Would Victorians have been interested in the early life of Queen Victoria? Or the Duke of Wellington? Or Gladstone? I ask this rhetorical question because, since Freud, we have all accepted that one’s childhood and youth is critical for the later development of personality and success in life. Post-Freud, it isn’t possible to write a biography and glide over the early years. Indeed, because people – especially famous people – are often so interesting we can never get enough of such details, in the belief that they will “hold the key” to whom that particular person becomes.
All this is a preamble to a reflection on the BBC2 programme at 9 pm on Saturday night, entitled Young Margaret. Narrated by Mark Strong and with much input from Charles Moore, the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, the programme set out to examine, in Moore’s words, “the transformation of the very ordinary Margaret Hilda Roberts into the very extraordinary Margaret Hilda Thatcher”. Actually, she wasn’t quite as “ordinary” to start with as he assumes – even if her nephew Andrew, son of her older sister Muriel, tried to get us to believe “she was just like an ordinary Auntie.”
What interested me were not the “ordinary” glimpses of a clever and pretty young woman who had the normal interests in fashion (she had a “forensic memory” for her clothes, according to her dresser), dancing, dinner dates and boyfriends. More telling were the occasional remarks by those who knew Thatcher in those early years which indicated that, even then, the mature woman was hovering somewhere in the background. An elderly lady who had known her at grammar school remarked that even then “she had an incredible air of self-possession…she had an aura. I was in awe of her; I never forgot her.” This could, of course, be a retrospective gloss – but it has the ring of truth.
The same lady remembered that Thatcher had always looked neat and well turned-out in her school uniform (a feat in itself, given the unpromising uniforms they would have worn in those days.) Yet again, the reminiscences of her Somerville contemporaries show Thatcher in a different light. Mention was made of her “new refined sort of voice”; she was “an aloof person”; “didn’t easily unbend”; finally – and rather devastatingly, I thought – “she wasn’t a kind of real person.” I got some sense here of why other women, especially educated, middle-class, Left-wing types, often loathed our first woman prime minister: in their eyes she was lower middle class and had obviously had elocution lessons, which gave her a slightly artificial timbre of voice; she was also both very attractive-looking yet at the same time deeply serious about a subject that most women, then and now, do not find of the first importance: the world of politics.
Charles Moore spoke later in the programme of Thatcher’s “passion for politics”. I think the key to her personality, rather obviously, comes down to this passion; just as e.g. the young Charles Dickens early on discovered his passion for writing, so Margaret Hilda Roberts discovered her political vocation at Oxford, if not before (the subject had figured large around the tea table in Grantham.) She joined the University Conservative Association, eventually becoming its president. The elderly Duke of Buccleuch, then a fellow undergraduate – and a Tory, as befits a great landowner – remembered that she was “very focused and she knew her politics inside out…Margaret really knew what she was doing” (unlike some of the male students, is his implicit suggestion.) Thatcher herself wrote to her sister Muriel, the repository of her early correspondence, “I gave my paper on agricultural policy, which was a staggering success.” Quite; she would have been about 21 at the time.
There was the further telling memory of a member of the Dartford Young Conservatives: she made them feel that “if you had the courage of your convictions, you could do anything.” She was then aged 24. Even though she twice lost in the Dartford elections – it was a safe Labour seat – this single-minded young politician was undaunted; “she was impressive in public debate and thorough in her preparation.” It was noticed that she “burnt the midnight oil” when preparing her speeches for the contest.
Another glimpse; to Muriel, still aged 24, she wrote that, after a dinner party in the country, “I stayed with the men after supper, talking about many things.” This would not have endeared her to the local women who would have retired to powder their noses. Finally Thatcher, by then married to Denis and the mother of twins, won Finchley, a safe Tory seat, in 1959. A Finchley Conservative Association member recalled that “she came on neatly dressed…she was electric…she had charisma.”
“Young Margaret” had echoes of “Young Winston”. Just as we are familiar with Churchill’s early life –his affection for his nanny, his Harrow schooldays, his hero-worship of his father, Lord Randolph, who died tragically young, and his early soldiering glories, thanks to this programme we now know more about the early life of the woman who is often compared to him.