The Labour MP Ann Clwyd once used Prime Minister’s Question Time to ask whether Margaret Thatcher agreed that there should be more women in politics, and furthermore whether the PM agreed that the best way for a woman to succeed in politics would be to acquire a very rich husband. (The Guardian sketch writer reported that the Prime Minister responded with a certain look which can only be delivered by one woman to another. It is the look that says ‘You cow.’)
But Clwyd had hit the nail on the head. The biggest myth about Margaret Thatcher was that her origins were in any way ordinary – as in her ‘ordinary’ background and upbringing, or that she was an ‘ordinary’ housewife who had somehow ended up at the top of politics. She was really from a middle-class background, and was the product of privilege, bankrolled by a millionaire.
Margaret Hilda Roberts came from a very comfortable background. Her father Alfred was not a simple shopkeeper: in fact, he owned several shops in Grantham, which he sold in 1958, reportedly for the equivalent of over £1 million. He served at various times as president of the Chamber of Trade, President of Rotary, a director of the Grantham Building Society, a director of the Trustee Savings Bank, chairman of the local National Savings Movement, a governor of the Kings School and Kesteven and Grantham Girls School (Margaret’s alma mater) and (surprisingly) local chairman of the Workers’ Educational Association, as well as a Methodist lay preacher.
This set of offices, and especially his service as an Alderman and Mayor of Grantham, show a driven and ambitious individual, who acquired wealth and position constantly. None of which is reprehensible: but does give the lie to the myth of her humble origins which Margaret Thatcher attached to herself for political advantage.
The result of her father’s position in the forefront of the local middle class establishment was also witnessed in Margaret Thatcher’s education. In the days before the 1944 Education Act – she went to secondary school in 1937 – ordinary children in England went to elementary school which they left at 14. To attend secondary school was in itself a sign of privilege, as most children were required to go to work to support family incomes. Even before the age of 14, secondary school would also incur costs such as uniforms, sports equipment and travel, which most families could not afford.
Even in the privileged surroundings of her high school, Margaret Roberts acquired the nickname ‘Snobby Roberts.’ She later betrayed her detachment from working class people when she told an interviewer that she knew about the poor because she “… used to walk past their homes on the way home.”
It was even more of a sign of middle-class privilege in 1943 to go to university, and indeed to Oxford. Again, few families could afford to support their children as students, and even before that stage, no ordinary family would have considered university as an option for their children, no matter how talented.
Margaret Roberts graduated in 1947 with a second-class degree (from Somerville College) but noticeably with a knowledge of Hayek, which is a very long way from her main subject of chemistry. She had also been President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. All of this is again indicative of her membership of the British middle class establishment, as it can be argued that working class achievers are much more likely to strive mainly in their own subject.
Likewise, the very fact of knowledge of the political opportunities offered by Oxford (rather than its mere educational benefits) shows her assumption of her membership of the class that ruled the country almost exclusively in her youth.
At this point, it is useful to compare this trajectory with that of a genuine case of achievement from a humble background – Margaret Thatcher’s would-be (and unsuccessful) nemesis, Neil Kinnock. Kinnock’s parents had been a miner (later a labourer due to his dermatitis) and a district nurse. He himself was educated at the local grammar, Lewis School Pengham, followed by a degree from University College, Cardiff.
To pursue a political career, he supported himself as a WEA tutor and worked as a party activist, becoming Constituency Labour Party secretary for Bedwellty. His stroke of luck came when the sitting MP announced his retirement. Kinnock was on the spot to take advantage of the vacancy, and his radicalism and oratory carried the selection conference. There had been an element of good fortune in the timing, but Kinnock genuinely won the nomination and the seat through his own gifts.
Having graduated, it had took Margaret Roberts four years to achieve the next major step in her progress from privileged background to parliament. In the meantime, she worked as an industrial chemist, although in this respect too her myth is dimmed by the reality, as one of her main jobs was not in a vital strategic industry, but developing ice-cream textures for J. Lyons & Co.
Then she met Denis Thatcher. And it is without doubt that the wealth of her husband is the single most important privilege which Margaret Thatcher enjoyed in her career. This should knock on the head forever her myth of ‘ordinariness.’ Unlike Neil Kinnock, she did not succeed solely because of her gifts.
Immediate evidence of this was that Denis added his wealth to that of her father to finance her in two General Election campaigns in Dartford in 1950 and 1951, and after their marriage (also in 1951), Denis then funded her studies to qualify as a barrister, specialising in taxation (which frequently means evasion – no-one goes to court to pay more tax!)
His fortune had not been earned, but had been inherited through the family firm (Atlas Preservatives) founded in New Zealand, which had secured lucrative contracts for railway weedkillers. He was already a millionaire when he met Margaret Roberts, and increased his wealth still further afterwards. He did this through repeated sales of the company and its successors (Castrol, and later Burmah Oil) while maintaining his place on their boards. So the Thatchers in the 1950s were the perfect Tory couple: Denis made money as a gentleman rentier capitalist and Margaret helped people to avoid paying tax.
In this way, the family assumed the lifestyle and trappings akin to those of the Edwardian middle-classes. The family home was in Flood Street, Chelsea. When the children arrived (twins Mark and Carol) they were looked after by nannies out of J.M. Barrie, and then packed off to board at Harrow and Queenswood respectively soon after Margaret’s election as MP for Finchley in 1959.
The lack of ‘ordinariness’ in this family life is clear. Not only is it shown by the peculiar way in which they showed their affection for the children (they sent them away to residential institutions) but also by the fees payable for nannies and especially for the schools in question. Harrow currently charges £32,160 and Queenswood £26,979, a total of nearly £60,000 per annum; it is highly doubtful that the equivalent was lower at the time.
These details about Margaret Thatcher’s background may have been no more than a curiosity or footnote if was not for the lifelong pretence which she made of a normal background and an ordinary life. In fact, as the school fees above demonstrate, the public displays of hoarding food and balancing the house-keeping of which she made such a show in the 1970s were either charades or unnecessary penny-pinching.
There are three further political implications which arise from the Thatcher sham.
First, there is of course the sheer degree of deception which Margaret Thatcher displayed to get to her position. Far from showing a Methodist commitment to honesty and plain-dealing, her record is one of pretence and dissimulation. This should surely have made her credibility as a major politician doubtful, and possibly untenable.
Secondly, there is the complicity of the UK establishment – above all in the media – in the deception. The source of this may have been the narrow compass of those controlling business and the media, who themselves have been too frequently drawn from that same governing middle class as the Thatchers. They too sent their children to boarding school, inherited their fortunes, and used their Oxford degrees as a stepping stone to their ‘real’ careers as lawyers and television executives.
Incredible as it may be for the rest of us, they may well have genuinely believed that Margaret Roberts’ origins as the daughter of a prosperous businessman were ‘humble’, and that she had ‘struggled’ to attain her position. But it should also be borne in mind that the same establishment did not appreciate the totally genuine achievement of Neil Kinnock in becoming Leader of the Opposition, and in 1992 very nearly Prime Minister. Instead they belittled him and mocked his lack of an Oxford degree.
Finally, a life which has involved a real struggle and occasional set-backs is informed and broadened by the experience of its vicissitudes, but one where success is delivered through unearned privilege is likely to be narrow in scope, and unsympathetic to those less successful and fortunate than themselves. In this sense Margaret Thatcher was a genuine and identifiable member of Mathew Arnold’s Philistine middle classes: “a person deficient in liberal culture.” As such, her much-vaunted determination was in many cases little more than banal narrow-mindedness.
In short, she was Snobby Roberts, she was an imposter regarding her background, and the platform for her career owed much to her husband’s bank balance, as Ann Clwyd exposed.