In its leadership contest, the Conservative party in Britain exhibited two outstanding characteristics: ruthlessness and daring. Without the slightest sign of compunction or compassion, it sacked Edward Heath despite his experience as Prime Minister, his historic achievement of getting the country into Europe and his reputation as a world statesman, which led even Chairman Mao Tse-tung to confer with him. But none of this counted. He had lost two elections within eight months. He had to go. But then, having wielded its long knife, the party showed imagination and chose 49-year-old Mrs. Margaret Thatcher as its leader.
I can almost hear the deep tremors of unconcern sweeping across the Atlantic. OK: she becomes the leader of the Conservative party and so is likely to become the first woman to lead a Western country. There will be exhausted jokes about “the only man in the government “ and about her sticking her hatpin in people. There is, however, more to Mrs. Thatcher’s victory than meets the eye.
First of all, it was not simply that she replaced a discarded Mr. Heath: she challenged him and toppled him. Once upon a decade, the leader of the Conservative party used, as the saying was, to “emerge" after arcane consultations in smoke-filled rooms. No one knew how the magic circle of the establishment arrived at its choice. After the shambles of 1963, when bruised, bloody and defeated candidates littered the battleground, the party decided to adopt an open and democratic system and to permit the members of Parliament to elect the leader.
Now that we know who won, it is in order to ask what won. Was the Tory party changing its policies, its image, or simply trying the gambler’s last desperate throw? All three elements played their part. The Economist saw it as a move of desperation that would keep Labor securely in office for the next 20 years. But already there are signs that Mrs. Thatcher will have a different and more challenging style. She has not concealed her opinion that the Conservatives under Heath had stolen so many Socialist clothes that people had trouble telling the two parties apart. She advocates a crisply different Conservative line, which stresses self-reliance, thrift and its rewards, the old-style, middle-class virtues.
This has led some to say that she will be a Barry Goldwater who, far from leading the party out of the wilderness, will appeal only to a suburban rump and not to the mass of lost voters. The party will be narrow under her, it is argued. She has been suspiciously close to Sir Keith Joseph, the monetary theorist who regards higher unemployment as probably necessary. Her experience is limited. She was Minister of Education in the last Heath Administration, and was remembered chiefly for her opposition to educational equality and for making parents pay for school milk. Thus she earned the nickname, “Thatcher the milk- snatcher, “ unfairly, because she herself is supposed to have been opposed to the measure.
Her image is that of a thoroughly suburban lady, with unbelievably neat blond hair and a nice line in hats. People invariably make deductions about her character from her appearance. Says Alan Watkins of the left-wing New Statesman: “She is a woman of incurably commonplace mind and incurably stubborn disposition. “ But there is a hint of sour grapes in the Labor party, which claims to be radical and yet would not dream of appointing a woman as leader. Harold Wilson, who has now destroyed three Conservative leaders, will certainly not underestimate his new opponent and will be torn, though not for long, between gallantry and savagery.
Mrs. Thatcher does not stand in awe of Mr. Wilson. She has no need to, having a rapier-like mind of her own. She has earned her position by sheer hard work. Her father was a grocer. She won scholarships to Oxford, where she studied chemistry. But then she turned to the law and specialized in fiscal problems. She married and had twins. Mr. Mystery Thatcher, an oil man, is 10 years older and still there in the background. Despite a rather lah-di-dah voice, her press conference and TV appearances have been sharply competent, with lots of one-sentence answers. Will you employ Enoch Powell? “No. “ Would you expand on that? “It does not need expansion. You chaps do not like a direct answer. Men like long, rambling, waffling answers. “Would heads roll? She allows herself a feminine frisson: “What a horrid expression! “
She has resisted all efforts of TV experts to “package “ her, wisely. They told Harold Wilson to smile and Mr. Heath to take his coat off and relax. The effect was, as Clive James remarked, “respectively, of a corpse standing up and a corpse sitting down." Mrs. Thatcher does not need parasitic media men. But she has much to learn, particularly in the field of foreign affairs. So she will be seen in America before long, and you can admire her hairdos, which are a feat of intermediate technology. Two questions remain. Will Mr. Heath serve under her? And will the exclusive Carlton Club, hitherto all-male, to which all previous Tory Prime Ministers have belonged, eventually admit her? At the very thought, grown men are growling into their brandy.