Educating Margaret;Margaret Thatcher;Books

30th June 1995 at 01:00
MARGARET THATCHER, THE PATH TO POWER. Harper Collins pound;25. - 0 00 255050 4

Gillian Peele looks at one woman's route from birth via university to Cabinet post, party leadership and Downing Street.

This second volume of Margaret Thatcher's memoirs is a much more enjoyable read than the first. Although the author is too robust to provide much critical self-analysis or reflective commentary on the forces shaping her remarkable career, the story of Lady Thatcher's upbringing and her political career prior to Downing Street is personally fascinating; and it reveals much, both directly and indirectly, of what it takes to make it to the top in modern British politics.

The chapters on childhood in Grantham recapture without embarrassment a world long lost. It was a world in which small town Methodist virtues could shape family life and individual ambitions, unaffected by television and youth culture. It was also a world where self-help was essential to prosperity and where many of the comforts of the late 20th century were unknown. Yet it was, by the standards of the time, neither a narrow nor an impoverished upbringing. Alderman Roberts was able to house, clothe and feed his family and to encourage his younger daughter's interest in politics and current affairs and ensure she exploited educational opportunities to the full.

Education at Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School led to a place to read chemistry at Oxford and in turn opened a new world to Margaret Roberts. Oxford was then less friendly to women than it is now and the world of the union was closed to her. The Conservative Association was however accessible and she was elected President of OUCA in 1946.

Yet the impression given is not of someone at the centre of a social and political set who revelled in Oxford in the way that her predecessor Edward Heath did. There is, even in the description of her experience of these early years and their encounters with politicians such as Edward Boyle, strong indication that she was an outsider by temperament and style as much as by class and gender. Her political ambition was however sharpened by Oxford and her determination to gain a seat formed in those years.

Not until 1959, however, when she was returned for the safe seat of Finchley was Margaret Thatcher really able to pursue a full time political career, a delay caused in no small part by the difficulty of persuading Tory selection committees to choose able women as their standard bearers.

A brief spell of junior office under Harold Macmillan in the 1959-1964 government was followed by an unusually long spell as Secretary of State for Education and Science under Edward Heath from 1970 to 1974. Lady Thatcher's discussion of this period of her life (in a chapter entitled "Teacher's Pest") is illuminating for what it reveals about the Conservative approach to education at that time. Specifically it underlines how unclear Conservatives were about educational philosophy and how little sustained theoretical resistance there was then even in Conservative circles to allegedly progressive ideas in schooling.

Mrs Thatcher slowed but did not reverse the destruction of the grammar schools; she queried but did not stem, the emphasis on learning by self-discovery as opposed to the old-fashioned "rote-learning" which had served her generation. She identified, but could not solve, the problem of reforming teacher training. By comparison with the radical innovations in education policy in the Conservative governments after 1979, the 1970-1974 period thus looks rather tame, although Mrs Thatcher clearly acquired a dislike for the teachers' unions and a suspicion of the civil servants at the Department of Education and Science before reaching No 10. Paradoxically, although she was vilified as a milk snatcher in those years at the DES, her record of defending her department from Treasury cuts to the primary school building programme was impressive.

The story of the policies and personalities in the challenge to Edward Heath's leadership and the ideological transformation of Conservatism after 1974 is compelling reading. Not for nothing is the book dedicated to Sir Keith Joseph, who cleared the way for her leadership intellectually and politically.

Not all of this volume is devoted to the years prior to that famous moment in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher recited the prayer of St Francis on the steps of Downing Street. The final chapters, apart from offering the Thatcherite view of the world including the future of Europe, shed much light on her personality. Naturally she was depressed at her ejection from office. But, instead of relishing the chance of spending more time with her family, she clearly felt "marooned" and deprived of the "elixir" of work.

The void has been filled by a variety of tasks: writing these memoirs, establishing the Thatcher Foundation to propagate free market values and a busy schedule of speaking engagements. And, as with Lloyd George, Mrs Thatcher has proved that an energetic former premier can have a devastating effect on the political scene, although the precise impact on the Conservative Party's divisions will probably not be known until after the next election.

Gillian Peele, a fellow and tutor in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, is writing a biography of John Major.

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