Peter Hoskin

Leaked embassy cable: what the Americans thought of Thatcher

Leaked embassy cable: what the Americans thought of Thatcher
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Forget the children of Thatcher, here's what the Americans were saying about the Iron Lady herself when she became Tory party leader. The source is a confidential cable from the American Embassy in London to the US State Department, dated 16 February 1975, and referenced in Claire Berlinski's book There is No Alternative:

Subject: Margaret Thatcher: Some First Impressions

1. We understand Department is providing Secretary with biographic data on Margaret Thatcher prior to his meeting with her February 18, Here are our initial impressions of Britain's newest political star.

2. Margaret Thatcher has blazed into national prominence almost literally from out of nowhere.  When she first indicated that she intended to stand against Ted Heath for leadership of the Conservative Party, few took her challenge seriously and fewer still believed it would succeed.  She had never been a member of the inner circle of Tory power brokers, and no politician in modern times has come to the leadership of either major party with such a narrow range of prior experience.  Now suddenly, after what has been described as her “daringly successful commando raid on the heights of the Tory Party,” she has become the focus of unusually intensive media and popular interest.

3. There is a general agreement among friends and critics alike that she is an effective and forceful parliamentary performer.  She has a quick, if not profound, mind, and works hard to master the most complicated brief.  She fights her corner with skill and toughness, but can be flexible when pressed.  In dealing with the media or with subordinates, she tends to be crisp and a trifle patronizing.  With colleagues, she is honest and straight-forward, if not excessively considerate of their vanities. Civil servants at the Ministry of Education found her autocratic.  She has the courage of her convictions, and once she has reached a decision to act, is unlikely to be deflected by any but the most persuasive arguments. Self-confident and self-disciplined, she gives every promise of being a strong leader.

4. Even before her great leap upward, Mrs. Thatcher had been the personification of a British middle class dream come true.  Born the daughter of a grocer, she had by dint of her own abilities and application won through, securing scholarships to good schools, making a success of her chosen career, and marrying advantageously.  It is not surprising then that she espouses middle class values of thrift, hard work, and law and order, that she believes in individual choice, maximum freedom for market forces, and minimal power for the state.  Hers is the genuine voice of a beleaguered bourgeoisie, anxious about its eroding economic power and determined to arrest society’s seemingly inexorable trend towards collectivism.  Somewhat unchivalrously, Denis Healey has dubbed her “La Pasionaria of the middle class privilege.”

5. Having come to the leadership as the candidate of the right wing of her party, Mrs Thatcher is already moving, in the tradition of all good leaders, to broaden her base of support and unify the party behind her. Great interest attaches to the selection of her shadow cabinet, expected within the week, for the first clues as to the shape and direction she intends to give the party.

6. Unfortunately for her prospects of becoming a national, as distinct from a party, leader, she has over the years acquired a distinctively upper middle class personal image.  Her immaculate grooming, her imperious manner, her conventional and somewhat forced charm, and above all her plumy voice stamp her as the quintessential suburban matron, and frightfully English to boot.  None of this goes down well with the working class of England (one-third of which used to vote Conservative), to say nothing of all classes in the Celtic fringes of this island.

7. These are still early days though. Unless the economy goes even more catastrophically awry and the government loses a series of by-election, Mrs Thatcher is unlikely to face a general election for three or four years. If she is ever to become Britain's first woman Prime Minister, she must use that time to humanise her public image and broaden the base of her party's appeal. The odds are against her, but after her stunning organizational coup d’état this past month, few are prepared to say she can’t do it.

8. Footnote: Mrs Thatcher has had no real experience in foreign affairs and has given no evidence of any interest in the field. Now that she is party leader, this will of course have to change. She is well disposed toward the United States, and has been an active vice-chairman of the Anglo-American Parliamentary group for several years. She spent one month in the U.S. in 1967 as an international visitor grantee.