With Margaret Thatcher’s death this week, aged 87, it is timely to repost this article I wrote in June 2007 celebrating the release of Thatcher the Musical.
Following unlikely musical superstars as Jerry Springer and Roy Keane, the life and times of Margaret Thatcher has finally been set to music. The theatres of regional Britain are packing them in with a tour of “Thatcher – The Musical!” the life and times of the country’s most controversial 20th century Prime Minister set to music and comedy. It features an all-singing, all-dancing cast of ten women who croon such standards as The Cabinet Shuffle, The Grocer’s Daughter and The Thatcher Anthem.
The musical is the brainchild of the Wolverhampton-based women’s company Foursight Theatre and documents Thatcher’s rise from young girl to international stateswoman. The cast play eight different Maggies; the Grocer’s Daughter, Twinset Maggie, Power Suit Maggie, Military Maggie, Britannia Maggie, Sacrificial Maggie, Broken Maggie and Diva Maggie, and also the men in her life husband Dennis, Ronald Reagan, Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine. The musical ends with the line of Diva Maggie “I am the iron in your bloodstream, I’m in your DNA!”
Its reminds us of the Iron Lady, a moniker dating to 1976. As opposition leader she made her famous “Britain Awake” speech at Kensington Town Hall where she attacked the Soviet Union. She said “The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet politburo don’t have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns.” The Soviet Defence Ministry newspaper Red Star picked up the speech and called her the “Iron Lady”. The label was popularised by Radio Moscow and Thatcher saw its advantages.
Thatcher was always steeped in politics. Born in 1925, she was the daughter of a grocer and Methodist lay preacher Alfred Roberts, an independent councillor and mayor with Liberal sympathies. She was educated at Oxford and graduated in chemistry in 1947. She was elected president of the student Conservative Association at Oxford and made herself known to party leadership at its General Election defeat of 1945. She worked as a research chemist at J Lyons and co where she helped developed the first soft frozen ice cream.
In the early 1950s she lost two elections in the strong Labour seat of Dartford though she cut the majority both times. She also won national publicity as the youngest female candidate in the country. She met local businessman Denis Thatcher. They married in 1951 and had twins, Mark and Carol, two years later. Denis had a successful career in the oil industry and became a director of Castrol. He funded his wife’s training as a lawyer, specialising in taxation. She found a safe Tory seat in London and was elected to Parliament in 1959 as MP for Finchley.
Two years later Harold Macmillan appointed her Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of Pensions, a position she held until Labour won the 1964 election. In opposition, she was a Ted Heath supporter and was rewarded with a role in shadow cabinet in 1967. When Heath won the 1970 election, Thatcher was appointed Education secretary charged with reducing the budget. Her immediate decision to abolish free milk for 7 to 11 year olds in state schools led to the cry of “Mrs. Thatcher, Milk Snatcher”. Despite Labour council protests, Thatcher got her way and the cuts saved £14m a year.
Heath lost to Harold Wilson in 1974 and Thatcher became shadow environment secretary. After a second election loss later that year, the party held a leadership ballot. Thatcher surprisingly pipped Heath’s preferred successor William Whitelaw to become Britain’s first female party leader. Thatcher slowly won over the party and sat back as the Labour government unravelled, collapsing after the widespread strikes in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent. This Shakespearean label was popularised by the Sun, which backed Thatcher.
The Conservative Party won the 1979 election with a margin of 44 seats. Thatcher had a mandate for change but in her first two years in office unemployment remained stubbornly high and economic improvement slow. Bobby Sands led an IRA hunger strike in the Maze Prison in 1981 and he and nine others starved to death. Despite European Commission of Human Rights and Irish Government criticism, Thatcher maintained a hardline attitude saying “Crime is crime is crime. It is not political.” Behind the scenes her Ulster Secretary James Prior negotiated concessions with surviving Maze prisoners.
Thatcher increased interest rates and VAT. But with an election looming and defeat likely, salvation came with the Falklands War. The Argentinean junta, looking to deflect attention from their own domestic woes invaded the South Atlantic islands in April 1982. Riding a wave of nationalist sentiment, Thatcher launched a naval task force to reclaim the islands.
Aided by a Labour split, Thatcher won the 1983 election in a landslide increasing her majority by 100 seats. Her second term was marked by battles against the unions. The National Union of Mineworkers launched a massive strike in 1984 to protest closure of a large number of mines. Thatcher was ready. She insisted that coal stocks were built up to avoid politically sensitive electricity cuts. She increased police powers and rushed anti-union laws through parliament. Political commentator Brian Walden described the miners’ strike as “a civil war without guns“. Thatcher wore down the miners, split their leadership and forced them to concede defeat after a year of picketing.
The IRA came back to haunt her in October 1984. The Prime Minister was at the Brighton Grand Hotel on the eve of both her 59th birthday and the annual Conservative Party conference. The IRA detonated two large bombs in the hotel at 3am, one which tore through her bathroom two minutes after she had used it. She and husband Denis escaped injury, but five others including a Tory MP were killed and many were injured. The following day the IRA claimed responsibility with the chilling message “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” Thatcher spoke to the conference as scheduled at 9:30am that morning to great acclaim.
Thatcher had fervent belief in the power of the markets. She started to sell off the large state utilities and council homes to residents. She abolished large city councils including the Greater London Council, all controlled by Labour. With the country in an economic boom, she had another comfortable election victory in 1987 with a slightly reduced majority. Towards the end of her regime, the chemist in her returned as she started to champion environmental issues. She began to discuss the issues of global warming, ozone depletion and acid rain. At the 1988 conference she told the party “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy- with full repairing lease. This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full”.
But with the economy stalling, her popularity declined. She fell out with foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe and Chancellor Nigel Lawson over their desire to force EU monetary union. In 1990, her idea to replace local government rates by the deeply unpopular “poll tax” proved her biggest mistake. With interest rates at 15%, Howe resigned and precipitated a party leadership ballot. Michael Heseltine ran against her but the first ballot was inconclusive. Before the second ballot, Thatcher resigned. She supported John Major as her successor and he retained power in 1992.
That year, she was appointed to the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher. She continued to have a high public profile and spoke out on many issues. She supported Pinochet during his incarceration in London in 1998. By then Labour had ended the Tory stranglehold on power by moving to the middle of the political spectrum. When Margaret Thatcher celebrated her 80th birthday in 2005, her colleague Geoffrey Howe said “Her real triumph was to have transformed not just one party but two, so that when Labour did eventually return, the great bulk of Thatcherism was accepted as irreversible”. It’s a notion embraced by the final scene in Thatcher the Musical: Diva Maggie, played by Lorna Laidlaw, emerges to perform a nightmarish, swivelled-eyed song: “we are all Thatcherites now”.