Thatcher's Trial

180 Days that Created a Conservative Icon


By Kwasi Kwarteng

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In six months, Margaret Thatcher reinvented her political party and redefined modern conservatism in one of the greatest feats of modern political leadership.

In 1981, less than two years after she had been elected as Britain’s first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher was deemed unpopular and out of touch. Unemployment had risen to levels not seen since the 1930s, and the state’s finances were foundering. Her chancellor of the exchequer delivered what became known as the ‘no hope’ budget in March, which marked the beginning of a period of an almost unprecedentedly broad range of political challenges: hunger strikes and violent protests in Northern Ireland, urban riots in London and Liverpool, and visible discontent with Thatcher from within the Conservative Party.

And yet by September 14, when Thatcher sacked 4 mutinous grandees from her cabinet, the prime minister had firmly reasserted her authority. These extraordinary six months would come to define the Conservative Party’s most successful and modern leader, who reshaped the ideas and direction of conservatism around the world. To her detractors she may have been a harsh, uncaring and dogmatic leader who made the country a more unequal, materialistic and brutal place, but to her supporters, she was nothing less than a Conservative savior who prevented Britain from becoming an ungovernable socialist state. The 1983 general election would prove a triumph.

Kwasi Kwarteng intimately captures this shopkeeper’s daughter’s unique leadership qualities — from her pulpit-style and New Testament imagery to her emphasis on personal moral responsibility — that saw her through some of the most adverse conditions facing any world leader in modern peacetime.



Portrait of a LadyPortrait of a Lady

Wednesday 4 March 1981 – The church was full and lavishly furnished. It was an expression of the wealth and pride of the City of London. Thatcher, Prime Minister for two years, was in her most fulsome and high-sounding mood. ‘Two years ago in this church, I spoke as both a Christian and a politician about how I found my religious convictions affecting the way I approached the responsibility of government.’ St Lawrence Jewry is a church in the heart of the City of London. It stands beside the Guildhall and is the official church of the Lord Mayor of London and the City of London Corporation, the people who had been running the City for nearly 800 years. The Prime Minister gave thanks for having been brought up in a ‘Christian family’ and for having ‘learned the message of the Christian faith’.1

At this moment, seven young people, mostly in their teens and dressed in suits, stood up and began to shout; they said the Prime Minister should spend less money on armaments and more on jobs. Much of what they said was inaudible. One young man took over the pulpit and started shouting at Mrs Thatcher directly, as she stood by the lectern at the head of the aisle, where she had started her address. The rector of the church, the Rev. Basil Watson, appealed for calm. He got no response. A little later, the seven, believed to be supporters of the Young Communist League, were led out of the church. They were booed and hissed by the congregation. ‘Now you see why I fight these people,’ intoned Thatcher. The congregation, about 550 strong, a solidly respectable crowd of elderly ladies in fur and tweed coats, alongside young City types in Jermyn Street trenchcoats, were firmly behind the Prime Minister.2 It was typical that she should identify her enemy in human form; the young left-wing activists were the embodiment of everything she was against.

Thatcher proceeded to deliver her homily to the respectable congregation. A homily, defined as a ‘religious discourse which is intended primarily for spiritual edification’, is exactly the word to describe the mixture of lecture, sermon and moral encouragement which had become the hallmark of her style. ‘The concept of the nation is at the heart of Old Testament Judaism.’ This concept, the congregation were perhaps surprised to learn, was also one ‘which those who wrote the New Testament accepted’. More fundamental than the idea of the nation was, in Thatcher’s words, ‘the idea of personal moral responsibility’.

The 4 March address was one of the most extraordinary ever given by a British prime minister to an errant congregation. ‘Of course, we can deduce from the teachings of the Bible principles of public as well as private morality.’ The Bible, Thatcher urged, remained an important source of inspiration in the Britain of 1981. Even though ‘there are considerable religious minorities in Britain, most people would accept that we have a national way of life and that is founded on Biblical principles’. After the ‘twilight of medieval times, when for many life was characterised by tyranny, injustice and cruelty’, Britain had become what J. R. Green, the late Victorian liberal historian, had described as ‘the people of a book and that book was the Bible’.3

As history, Margaret Thatcher’s thesis was questionable. As inspiration and as a picture of her mind, the references to the Bible and to J. R. Green were typical. Green himself was an ‘advanced liberal’, whose A Short History of the English People had sold 500,000 copies in the fifty years after its publication in 1874. He was popular with liberals because he rejected the traditional view of British history as a parade of kings and queens and battles, and sought to write about the life of ordinary people. To do this in 1874 was radical, even revolutionary.4 It is highly likely that such a book would have been known to Margaret Thatcher’s father, Alfred, himself a liberal who was reputed to be the ‘best-read man in Grantham’. The young Margaret used to collect ‘armfuls of books’ for her father every week.5 Even though Thatcher got considerable help in the St Lawrence Jewry speech from the right-wing journalist T. E. Utley and others, its sentiments were wholly characteristic of the mature Thatcher style.

What was perhaps striking to the congregation in March 1981 was the identification the Prime Minister clearly felt with biblical figures. Thatcher stressed the need for a ‘national purpose’. In this vein, she asserted that ‘unless the spirit of the nation’ is renewed, ‘our national way of life will perish’. Whose responsibility was it to ensure that this way of life did not perish? ‘Who is to undertake this task?’ the Prime Minister asked her supportive audience. Her answer was simple, if breathtaking in its implications. ‘It has always been the few who took the lead: a few who see visions and dream dreams.’ In ancient times, the Prime Minister continued, ‘there were the prophets in the Old Testament, the Apostles in the New, and the reformers in both Church and State’. There was no doubting that she saw herself in this role, as a renewer of the ‘spirit of the nation’. ‘If we as a nation fail to produce such people,’ she continued, ‘then I am afraid the spirit of the nation which has hitherto sustained us, will slowly die.’

The heady mixture of national pride, Bible-based scripture, individual morality and basic liberal political philosophy all came together that March day. Thatcher defined her sense of limited government. Generosity, she declared, ‘is born in the hearts of men and women’. It ‘cannot be manufactured by politicians’. To think that the ‘exercise of compassion can be left to officials’ was an ‘illusion’. It is difficult to imagine what the tweedcoat-wearing congregation thought of Thatcher’s address. There was no doubting the grandeur of her imagination and the ambition of her vision. ‘Let me sum up. I believe the spirit of this nation is a Christian one. The values which sustain our way of life have by no means disappeared but they are in danger of being undermined.’ She finished with a rousing anthem to British pride and self-congratulation. Quoting John Newton, an evangelical preacher of the eighteenth century, she said, ‘Though the Island of Great Britain exhibits but a small spot upon a map of the globe, it makes a splendid appearance in the history of mankind, and for a long space of time has been signally under the protection of God and a seat of peace, liberty and truth.’6

Earlier in her premiership, in 1980, Thatcher had already publicly expressed her conviction that the City of London’s success owed much to the moral qualities of Englishmen. At a dinner marking her twenty-one-years as MP for Finchley, held at the Intercontinental Hotel by Hyde Park Corner on 18 October, she had decried the ‘lack of will by successive governments to tell the people the truth about the situation’. This had ‘sapped the British will to work and their traditional pride in a job well done’. More specifically, ‘the City of London became the world’s great financial centre more because of its reputation for honesty rather than for any geographical or political reasons’. In short, in Thatcher’s moral nationalism, for want of a better phrase, ‘Englishmen were famous for their hard work, thrift, reliability, honesty, initiative, intellectual curiosity, philosophical and scientific pre-eminence’. Furthermore, the Prime Minister asserted, ‘Moral qualities were the secret of our economic success.’7

Such words would more likely be heard in a US president’s State of the Union address, something that J. F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan might have said about the American people. The strength of moral virtue within Americans had long been a theme of American exceptionalism, but to hear such phrases from a British prime minister was rare. This is not how Prime Ministers had spoken since the nineteenth century. Thatcher’s strident nationalism was so entirely in character that probably nobody thought it strange that she could make such bold claims on behalf of ‘Englishmen’.

That Margaret Thatcher could utter such sentiments without the faintest twinge of embarrassment was testament to her upbringing and early experiences. Famously brought up in the flat above her father’s grocer’s shop, she was steeped in the Methodism which her father preached every Sunday. The basic themes of individualism and national pride, commingled with Christian ethics, the absolute value of right and wrong, were ideas to which she would return repeatedly. There was always, in this form of preaching, a hint of British, perhaps even more narrowly English, exceptionalism.

Thatcher’s upbringing had by her own admission been ‘very strict’. The young Margaret, born in 1925, and her elder sister Muriel were ‘never allowed to go to a cinema on a Sunday’. They were even forbidden to play any games such as snakes and ladders. Church, more specifically the Methodist Church, ‘played quite a large part in our lives’, Thatcher remembered. She also vividly recalled ‘going to morning Sunday school at ten, then to the Church service at eleven, then to afternoon Sunday School at 2.30 where I was responsible for doing the musical accompaniment and generally to the service at six’.8 Even by the standards of 1930s England, two Sunday School lessons and two services amounted to an impressive degree of religious devotion.

The Methodist Church at Finkin Street in Grantham is a fine building, dating from the 1840s, in a Tuscan style. It was here that Margaret Thatcher worshipped and played the piano accompaniment to the hymns which lay at the heart of Methodist worship. Alfred Roberts, Margaret’s father, was a powerful, imposing figure, standing at six foot two inches, with wavy blond hair. His approach to church was straightforward and, as is evident from Margaret’s exercise books, in which he wrote notes for his sermons, he presented a tough, practical version of Christianity. Indeed, his daughter’s sermon at St Lawrence Jewry in March 1981 could have been written by Alfred himself. He had the same certainties, the same instinctual belief in faith and nation which animated his daughter when she was Prime Minister. ‘If as a nation we allow, through neglect and indifference, the roots of Christian inspiration . . . to wither and die, then the fruits of the spirit must wither and die also.’

There is no doubt that the mixture of piety, self-righteousness and stubbornness which political enemies felt to be the sure hallmarks of Thatcher’s mature style were developed at her father’s knee. ‘God’, the Methodist lay preacher wrote in her exercise book in 1941, ‘wants no faint hearts for his ambassadors. He wants men, who having communed with heaven can never be intimidated by the world.’ Beyond the putative wishes of the Deity, Roberts explicitly referred, like many Protestants before him, from Martin Luther to John Bunyan and John Wesley, to the ‘spark within’ which every one of us ‘must kindle’. All this came in a sermon entitled ‘Strength comes from within’. Once we had discovered ‘the light within ourselves we have to project that light’ in ‘every department of our living’ in order that we might ‘develop our own power’.9

Roberts’s sermons, if the notes are in any way indicative, were forthright and powerful utterances. A common theme was the power of the individual to realise himself and influence others. He told his congregation that ‘you must yourself believe intensely and with total conviction if you are to persuade others to believe’. In another emphatic comment in the notebook, Roberts asserted, perhaps with more enthusiasm than orthodoxy, that the ‘Kingdom of God is within you’.10 He was a tough, principled individual who was in essence a self-made man. Born in 1892, he was very much a late Victorian in outlook and mentality. His Methodism was a primary motivating force in his politics. He served as a councillor and alderman in Grantham and was elected Mayor of Grantham from 1945 to 1946.

Methodism as a political force had an interesting history, associated with liberal causes. Throughout the nineteenth century, and throughout Alfred Roberts’s youth, the Methodist Church had been overwhelmingly on the side of the Liberal party. One writer in the 1940s pointed to the founding of the Methodist Times in 1885 as a ‘convenient date for marking the beginnings of a dominant Liberalism within the Methodist Church’. As that publication observed in its issue of 30 June 1892, ‘Out of thirty-five Methodist Parliamentary candidates, not one supported Salisbury [the Conservative Prime Minister].’ The article suggested that ‘without exception, they supported Gladstone’. When Gladstone died, Hugh Price Hughes, the founder editor of the monthly, wrote a striking editorial article for the issue of 26 May 1898. Hughes boldly claimed that Gladstone would never have become Prime Minister but for Methodist votes.11 At the 1918 election, only seven years before Margaret’s birth, there were eighty-two Methodist candidates standing for parliament. Of these candidates, only seven stood as Conservatives, thirty-seven were Liberals, twelve were Coalition Liberals, personally loyal to the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, while the remaining twenty-six were members of the recently formed Labour party.12

Paradoxically perhaps, as the young Margaret Roberts was growing up, Methodism took on a more left-wing character. As elections went by, an ‘increasing number of Methodists’ became Labour parliamentary candidates, even though the majority were ‘still Liberal’, ever more dismayed by the disunity of the Liberal party.13 Whatever their political persuasion, Methodists consistently maintained hostility to the opening of public places on the ‘Lord’s day’. Alfred Roberts, when serving as a Grantham councillor, had objected to the opening of parks for games on Sundays. He believed that, even though there was ‘no such thing as compulsory Christianity’, there was ‘such a thing as drifting into a life which was absolutely and totally devoid of any spiritual inspiration’. These were strict views.14 As Margaret Thatcher remembered, ‘Everything had to be clean and systematic. We were Methodists and Methodist means method.’15

The influence on Methodist thought and practice was strong throughout Thatcher’s subsequent career.16 One aspect of this religious background which can easily be overlooked is the extent to which the certainties of the Finkin Street pulpit reduced problems to basic binary propositions. All through her life Thatcher revelled in bold, concrete and binary thinking. There would be no compromise, no shades of grey in her forthright world view. There was freedom and slavery, justice and injustice, right and wrong. This binary thinking was perhaps the most fundamental legacy of her strong Bible-based upbringing. Such dualism – the tendency to think in strictly black-and-white terms, without any hint of grey – is more characteristic of American political discourse than anything in Britain.

Manichaeism is an odd word describing a simple idea. Deriving their inspiration from a third-century Persian holy man named Mani who believed that there existed two kingdoms, one of darkness and one of light, Manichaeans saw the world as a field of perpetual conflict between good and evil. They were dualists. The two rival powers, in their view of the universe, were easily understood: ‘Good and Evil, Spirit and Matter, the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Darkness’. Such dualism has been described as a feature of US politics, where an analogy has been recognised ‘between the ancient Manichaeans and the Radical Right’.17 Thatcher’s convictions were always based on an almost religious sense of moral righteousness, on the absolute certainty of what was right and what was wrong. Once this essential feature of her thought is grasped, it comes as no surprise that she applied it to her own Cabinet, listing different members under the headings ‘for us’ and ‘against us’; perhaps characteristically, in a list dating from 1982 the numbers ‘against us’, in her view, were more than double those ‘for us’, her stalwarts in Cabinet.18

It was these certainties which sustained her at the most difficult points of her career. Such ‘truths’ gave her the confidence which inspired her friends and infuriated her enemies. All her political life, Thatcher believed she practised the kind of leadership which her father had preached in the Grantham of the 1930s and 1940s. As Alfred Roberts wrote in one of her exercise books, employing unusually convoluted language, ‘a religion of veracity must always be rooted in spiritual inwardness’. It was the ‘spirit within’ which gave a person capacity for leadership. ‘If you are going to kindle a flame in the heart of your hearers, you have to keep the flame burning on your own altar’ was another of his insights into conviction leadership.19 When Thatcher described herself as a ‘conviction politician’, she may well have been consciously emulating her father’s example and stated beliefs.

After graduating from Oxford in 1947, Thatcher seemed bent on a political career, but worked in various jobs before getting married to Denis in 1951 and training to become a barrister in London. Her subject at Oxford was Chemistry, perhaps a surprising choice for an aspirant politician. This scientific training with its empirical, analytical emphasis was something Thatcher would take pride in later, when she became Prime Minister; science, with its clear definitions and ‘modern’ appeal, would be something that would define her as Prime Minister. Indeed a letter to the Economist, written after she had reached Downing Street in May 1979, contributed to the debate about the scientific training of the new premier, as against the more literary, humanistic educational backgrounds of so many of her predecessors.

Against the charge that her scientific mindset gave her a narrow intellectual approach, the correspondent, one H. A. Martin from Dunmow in Essex, protested, ‘How can anyone say, as you report her colleagues saying, that Mrs Thatcher’s non-humanist education has given her non-lateral thinking without historical depth?’ Martin went on to say that it was ‘precisely because she graduated in science that she has a more open mind, and an acute awareness that unforeseen and new problems might occur’. He continued, ‘A training in science is the perfect base from which to tackle any situation, especially if fortified by one in Law.’ By contrast, ‘classicists are perpetually fighting Greek battles, in a world where technology rules, and the clear thinking of Mrs Thatcher is not hampered by the rigid strait-jacket of the outdated ivory-tower “humanists”’.20 Science was innovative and dynamic.

She had become an MP at the relatively young age of thirty-four in October 1959.21 More remarkably, she was one of a handful of women elected to the British parliament in that election. Among 630 MPs returned, only twenty-five, just over 4 per cent, were women. Thatcher herself was one of twelve Conservative women elected in a parliamentary party of 345 MPs. From the start sex, in the narrow sense of gender, was a defining part of Margaret Thatcher’s political character. Of the twelve female Tory MPs, Thatcher was not only the youngest, she was also the most media friendly – a young professional woman with two small children.

Thatcher’s career until 1975, when she seized the leadership of the Conservative party, had been more or less conventional. She had been the only woman in Prime Minister Edward Heath’s Cabinet from 1970 to 1974. She had been a junior minister at the end of the 1959–64 Conservative government, but none of these appointments presaged the dynamic and polarising figure she would become. Despite the relatively humdrum but competent start to her career, Thatcher did occasionally give public pronouncements and speeches which, in a tentative though unmistakable way, expressed her thoughts. Those thoughts often harked back to her father’s world view, his stress on the individual’s moral responsibility.

As early as 1968, Thatcher gave a lecture at a meeting held during the Conservative party conference. It was entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Politics?’ She argued that ‘the great mistake of the last few years has been for the government to provide or to legislate for almost everything’. For her, the result of this general activity was that ‘the emphasis in political debate ceased to be about people and became about economics’. She praised her own Conservative party for reducing ‘the rates of taxation’. This was an expression more of a wish than the reality of the Conservative governments from 1951 to 1964. In Thatcher’s view, such tax reduction had stemmed ‘from the real belief that government intervention and control tends to reduce the role of the individual, his importance and the desirability that he should be primarily responsible for his own future’. This was a clear statement of the individualism she would preach throughout her career. Thatcher had a clear message. ‘Money is not an end in itself,’ she insisted, but it did enable one ‘to live the kind of life of one’s choosing’. Referring to a parable which she would often come back to, she also noticed that ‘even the good Samaritan had to have the money to help, otherwise he too would have had to pass on the other side’.22

Even at this relatively early date, only a couple of weeks before her forty-third birthday, Thatcher – a new member of Heath’s shadow Cabinet – gave a good impression of the kind of politician she would become. Already she was openly expressing her doubts about ‘consensus politics’: ‘There are dangers in consensus: it could be an attempt to satisfy people holding no particular views about anything.’ She went on to say, ‘It seems more important to have a philosophy and policy which because they are good appeal to sufficient people to secure a majority.’ Thatcher finished off her conference speech with the observation that ‘No great party can survive except on the basis of firm beliefs about what it wants to do.’ In words which would form the bedrock of her ‘conviction politics’ for more than two decades, she observed that it was ‘not enough to have reluctant support. We want people’s enthusiasm as well.’

Those words could have been said by Margaret Thatcher at any stage of her period as Prime Minister. That such a clear and articulate expression of her view of politics had been given in 1968 suggests that she had a few fixed beliefs which were unchanging and constant. In many ways her mind was rigid and unbending. As a politician, she seemed to be fully formed at a remarkably early age, even before she was elected to parliament, and she simply harped on the same themes over and over again: the rule of law, individual freedom, government not being the answer to everything. She constantly repeated these very basic principles.

Of course in 1968 the speech of a junior member of the shadow Cabinet at a fringe event of the party conference would have attracted little attention. Nevertheless the themes of ‘individual responsibility’, ‘low taxes’, ‘less government’, ‘firm beliefs’, the appeal to ‘people’s enthusiasm’, all bore the hallmarks of Thatcher’s mature political style. She had simply grafted her Grantham views on to the Conservative party, but she remained an outsider. It was her Methodist, nonconformist background which gave to her the feeling that she was outside the traditional Conservative party, with its strong identification with hierarchy and its solidly Anglican establishment roots. This general sense of being an outsider was, in part, a feature of her electoral appeal.

In the meantime, Thatcher seemed to be a capable, though unexciting, prospect as a future political heavyweight. She got promotions, but there was always the suspicion that her ascent owed much to her being the token woman, not to any inherent ability. During Heath’s 1970–4 government, Thatcher had been a dutiful, if somewhat controversial, Education Secretary. Her opportunity to aim for the leadership of the party arose from the second defeat of the Conservatives in 1974 at the October election (Harold Wilson had narrowly beaten Heath at the February election). During the contest, Thatcher was portrayed as a plucky if implausible challenger. Her champions were initially journalists on the fringes of the Tory right, with the inimitable Patrick Cosgrave writing in the Spectator of 14 December 1974 that Edward Heath had been ‘the most unsuccessful political leader of modern times’. Cosgrave believed that ‘Thatcher could hardly fail to be a better leader than Mr Heath.’23

The thirty-three-year-old Patrick Cosgrave, an impetuous and often inebriated Irishman, was exactly the kind of outsider figure that was attracted by Thatcher. That December, he was political correspondent and deputy editor of the Spectator. His later antics included notorious bouts of drinking which led Private Eye to allege that he had lost his post as Mrs Thatcher’s adviser ‘because he had been sick over her in a taxi’.24 He praised Thatcher’s ‘quality of courage and endurance under fire’.25

Ronald Butt, writing in the Sunday Times at the end of 1974, also agreed that a Thatcher leadership of the Conservatives would be something ‘very different in style and also in the emphasis in its politics’. Her leadership would, in the view of this journalist, ‘answer better to public opinion which, under a Liberal–Tory establishment, has been too often ignored’. This December 1974 opinion piece also managed to identify the source of Thatcher’s appeal. ‘Mrs Thatcher has always, rightly, been a champion of what one might call the classless middle-classes concerned not with their origin but with their achievement and their sense of personal responsibility.’ At this rather early date, before the actual leadership contest itself which took place in January 1975, The Times


  • “A largely positive but not uncritical reassessment…Readers on this side of the pond who are puzzled by the impassioned esteem and disdain in which Thatcher is held in Britain will find much of value in this short but illuminating study.” —Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Nov 3, 2015
Page Count
272 pages

Kwasi Kwarteng

About the Author

Kwasi Kwarteng was born in London in 1975. He earned a PhD in History from Cambridge University in 2000. Kwasi was elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Spelthorne in 2010 and sat on the House of Commons Transport Select Committee from 2010 to 2013; he currently sits on the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. His first book, Ghosts of Empire, was published to critical acclaim by Bloomsbury in the UK and PublicAffairs in US in August, 2011. His second book, War and Gold, was published in May, 2014.

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