and their own future.’

She closed by expressing her determination to combat any aggression in the islands:

‘The eyes of the world are now focussed upon the Falkland Islands. Others are watching anxiously to see whether brute force or the rule of law will triumph. Wherever naked aggression occurs it must be overcome. The cost now, however high, must be set against the cost we would one day have to pay if this principle went by default. And that is why, through diplomatic, economic and if necessary through military means, we shall persevere until freedom and democracy are restored to the people of the Falkland Islands.’

On the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict in 2007, former Conservative Party Chairman Cecil Parkinson travelled to the islands; these commemorative items are part of the papers he donated to the CPA.

All images © The Conservative Party Archive Trust

Iron Lady on the big screen

Thatcher enthusiasts, British political historians and children of the Thatcher era might all be interested in an upcoming feature film entitled The Iron Lady. The film follows the life of Margaret Thatcher as she broke down the barriers that made her entry into politics a difficult one. 


The film stars Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep as Lady Thatcher herself, as well as Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher. It is a joint production of Pathé, Film4, and the UK Film Council. More information is available from The Iron Lady website

On this day in 1983: Thatcher and Conservatives win second election

On 9 June 1983, just after 11pm, Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing Street for her constituency in Finchley. She remarked, ‘We think this will be our home for the next five years’ (The Times, 10 June 1983). It was indeed; Thatcher and the Conservative Party won a landslide victory – the most decisive election victory since 1945.

Thatcher’s popularity had waned during her first two years in office; unemployment had risen to pre-WWII levels and inflation persisted. Victory in the Falklands, however, gave the Conservatives a decisive jump in the polls, as did Labour’s internal divisions and a Labour manifesto dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’ by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman.

The Party’s manifesto laid out a slightly more radical programme of reforms, including abolishing the Greater London council and the Metropolitan County Councils and privatising certain key British corporations.

The Party won a third election in 1987, and Thatcher remained in office as Prime Minister until 1990.

 

Further reading:
The 1983 Conservative Party Manifesto
Interview for Carol Thatcher’s Diary of an Election

On this day in 1984: The Iron Curtain visits the Iron Lady

Although he didn’t take the role of General Secretary until 11 March 1985, Gorbachev was already a high-ranking member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by the late 1970s.

Gorbachev’s role in the Party allowed him to travel regularly, and he had already visited Canada and a number of Western European nations, but his trip to the United Kingdom marked the first visit by such a high-ranking Soviet official in almost three decades.

The visit to the UK lasted eight days, but its highlight was a five-hour meeting with Margaret Thatcher in her country residence, Chequers. The meeting was hailed as an important stepping stone in the thawing relationship between the Soviets and the UK – and the west as a whole.

Confidential Party briefing paper dated March 1984 outlining the UK’s stance on relations with the USSR, suggesting that although the UK was open to dialogue, its patience was limited [CRD 95]

The discussion focused on subjects like arms control and communication channels, and although the leaders are said to have disagreed on certain issues, the visit marked a softening between the two national figures. Thatcher seemed to warm to Gorbachev’s concepts of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). The Prime Minister, famous for her ‘iron’ stance towards the Soviets, commented in an interview with the BBC, ‘I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.’ She continued:

‘We both believe in our own political systems. He firmly believes in his; I firmly believe in mine. We are never going to change one another. So that is not in doubt, but we have two great interests in common: that we should both do everything we can to see that war never starts again, and therefore we go into the disarmament talks determined to make them succeed. And secondly, I think we both believe that they are the more likely to succeed if we can build up confidence in one another and trust in one another about each other’s approach, and therefore, we believe in cooperating on trade matters, on cultural matters, on quite a lot of contacts between politicians from the two sides of the divide.’

(Margaret Thatcher Foundation, Thatcher Archive: COI transcript, 17 December 1984. The video of the press conference is available on the Thatcher Foundation website)

While Gorbachev was in office, he and Thatcher, often in conjunction with Reagan, worked cautiously but consistently towards a thaw in East-West relations. Gorbachev remained in power until 1991, and his efforts at opening the USSR to reform and the outside world earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

Thatcher and Reagan in discussion

More material on Thatcher’s reactions to and relationship with Gorbachev is available on the Thatcher Foundation website, including:
-The text of the December 1984 press conference
-Thatcher’s memoir account of the 1983 Chequers seminar on the USSR
-Thatcher’s memoir account of the 1984 visit of the Gorbachevs to Chequers

Televised debates in history

Since the great Kennedy-Nixon US Presidential debate of 1960, the spectre of a televised debate – for that is how it must have appeared to many a Party leader – has loomed large over nearly every UK general election. For 50 years, however, British politicians have clung doggedly to the staid approach of the Party Political Broadcast – until this month, of course.
Harold Wilson was the first British politician to propose a televised debate in the UK. He challenged Sir Alec Douglas-Home to a debate during the 1964 election, but Home refused, comparing the prospect to a Top of the Pops competition:

You’ll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter (Sir Alec Douglas-Home, in interview with Michael Cockerell, 2010).

However, once Wilson was himself PM, he turned down Edward Heath’s challenge to a 1970 debate – a pattern which was to endure until John Major offered one to Tony Blair in 1997.
Despite the PMs’ reluctance, the first ever televised debate took place 25 years ago –at the height of the referendum debate over Britain’s continued membership of the EEC. Leading politicians from the three major parties locked horns in three televised debates, and many of them secured their reputations as great orators. On 2 June 1975, Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins, both members of the Labour Cabinet, took opposing sides in a one-on-one debate for BBC1’s Panorama. That same evening, ITV presented a parliamentary-style debate on the motion ‘That Britain should remain in the European Economic Community’. The motion was proposed by Edward Heath, supported by Roy Jenkins, and opposed by Enoch Powell, supported by Tony Benn (although the latter was subsequently replaced on account of his refusal to share a cross-Party platform).
The following night, BBC1 broadcast an Oxford Union debate on the motion, ‘That this House would say “Yes” to Europe’, with Edward Heath and Jeremy Thorpe lined up against Barbara Castle and Peter Shore.
Jeremy Thorpe had been the only party leader to take part in these debates, but other leaders and electoral hopefuls began to consider the possibility of similar public encounters. James Callaghan’s challenge was met with a lukewarm response from Margaret Thatcher but not outright rejection. When the proposal was first mooted through the BBC’s Director-General Ian Trethowan in July 1978, the Conservatives’ Strategy and Tactics Committee merely agreed that

At this stage we should make no commitment on the principle but ask the BBC to ascertain the views of the other Parties and to bring forward full proposals for discussion. (Minutes of Central Office discussion, Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

Despite her initial openness, Mrs Thatcher’s reply illuminates the parties’ strong concerns:

…What are the reactions of the other four political parties at Westminster, the Liberals, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, and the Ulster Unionists? … bearing in mind this is not a Presidential but a Party contest, we must know their views … what would you have in mind on format, Chairman, choice of interviewers, rules governing interviews … arrangements to ensure equality, impartiality, etc? (Letter from Thatcher to Trethowan , Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

In 2010, these same concerns would be the subject of six months’ deliberations between the parties and a detailed 76-point agreement.
A few weeks later, Trethowan was still pushing his proposal at a secret Central Office meeting. However, the BBC was insistent on it being a two-Party debate only, allowing the smaller parties other unspecified opportunities to put their case, and by the end of the meeting Trethowan had conceded that ‘If a televised debate would be bad for British politics he would rather drop the idea.’ (Minutes of Central Office discussion, Margaret Thatcher Foundation)
Mrs Thatcher’s final say on the matter was even more emphatic:

I believe that issues and policies decide elections, not personalities. We should stick to that approach. We are not electing a President, we are choosing a government.(Letter from Thatcher to David Cox, Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

Yet public reaction to the first of the leaders’ debates seems to vindicate the decision to proceed, albeit a few years later; a letter to The Times dated 6 June 1976 could easily have been written in the run-up to the 2010 genera election:

Let us have more good debate of this sort on television (and on public platforms too, instead of mere unanswered speeches), so that if people are indeed inclined to the dangerous habit of denigrating politicians as a breed, they may be allowed to see them at their best …But more staged parliamentary debates and more serious face-to-face discussion – that is the way to restore respect for our precious political process and its indispensable practitioners. (Mr John Campbell, Times Digital Archive)