BBC Two, 20 May–17 June 2019

First published in the Conservative History Group's journal

To mark the fortieth anniversary of the Conservative Party’s 1979 general election victory and Margaret Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street as Prime Minister,the BBC produced a five-part documentary, broadcast in May and June. The BBC and Mrs. Thatcher did not always enjoy the most cordial of relations and Conservatives on the whole have reason to have low expectations of how the party is reported. On this occasion however there was nothing to fear. The documentary was worthy of its subject.

The basic story is straightforward. From a close and loving family, with a strong work and self-reliant ethic, Margaret Roberts worked her was through school, Oxford University, qualifying as both a scientist and a barrister, through the challenges of parliamentary selection to winning a seat in the House of Commons. She progressed swiftly up the political ladder to a place in Ted Heath’s Cabinet, where she served as Education Secretary. After the 1974 general election defeats she challenged Heath for the leadership, defeated him, and led the party to victory in 1979. In doing so, she became the first woman to be elected leader of a major political party and the first to become Prime Minister. Both of these achievements were historic, but they were merely the first in a series of great achievements for someone who would reshape post-war British politics and whose influence on both domestic and foreign policy resonates today.

There are two types of politician: the barons and the squires. The squires are essentially those who, no matter how high they rise, are always dependent on someone else’s patronage and support. They are followers, part of a bigger team. The barons are those, all too rare, who seize control of the agenda, set the pace, are dependent on no one for their position and place. Barons do not always end up as Prime Minister. Squires sometimes do. A Prime Minister however, baron or squire, always depends on – and in some ways their success is judged by – having a number of barons willing to be constructive members of their senior team. Mrs. Thatcher was an outsider when she challenged Heath for the leadership. A relatively junior cabinet minister, she relied on the help of outsiders in the parliamentary Conservative Party to run her campaign – notably Airey Neave and Bill Shelton. Mrs. Thatcher led a successful coup against the Conservative Party’s establishment and in doing so established herself as one of the barons of British politics.

There is so much mythology and misunderstanding about Mrs. Thatcher’s rise to power and the way she governed – often promulgated by The Lady herself in her post-premiership – that the skill, sophistication and bravery she frequently displayed in the acquisition and exercise of power is often obscured. We have become all too used to the caricature, the Iron Lady, the ‘no, no, no,’ of Euro-bashing legend that the lessons that might usefully be learned by her successors are lost. This documentary brought fresh insights into the personal care and attention to detail that she brought to her task.The respect and affection with which her closest officials speak of her is notable. Determined and resolute as she certainly was, her absolute respect for form and procedure shines through. Mrs. Thatcher worked effectively with the system, carrying her officials as well as political colleagues with her. She did not seek to diminish or demonize government process and procedure; she made it work for her and not against her,and was more effective for it. 

In Opposition Mrs. Thatcher had worked closely with Sir Keith Joseph, among others, to establish a set of policies and a new philosophy for government. They brought rigour to the work of setting out a new agenda for the party and for the country. This meant that they were able to go into the 1979 election able to explain clearly what they intended to do. After years of strikes, stagnation, and political paralysis the electorate warmed to the message. It also meant that when the new Prime Minister and her Ministers arrived in Whitehall, theyand their new officials knew what they were supposed to be doing. 

In Government her battles are well known. It is striking how closely, if not always harmoniously, she worked with her political colleagues. No one can think of Geoffrey Howe, Nigel Lawson, Ken Clarke, Willie Whitelaw, and Ken Baker as shrinking violets – barons all, but work with them she did, as they did with her, to achieve the most effective transformation of Britain’s economy in history. Faced with bitter industrial confrontations she held her team together, chose the moment to stand her ground – not one of immediate confrontation – and held firm where the Governments of Heath, Wilson, and Callaghan had all failed.Mrs. Thatcher’s economic settlement has prevailed under six successors, and only now faces a fundamental challenge by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Two foreign policy challenges dominated her period, and here the documentary again drew out the personal care she brought to this aspect of her premiership. The invasion of the Falkland Islands was a unique moment in post-war British history. If it had been allowed to succeed, not only would Mrs. Thatcher have been swept from power but Britain would have been severely diminished on the world stage. The authorization of military force is a lonely decision for a Prime Minister.The documentary set out the great level of responsibilityMrs. Thatcher felt for the Falkland Islanders and for those she sent to rescue them. The bond forged between her and the Armed Forces never wavered thereafter.

We see not only the political and public person but are also given an insight into the human being. Her marriage to Denis Thatcher was clearly the centre of her life. His unstinting support and steadying influence were fundamental. He never sought a public role. He never knowingly expressed a public political comment. He allowed himself to be caricatured as the Jag-driving, gin-drinking, golf player of Private Eye legend. For a successful businessman with a distinguished war record who had a strong political streak himself, this took a huge degree of personal character and integrity to sustain. We also see the close relationship Mrs. Thatcher sustained with her sister and her sister’s husband. Family mattered. Mrs. Thatcher’s work ethic is well known, but this documentary gave us a new insight through Charles Powell and Caroline Slocock, who both served as private secretaries to her, into the degree to which the Prime Minister worked on her papers and marshalled her arguments.

Across five fascinating and insightful programmes, onething in particular emerged strikingly from the new material and TV footage: Mrs. Thatcher’s willingness to be interviewed and effectiveness in this setting. Time and again – as Education Secretary, Leader of the Opposition, and then as Prime Minister – she was willing to subject herself to interrogation by audiences and interviewers alike. Time and again she went out into the public arena to mount her argument and make her case. Her energy, willingness to engage in unmediated debate, and desire to make her case stands in striking contrast to many of today’s political leaders.

The end of course was unwelcome. Charles Powell says he thought Mrs Thatcher never had a happy day thereafter. Few leaders leave willingly. It is always extraordinary that so many leaders spend so much time planning to arrive that they never think about the inevitable departure. 

There will be many other documentaries, books, articles,and pamphlets written on Mrs. Thatcher and her time as Prime Minister. New documents and materials will be discovered and published. This five-part documentary, however, rose to the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of her election. It covered what we know well and brought to us new material and fresh insight. It was balanced, fair, and reasonable. It showed us more of Margaret Thatcher the person than we have seen before, helping us better to understand the strong ethics and principles that sat at the heart of her administration and which drove her and it forward.