Margaret Thatcher and #metoo
Why did the most successful Conservative leader ever get kicked out of power? I suspect this is an essay question at universities already – an uncomfortable example of how, as one get’s older, our story becomes history.
Caroline Slocock’s book People Like Us approaches history from the perspective of HERstory. Although the author never expresses it so crudely, the question underpinning her brilliant memoir from inside Thatcher’s Downing St, is this: was Margaret Thatcher kicked out because she was a woman?
It is a thoughtful book which never resorts to feminist clichés. At the beginning short shrift is given to those who have dismissed Margaret Thatcher as at best androgynous, at worst male. This pre-emptive swipe comes from a feminist who shared little politically with her boss – and even suffered at her hands professionally. Instead Slocock states what is hiding in plain sight – Margaret Thatcher was every inch a woman, deeply feminine, and politically assassinated by men.
Speaking to her on a bench in Westminster (you can find our chat below) the gender perspective on Thatcher’s fall suddenly seems so obvious. Slocock was the only other woman in the cabinet room when Thatcher stumbled, sobbing, through her resignation statement. Not once but twice. It was horrific to witness. By today’s standards, it was a barbaric sacking. The distinctly un-flighty Slocock virtually fled the room crying.
The gender balance of Thatcher’s cabinet does not of course mean it was a factor in her demise. And there is no doubt the absence of women in the Prime Minister’s circle was largely the fault of one person alone – Margaret Thatcher. She didn’t like working with women and was guilty of what now would be deemed illegal discriminatory practices. At one point she is approached about a second woman joining the Policy Unit – the response from Britain’s first female Prime Minister is : “I think we should find out if this one is working first.”
But Slocock argues that a lot of Thatcher’s problems stemmed from the battle of the sexes. Her colleagues – men – found her difficult to deal with because, she was, as they say, a bloody difficult woman, not just because she was a bloody difficult person. Jim Prior admits his chauvinism marred their relationship. Slocock argues his less self-aware cabinet colleagues were similarly prejudiced.
More insightfully, she believes a lot of Mrs Thatcher’s conduct with colleagues stemmed from the psychological baggage of living in a man’s world. Her matchless work ethic arose from a belief that parity of performance would never be enough for a woman. This led to her thinking others weren’t up to speed – much to the understandable bewilderment and annoyance of those on the receiving end.
Added to that she was a mother and homemaker. Men only had to do one job. She, like many women, Slocock feels, resented their lack of domestic responsibilities – even though she was far from the perfect parent. And it spilled over. If Mrs Thatcher’s reign ended because she treated her colleagues badly – which in part it surely did – gender friction may have played real role.
Like all narratives of Thatcher’s defenestration, Slocock’s reads like the journey of the Titanic. The iceberg was there for all to see – she was challenged a year before her fall, ministers were resigning like confetti – there were even riots on the streets. The colleague she most needs to hug close – Geoffrey Howe – is ridiculed in cabinet prompting his exit. But when sacked, she is utterly shocked. She spends a year charging towards a cliff only to be puzzled as the earth suddenly rushes towards her.
I had always put this down to arrogance – or the flawed part of the courage and conviction which propelled Thatcher in turn to Oxford, the bar, parliament, the cabinet, leadership and ultimately transforming Britain. But was this myopia also in part because of her sex?
Slocock thinks women focus on the job in hand. They can have a compulsion to plough through what needs doing now – after all who else is going to do it? Men can afford to fritter away time wondering who will be the next leader of the country – Margaret Thatcher had to make sure there was still milk in the national fridge. Like all psychological interpretation, it is conjecture – but could help explain politically suicidal behaviour.
This is a book men really should read. It essentially explains what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. I came away thinking #metoo has to be about so much more than ending sexual violence. Such is the language barrier between men and women, the Weinstein end of the scale may prove the easier part of the challenge.