Book of the week

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
MARGARET THATCHER. Volume One: the grocer's daughter. By John Campbell. Jonathan Cape pound;25.

Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher. It was one of those defining moments in a politician's career when the public sits up and takes notice.

Within months of announcing her plan to cut free school milk to children aged over seven, in June 1971, she became the most unpopular member of Edward Heath's government. Yet, in image terms, it made her.

Mrs Thatcher had just completed her first year as Education Secretary. Forced to make some short-term savings, she had been advised by civil servants that cutting milk was a sensible and uncontentious economy.

The Government was spending more on free school milk than on books. Much of it was never drunk, partly because it was unrefrigerated and partly because children's taste had changed since the days of Clement Atlee. The previous Labour government had already stopped milk supplies to secondary pupils, with no public outcry.

Yet the announcement caused a furore, for which Mrs Thatcher was unprepared. Ted Short, the shadow education secretary, described it as "mean, squalid, unworthy of a great country", while the Sun newspaper (recently acquired by Rupert Murdoch) asked: "Is Mrs Thatcher human?", branding her, "The Most Unpopular Woman in Britain".

The full story, enriched with previously unpublished accounts from former civil servants and other contemporaries, is contained in this biography by John Campbell, veteran chronicler of the lives of Lloyd George, Nye Bevan and Edward Heath.

This legacy is outlined in a scholarly and informative unauthorised account by a biographer with no axe to grind, which takes us from grammar school in Grantham to the door of number 10.

Mrs Thatcher was said to have been profoundly hurt by some of the attacks, which characterised her as an unfeminine monster who stole milk from the mouths of babes and sucklings. According to one education official, the scale of public detestation "temporarily unhorsed her", while Sir William Pile, then permanent secretary at the Department of Education and Science, says she was reduced to tears.

"Why, why? Why are you doing it?" she asked the Guardian's Terry Coleman. But Jean Rook, the Daily Express columnist, told her to stop whingeing, adding: "Show some spunk, Margaret." She duly did. Yet while it is this image of her as a hard-hearted cost-cutter which has endured, Mrs Thatcher's legacy as Education Secretary is rather different.

She arrived at the DES in the wake of Heath's unexpecte election victory in June 1970 determined to show who was boss. According to Campbell, she marched in and presented Pile with a long list of points for immediate action written on a page torn out of an exercise book.

Item one was the immediate withdrawal of the previous (Labour) administration's circular requiring local authorities to prepare schemes to make their schools comprehensive.

Mrs Thatcher's undoubted wish to stand up for grammar schools was constrained by her party colleagues, who believed the tide running in favour of comprehensives was unstoppable. The Tory party was split, with pro-comprehensive opinion led by several large Conservative-run councils in the vanguard of progressive reform. She had to back the party line, hoping to stem the flood by withdrawing compulsion and seeking to preserve the most famous grammar schools.

But she was unable to argue for keeping grammars on principle and had to content herself with dealing with applications case by case. As a result, over the four years of her tenure (much to her dismay), the proportion of secondary pupils attending comprehensives doubled to 62 per cent. Of the 3,612 schemes submitted to her, all but 326 (9 per cent) were approved. No secretary of state has approved more.

In her own memoirs, published in 1995, Mrs Thatcher views her time at the DES as largely a failure. She felt constrained by Heath and his Cabinet from taking on the progressive consensus in education. Moreover, though probably sympathetic to the right-wing authors of the controversial Black Papers, which led the backlash against reform, she distanced herself from them for fear of being branded an extremist.

Instead, she introduced a series of progressive measures of which any left-of- centre government would be proud. She raised the school-leaving age to 16 and continued the expansion of higher education started under Labour, winning substantial new investment.

While she earned notoriety for cutting free milk, one of her biggest accomplishments was in switching resources into primary education, funding an ambitious building programme. She even saved the Open University (thus fulfilling Black Paper author Rhodes Boyson's dire prediction that, if it went ahead, it would "simply be filled with teachers seeking to extend their qualifications").

Mrs Thatcher went on to become a radical prime minister, introducing the assisted places scheme and parental choice in her first term. But that is another story, one Chapman promises to tell in a future instalment.

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