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Not for Turning
The Life of Margaret Thatcher
By Robin Harris
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Robin Harris
All rights reserved.
THE IMPACT OF GRANTHAM
More perhaps than any other British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was made what she was by her upbringing; and she knew it. She never forgot her origins or early life; even the oldest scars remained painfully sensitive. Television viewers were astonished in 1985 to witness the strongest Prime Minister of modern times burst into tears on recalling the day in 1952 when her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, was voted off Grantham Council by the dominant Labour group. From the time that Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, and even more frequently as Prime Minister, she would in similar interviews recount episodes of her childhood and draw lessons from them. Years later, when she set about writing her memoirs, at a time when her previously razor-sharp faculties were starting to dull, it was her home and school life in Grantham that she recollected best – far more clearly than the tumultuous events of her own rise to power. And even in her early eighties, when her short-term memory had largely gone, she would still reminisce with pleasure about the great occasions in the Grantham of her youth: about the Belvoir Hunt gathering on Boxing Day outside Grantham's town hall, the cheering crowds and the mulled wine to keep out the chill; or about the excitement of the annual March funfair with its odd shows and the 'barkers' who announced them.
Of course, to say that the experience of Margaret Thatcher's early years formed her outlook is not to say that the formation was simple, let alone to deny that in her later accounts she blotted out some aspects of that experience and embroidered others. In truth, she was resolutely determined to relive her memories only from a distance. At the deepest level of her being, she may have reacted against her upbringing more than she reflected it. Certainly, she rarely returned to Grantham once she had had the chance to leave: she had escaped; and in her heart she knew it and rejoiced in it. The fact remains that to understand Margaret Thatcher it is first necessary to grasp the nature of Margaret Roberts.
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born in the flat above her father's grocery store at 1 North Parade on 13 October 1925. She was christened three months later at Finkin Street Methodist Church. Her father, Alf Roberts, was tall, blond and blue-eyed and had a certain presence, especially as he grew older. Born poor, he was a self-made man. His family, which originally hailed from Wales, had for several generations been employed in the shoe business in Northamptonshire. Alf was born in Ringstead and for a time worked in a humble capacity at Oundle public school. Intellectually precocious, he had once wanted to become a teacher, but his family could not raise the money to keep him long enough at school. So he had had to take jobs where he could find them. Yet he was certainly fortunate in another respect. No coward and a red-blooded patriot, when the First World War arrived he tried many times to join up. But his poor health – he had a weak chest and bad eyesight – prevented his fighting and possibly dying, as his younger brother did, on the killing fields of Flanders. He survived, and eventually he prospered. Indeed, by the time of Margaret's birth Alf was already on his way up in the world. By 1919 he had managed to save enough money to buy his own grocery shop. He later purchased a further shop in Huntingtower Road, on the other side of town. He then proceeded to acquire the newsagent's next door to the first shop in North Parade and expanded his grocer's business into it. He had needed a mortgage to start off. But he was always extremely industrious and very thrifty. His wife, Margaret's mother, Beatrice (or 'Beatie'), who unlike Alf 's family was born and bred in Grantham, shared the same outlook. She had started off life as a seamstress and had built up her own modestly successful business.
Alf and Beatie were married in 1917 and Margaret's elder sister, Muriel, was born in 1921. The four years that separated the two daughters was perhaps one reason why, despite Margaret's public protestations, they were never close. Their photographs as little girls already reveal, however, something of their differences in character. Margaret has a sweet smile, beautiful hair, flashing blue eyes. Muriel too is attractive, but in a solider, homelier manner. The physical contrast would sharpen as the years passed – particularly when Margaret decided, almost certainly to please Denis and perhaps in imitation of his first wife whom she physically resembled, that she would cease to be a brunette and become a blonde. The contrasts in character between the sisters also mirrored their parents' expectations. Margaret was from an early age destined by them for university; Muriel never. Muriel would train as a physiotherapist in a hospital in Birmingham, during the early war years when the bombs were falling. Margaret was musical, Muriel was not, and this was another disadvantage for the elder sibling, because both parents were very fond of music: Alf had a fine bass voice and Beatie played the piano. Margaret would turn out to be ambitious, intellectually curious, desirous of self-improvement, always anxious to be appreciated, ever keen to make an impact, certainly not above manipulative use of her very real charms. Muriel was quite simply more normal – in her outlook, her aspirations, her capacities, her limits and her achievements. She was the kind of girl who longs to settle down; and she did so, as Muriel Cullen, happily married to a Norfolk farmer. Margaret Thatcher, by contrast, was incapable of settling anywhere. For her, marriage would be a place of departure, not a destination. The same restlessness helped make her Prime Minister, and a great one.
Muriel was closer to her mother. By contrast, and it is perhaps the best-known fact about Margaret's early life, the younger daughter was her father's favourite, and he hers. Perhaps Alf had wanted a son. Certainly, the kind of attention he devoted to her and the values and ambitions he inculcated in her would suggest so. Much has been made by commentators – particularly the practitioners of psychobabble – of Margaret's attitude towards Beatie. They draw attention to the daughter's refusal to say anything notable about her mother at all. Yet the assumption that this wall of near-silence concealed hostility, resentment or even coldness seems wide of the mark. Margaret Thatcher would never be very interested in people's personalities as such, only in their actions – and specifically those of their actions that directly concerned her. When it came to psychology, on the individual level at least, she was profoundly unimaginative, and this applied in respect of her family just as much as it did in respect of her colleagues and even her friends. The truth is that when she was asked what she thought of Beatie, she simply did not know, for the very good reason that the two had no common tastes or interests, at least beyond Alf Roberts's welfare. It has also been suggested that Beatie starved her younger daughter of affection and that this explains Margaret's apparent chill. But there is no evidence that this is so, nor did Margaret's later private conversation ever hint at such a thing. It is, indeed, most unlikely. Beatie was a kind and sweet- natured person, with a strong sense of duty to her husband and both her daughters.
In writing her memoirs Margaret Thatcher went out of her way, admittedly after some hard editorial prodding, to describe the housewifely skills, notably sewing, cleaning, decorating and (with questionable success) cooking, which she learned from her mother. But nothing more was forthcoming, for good or ill. There was certainly no falling out between mother and daughter. When Beatie was taken seriously ill in 1960 while staying with the Cullens, Denis and Margaret promptly drove her back to Grantham for the necessary, though unsuccessful, operation. Margaret did not dislike her mother. Rather, she always pitied her. Beatie's life seemed to her daughter an example of everything she intended in later life to avoid. 'Drudgery' was the word that most often came to her lips to describe it; 'poor mother' she murmured in unguarded moments, whenever the subject was raised. If pressed, she would even express surprise at the idea that such a life as her mother had lived might actually be satisfying. This tells more about the daughter than the mother; but it is not suggestive of a dark secret. In any case, near the end of her life, Margaret Thatcher seems to have felt a touch of remorse. Coming across her mother's old prayer book when rummaging through some family papers, she wrote a little note inside recording her sorrow that she hadn't thanked Beatie enough for all she had done for her.
Margaret's parents, particularly her father, had grown up knowing real hardship. But the Roberts family during her own childhood were never poor. Her father's shops served a wide range of customers, affluent and not so affluent, but he always took pride in the quality of his produce. Margaret would emphasize, certainly echoing her father, that his was a rather superior kind of shop – though the accuracy of this claim has been contested. But whatever the range of goods, the grocery business was a full-time affair. The family, including Margaret when she was old enough, regularly helped out, especially during school holidays. She remembered weighing out the produce sold in the shop with her mother and sister, taking in orders, accompanying her father on deliveries. The store in North Parade was open from early morning till late into the evening: indeed, as a post office, its lengthy opening hours were officially stipulated. Apparently to ensure that business never faltered, the two parents always took separate holidays, though usually in the same place, Skegness. Beatie would take the children to the beach. For Alf, it was the place to play his favourite bowls. But probably Alf had another reason to holiday on his own, namely the understandable wish to mix with his own sex in a more relaxed and less strait-laced environment.
At least the Robertses' long working hours and application to their business brought real enough financial rewards. By the time Margaret was born, the family was already part of Grantham's modest but self- confident lower-to-middle middle class; and Alf's political and public accomplishments and connections from this point on fully reflected the fact. From 1927 he was a member of the Council, until being voted off as Alderman a quarter of a century later. For twenty of those years he was Chairman of the Finance Committee, where his prime concern was to keep down the rates. This was not always easy or even possible. But perhaps most difficult of all for this devout but realistic local politician was the challenge of combining his own allegiance to Methodist traditions and principles with the desire of youngsters, and during the war of off-duty servicemen, for some amusement on Sundays. At home, particularly while Margaret's grandmother was alive, the Robertses practised strict sabbatarianism. Beatie rose early on Sunday morning to do one of her big weekly bakes, but this does not seem to have counted as 'work'. And naturally all frivolity was discouraged. Margaret was not allowed to go for a swim on a Sunday. Even snakes-and-ladders and cards were banned. Not everyone wanted to live like this – hence Alf 's dilemma. Many years later Margaret remembered clearly and with approval how he had helped the Council reach a compromise. The cinemas opened; the parks, though, remained closed. Presumably, the Sunday cinema-goers were deemed already lost, while at least the would-be park visitors could be nudged back towards propriety. Margaret Thatcher herself retained in later life no sabbatarian instincts whatsoever. She worked as much on Sundays as she did on weekdays. And restrictions on trade were, in her view, no more acceptable then than at any other time. It was one of the many ways in which she sloughed off her Methodist past.
Alf Roberts always stood for the Council as an Independent in the ratepayers' interest. During his years as a councillor party politics increasingly intruded, as they did elsewhere, but he still kept to his old label. He had, in fact, begun as a Liberal, Margaret remembered hearing; but for as long as she had known her father, he was a Conservative Party man, like most other 'non-party-political' Grantham councillors. By the twenties the Liberal Party had simply become too collectivist for its traditional business supporters. It was a point that Alf himself would make in 1949 when he spoke beside his daughter (for the first and last time) at her adoption meeting as the Conservative candidate for Dartford.
Margaret Thatcher always recognized how much her attitudes, and her father's, reflected liberalism, in its old-fashioned sense of free- market individualism, rather than traditional paternalistic Toryism. But one should not exaggerate the degree to which the spirit of enterprise which she would later exalt was appreciated at home. There it was effort, not risk, that was prized. Alf even regarded investment in the Stock Exchange as a form of gambling and so unacceptable. Some of these attitudes remained with his daughter, despite her intellectual commitment to capitalism. In a remarkable address at the City Church of St Lawrence Jewry in 1981 she would claim that work was a 'virtue', not just a factor of production. And to the end of her life she always regarded the production of physically useful objects more highly than the provision of services like entertainment. She remained, in this sense too, a chip off the paternal block.
Another aspect of her father's civic involvement which made a lasting impact upon Margaret was his connection with voluntary, charitable organizations, above all the Rotary Club. In later life she would at the slightest mention of volunteering be inclined to launch off into an encomium of Rotary, with its motto of 'Service Above Self'. Rotary certainly did good work in providing help for the poor and unfortunate of Grantham. Every Christmas 150 food parcels were prepared in Alf's shop for distribution to the less well off, for which the Rotary paid. (More discreetly, Beatie would always bake a little extra at home so that those who were sick or faced hardship could be helped, and Margaret would be sent out to deliver the cakes and buns, tactfully saying that her mother had 'a little extra' that week.) It was also a badge of honour in the Robertses' eyes that the Rotary Club had been banned in Nazi Germany. Despite this, it is still odd that Rotary's activities should have so gripped Margaret's imagination, since she herself could never have joined, for its members were all men. But then, from an early age she just assumed that men did the serious work; and, as a serious girl, she came to see herself as what in many respects she was: an honorary man.
Though blest with some fine buildings, notably the Guildhall and the church of St Wulfram's, Grantham was (and is) a somewhat dreary town in the East Midlands, itself one of the more dreary regions of England. But Margaret grew up in an age when civic pride was still strong. She instinctively grasped the importance of the community into which one was born, which shaped one's beliefs and focused one's loyalties. This was the reality of what a later age would term 'civil society'. Grantham had emerged as a market town for the surrounding Lincolnshire farms. There was still a market. But Grantham's main modern advantage was its good communications, by road, canal and (from the mid-nineteenth century) rail. These had brought with them heavy industry: an ironworks, a carriage works, a brewery. Aveling Barford made steamrollers, R. H. Neal made cranes. The principal employers were in engineering and, during the war, munitions. The town as a whole was never poor. Margaret remembered seeing evidence of the effects of the Depression, the long dole queues and the pockets of poverty. But Grantham was not the industrial North, where a town's or region's workforce was likely to be concentrated on one or two employers. Margaret Roberts's heart did not perhaps bleed easily, at least for collective ills; but then, it had no reason to bleed in Grantham. This fact has some political importance.
Margaret Thatcher thus never acquired from real or imagined experience of the Depression any of the social guilt that affected Tory grandees, let alone the rage that activated socialist radicals. Instead, what struck her, at least in retrospect, was the way in which the poor kept up their self-respect, and those with the money to do so helped out, quietly and through voluntary cooperation. Grantham would in this way become the model for her social politics.
This instinctive belief in the values of community, which balanced the harsher philosophy of self-help to which she also subscribed, was in truth what lay behind her much distorted remark in an interview with Woman' s Own magazine in 1987 about there being 'no such thing as society'. 'Society' in Mrs Thatcher's analysis turns out, and must always turn out, to be other people – individuals, families, groups – who take responsibility and put their hands in their own pockets.
Excerpted from Not for Turning by Robin Harris. Copyright © 2013 Robin Harris. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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