Margaret Thatcher's revolution 30 years on
Her successors ruined the prosperous Britain she created. Now we must strive to re-build it, says Edwina Currie.
26 Apr 2009
We should value Margaret Thatcher for what she did, not what she was Photo: Srdja Djukanovic
She was a small, pretty woman with chintzy blouses and a nervous habit of clearing her throat. A stiff leather handbag hung like a weapon over her arm; if a wisp of hair escaped from the helmet of her coiffure, she fiddled with it anxiously. In mid-campaign, she was given a grubby calf to hold and didn't know what to do with it. Our first views of Margaret Thatcher weren't reassuring.
Yet it was la différence that underwrote her astonishing success. The unthinkable – a woman prime minister – had been made flesh. Suddenly anything seemed possible. I was a city councillor in Birmingham with two small children. I knew, with total certainty, that if she could do it, then so could I.
Mrs Thatcher learnt very quickly to turn her outsider status to advantage. Declaring that she didn't know much about economics but did understand a household budget was an election strategy of genius. It allied her with the victims of strikes and disruption, those who had to make ends meet, the "hard-working families" of modern parlance who had to put aside doubts if they were to vote for her. However bizarre it may seem to have a woman in charge, they reasoned, she talked sense and should be given a chance: she couldn't be worse than the men.
Within her first term the doubts vanished. The Iron Lady had seen off Galtieri and was preparing the same treatment for Scargill, so all one had to do was sound rather like her. I sailed into Parliament at my first attempt in 1983, one of 397 Tory MPs (some 200 more than now). It was not really a surprise to find myself the first maiden speaker of the new intake, treated as a representative of a new breed, and soon a minister.
It was a fantastic and terrifying experience. Come to a meeting not properly briefed and you'd be mincemeat, and rightly so. Get something right and she would praise you embarrassingly in public. With a blue-eyed stare that could turn men to stone, she would snap out orders and expect them delivered. Once, in a cold spell in January 1987, she insisted that no vagrant was to be found frozen to the pavements and I was given the job. We managed it, with the help of the charities and an open purse, a now-forgotten episode entirely to her credit; the Rough Sleepers initiative was the outcome. No inquiries, no reviews, no soundbites, no pointless legislation: just get on and do it.
It was "all systems go" in those glory years. At the Department of Health we introduced national screening programmes for both breast and cervical cancer, the first country to have both. We brought in the triple vaccine (MMR) and saw measles vanish as a killer. We campaigned against Aids with a leaflet through every door and television programmes advocating the use of condoms, despite Margaret's sniffs of disapproval: "If you feel it is essential, then get on with it, but I do not wish to be involved," was her approach.
Yet her effect on women was mixed. She was not a "sister", not a feminist. She came through the ranks without special favours; for her, positive discrimination would only promote what couldn't rise on merit. Selection committees continued to believe that a candidate was a bloke in a pin-striped suit with a supportive wife, and would not be dissuaded. So at her second election, in 1983, only 23 women were elected out of 646 MPs, 13 of them Conservatives like myself, a similar number to 1939.
The House of Commons remained as macho and patronising to women as before. The Brüderbond of the all-male Conservative Whips' Office flourished: it supported its members such as Michael Portillo and John Major, but would ditch any woman minister in difficulties. It was as if one woman at the top was enough. Why have more?
She can't have ignored the prejudice against women, for those batting eyelashes and crossed legs, so wickedly noted by Alan Clarke, showed she knew how to exploit it. Indeed she was surrounded by protective men: husband Denis, her mentor in opposition Airey Neave, and her sidekick Willie Whitelaw, all gents of the old school. But prime minister Thatcher made no attempt to tilt the balance. In her 11 years in office she appointed no woman from the Commons to the Cabinet, not one. The only other woman at the Cabinet table was Lady Janet Young, leader of the Lords, and she lasted only a year.
The Tory ladies we tried to recruit as candidates looked askance. The glass ceiling was breaking down in business and finance: why would they want to crack their heads in Westminster, where there was no hope of advancement? Even now there are only 17 Tory women MPs out of 126 female Members, with most of the others chosen from Labour's all-women shortlists. Labour activists were galvanised, though the outcome, those vapid "babes" mouthing empty rubbish in a vacant chamber, seem rather to prove Margaret's point.
In the end we should value her for what she did, not what she was. The prosperous Britain she created, so casually ruined by Blair and Brown, can be re-established, though it will take years.
The trail she blazed so brilliantly is still there to be followed.