Few British prime ministers have imprinted such a firm stamp on history as Margaret Thatcher did. And few politicians have divided public opinion so profoundly. When most people think of Thatcher, one of two images usually come to mind: the indomitable Iron Lady, or the snooty drag act from Spitting Image.
Yet, as any historian knows, the truth is usually found somewhere between the two extremes. Caroline Slocock’s account of Mrs Thatcher’s time in office: People Like Us, Margaret Thatcher and Me provides such a balanced yet personal account of the day-to-day life of one of Britain's most remarkable leaders.
Slocock began her civil service career at the Treasury, and in 1989 became No.10's first female private secretary. Although Slocock was a young, left-wing feminist, she nevertheless became fascinated by ‘the woman behind the ‘Iron Lady’ façade’, and kept a diary during her time as Thatcher’s private secretary, from which the details in People Like Us are drawn. Although the two women were polar opposites in an ideological sense, they had more in common than met the eye, having both come from working-class backgrounds and broken their way into the very male-dominated world of 1980s Westminster.
This is precisely what gives Slocock’s account such an edge over other similar books. While there are many records that contain compelling accounts of Thatcher’s leadership, such as the autobiographies of Michael Heseltine and Nigel Lawson, these are often written by those with a political reputation to defend. Slocock, on the other hand, witnessed the same events but, as a civil servant, carried no political baggage.
But perhaps the most interesting contribution that People Like Us makes is the insight it provides into Thatcher’s personality and the struggles she faced as the first female prime minister.
Covering the year 1989-1990, the book starts with a moving account of Thatcher’s resignation, and retraces the events that led up to her downfall. Slocock sets a very human tone right from the beginning. In the first two pages the reader re-lives the fateful day of 22 November 1990, when the ministers huddled round the Cabinet Room to hear their leader speak – ‘She began by saying that she intended to resign and then started to read her resignation announcement. But within a few words, she started sobbing and couldn’t go on’. Along the journey from formidable war-leader to lonely ideologue, we see how Thatcher increasingly retreated into the familiar warmth of No.10.
The thing that stands out most from this book is that there were really two Margaret Thatchers: the warm, friendly Mrs Thatcher who cared deeply about her personal staff and civil servants, and the hostile, formidable Prime Minister who frequently clashed with her Cabinet. This analysis is not unique to People Like Us - many of those who worked with Thatcher, such as John Whittingdale, have remarked on the contrast between her demanding, forthright side, and the compassion she showed her staff.
Slocock pays attention to the small details of life behind the Black Door, such as Thatcher’s organisation of Christmas parties at Downing Street, and the personal gifts she gave to each of her private secretaries. In the book, one of Slocock's former colleagues even contends that Thatcher’s premiership was ‘one of those periods when all – the political staff, civil servants, protection officers – worked together in what was the most wonderful family atmosphere in my time at Downing Street, not repeated before or after Margaret Thatcher’.
This begs the question: Why did Thatcher have two very different sides to her personality? This something Slocock explores in great depth. The case People Like Us appears to put forward is that Thatcher’s frosty public persona was a consciously-constructed defence mechanism, which allowed her to hold her ground in a patriarchal environment.
One such case the book focuses on is the fact that Thatcher was advised to lower her voice in order to give herself more gravitas and avoid the tendency to shrill. On days when her vocal chords were more stressed than usual, she was given hot drinks of lemon and honey to help deepen her voice. She also underwent voice coaching from the National Theatre and Laurence Olivier. If you listen to her interviews from her early days in parliament, such as this one from 1961, you can hear that her voice was much softer, in marked contrast to the more masculine image she adopted later on.
Spitting Image's manly depiction of Margaret Thatcher
In a related vein, Slocock deals with the thorny issue of how feminists should view Thatcher. On the one hand, it is admirable that she was the first female prime minister and won three general elections in spite of the sexism she faced. On the other, she championed the conservative nuclear family and enjoyed being surrounded by a ‘court’ of men, even initially discouraging Whitehall from putting forward female candidates for No.10 private secretary positions.
Slocock also highlights the contradictions within Thatcher’s own politics. For example, she did not really approve of children being sent to nurseries or childminders, believing that young children should be looked after at home by their mothers, yet she took on a nurse as soon as she had her twins, allowing her to return to work.
This paradox also applied to her views on homosexuality. While Thatcher famously introduced Section 28, forbidding the ‘promotion’ of the acceptability of homosexuality ‘as a pretended family relationship’, she was nevertheless content to be friends with openly gay men, and even promoted them to senior positions around her.
Whatever one thinks of Thatcher’s legacy as the first female prime minister, it must be remembered that she was the victim of constant sexist tropes. When she wasn’t depicted as the bossy matron or evil witch, her appearance was remarked upon before her politics. Indeed, during his stint as a journalist, a 25 year-old Boris Johnson wrote a report on her European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) speech in Madrid. In it, he described the Prime Minister as looking ‘distinctly sexy, with a flush about her cheeks as though she was up to something naughty’.
Alongside discussions of Thatcher’s views on feminism and homosexuality, there are also interesting chapters on her clothes, work ethic, and the fractious relationship she had with her ministers.
Although it traces the key events of 1989-1990, such as the resignations of Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, People Like Us does not provide an in-depth political analysis. It would have benefited from more exploration of Thatcher’s policies, and how she personally responded to public backlash.
Every prime minister has to deal with the waxing and waning of their political reputation, and perhaps none more so than Thatcher. Although she faced the hostility of a male-dominated environment, Thatcher was probably the last prime minister to escape the clutch of personality politics and intense media coverage that later leaders such as Gordon Brown fell victim to (remember that time when Brown was forced to smile?). This is what makes People Like Us such a fascinating read. It provides a unique private secretary's insight into Thatcher's personality and the world behind the Black Door that was, prior to the 1990s, largely secretive.