Tag Archives: Margaret Thatcher

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)