Margaret Thatcher’s Imaginary Childhood

“Family tradition has it that I was a very quiet baby, which my political opponents might have some difficulty in believing. But I had not been born into a quiet family.”[1]

Roberts Grocery Store

The Roberts’ Family Green-Grocers, Grantham

Margaret Thatcher’s first memories were of sun, excitement, traffic, “the bustle of Grantham” and a public park in her Lincolnshire market town. Her memoirs are filled with such bucolic visions of middle England, of her family’s grocery store and a pious Methodism. These earliest recollections, foregrounding the public and the social, were cracks in an otherwise carefully constructed façade. In the opening chapters of her first volume of memoirs, Thatcher builds up an image of a childhood already dedicated to the virtues of what she would later term a “property-owning democracy”[3]. She might have been born Margaret Roberts, but Margaret Thatcher, the defender of a privatised politics, always existed. Indeed, as she told an audience in Korea in 1992, she never invented “Thatcherism”, she and her colleagues merely “rediscovered it”. It was a politics of common-sense that had always existed, a product of a timeless England: “The values, ideas and beliefs which I was privileged to be able to put into effect in Britain in the eleven and a half years of my Prime Ministership were rooted in the experience of the past and reinforced by events in my lifetime.”[4] How Thatcher chose to remember her own childhood reveals these political concerns.

Foreshadowing their daughter’s politics, Thatcher’s parents were thrifty savers, committed patriots and, above all, striving entrepreneurs: “I was born into a home which was practical, serious, and intensely religious” and “In my family we were never idle – partly because idleness was a sin, partly because there was so much work to be done, and partly no doubt because we were just that sort of people.” Hers was a childhood of idealised petit-bourgeois values, with the frivolous games of other children replaced, in Roberts/Thatchers’ case, with Right-leaning activities that presaged her later political career; board games based on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and cinema-visits that taught the follies of Communism and revolutions. Grantham is remembered as a place where duty and work formed a seamless whole. It was an allegedly classless society, defined by strongly felt Imperial sentiment and where the proletariat were only the most pro-monarchical element (though Thatcher also shows herself to have been all too aware of the actual existence of class barriers in her childhood). For sure the Labour Party had a presence, but it is presented as one emptied of any politics or serious ideological differences; “Politics was a matter of civic duty and party was of secondary importance. The Labour councillors we knew were respected and friendly and, whatever the battles in the council chamber or at election time, they came to our shop and there was no partisan bitterness.”

Thatcher as a Child

Margaret Thatcher, aged 13 – “I already had a logical and indeed somewhat literal mind – perhaps I have not changed much in this regard”

There is a suspiciously selective memory at work here and Thatcher’s pedestrian prose-style masks the complexities of her politico-literary project: she is constructing her own mythology, constructing an idealised vision of her own childhood, and ultimately constructing a vision of an idealised (depoliticised?) middle England.

Belying her own fond claim that she was “never happier than in children’s company”, there are surprisingly few children mentioned in her childhood memories. Outside of her own siblings, none are mentioned by name (not even “My closest friend”). In their place, though, are the various authority figures of her schooling, who are mentioned by name: Miss Williams, a headmistress fond of imparting housewifely wisdom to her charges, Miss Harding, “a particularly inspiring History teacher”, and Miss Kay, Thatcher’s influential chemistry teacher. The focus on childhood authority-figures is of a piece with a focus on authority and order in her adult life. Indeed, Thatcher’s memory of her teachers – “a genuine sense of vocation” and “highly respected by the whole community” – acts as an implicit counterpoint to her views of public sector workers decades later; grasping, no sense of vocation, and disrespected. Commenting on her own time as Shadow Education spokesperson in the early 1970s, she spelt out her own Conservative vision of a properly disciplined childhood:

“What I rejected from the start was the idea, fashionable among the middle classes as much as among experts, that the best way for a child to learn was by self-discovery. This belief entailed the abandonment of the kind of education my generation had had as mere “learning by rote”. In fact, any worthwhile education involves the teaching of knowledge, memory training, the ability to apply what one has learned and the self-discipline required for all of these. In all the frenzy of theorizing, these truths were forgotten.”

Against any modish notions that childhood could be a time of experimentation, Thatcher describes her childhood in static terms; she was always respectful of proper authority and she always knew the truth of Conservative politics. She talks of the passion for politics she shared from a young age with her father, a green-grocer, preacher and one-time mayor of Grantham. Her father’s trips to the local library, and the books he picked out for her, meant that “I found myself reading books which girls of my age would not generally read”. The inference built up is that she was less a child and more a smaller version of her later adult self. She unabashedly claims that the 1935 general election, when she was a mere ten years, was “the contest in which I cut my teeth politically”.

Thatcher + Father

Margaret Thatcher and her father, Alfred Roberts – “I never remember him as anything other than a staunch Conservative”

Pushing this trope further, she attempts to narrate her father’s political career as a precursor to her own. His own loss of elected office in 1952 being “something not too dissimilar” to Thatcher’s fall in 1990. And as a recurring motif of her memoirs, Thatcher recalls prophetic moments that point to her future: a fortune-teller at a Conservative fête early in her career who promised great things [“you will be great – great as Churchill”]; John Buchan’s political novel The Gap in the Curtain, in the tea-leaves of which Thatcher read her own future. The tone borders on the mystical.

Yet there is a deeper imperative at work here. As the journalist and labour activist Andrew Murray has observed, it is a mistake to think that Britain’s ruling class does not also have its precious folk memories.[5] What Thatcher seems to have been doing with the memories of her childhood, was to construct her own personal folktale. A folktale where she was somehow always a right-wing campaigner, one that could never be dissuaded: “both by instinct and upbringing I was always a “true blue” Conservative. No matter how many left-wing books I read or left-wing commentaries I heard, I never doubted where my political loyalties lay… though of course it would take many years before I came to understand the philosophical background to what I believed, I always knew my mind.” As a child in wartime Britain, she claims to have already known that Nazism and Communism were just two sides of the same collectivist coin. Even after four years at Oxford, her character and her beliefs were unchanged.

The Path to Power

The intention in all this was presumably to buttress her politics of T.I.N.A. with a story of unwavering commitment to political “truth”. The actual result is an image of fragile zealousness, of a politician who can admit no faults or second thoughts (indeed, her memoirs are marred by a regular point-scoring against any and all ideological opponents). The result, in other words, is something that ultimately shows up the weaknesses of the folktale of Thatcher.

[1] Margaret Thatcher. The Path to Power (New York: Harper Collins, 1995) 3. All further references are from The Path to Power, unless otherwise noted.

[3] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 22 November 1990, vol. 181 cc. 439-518. This speech was Thatcher’s last as Prime Minister.

[4] “The Principles of Thatcherism”, Speech in Korea, 3 September 1992.

[5] Morning Star, 19 March, 1984. Quoted in Seumas Milne. The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners (London: Verso, 2004) 6.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s