From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
However much the Conservative Party pay Saatchi and Saatchi it is very hard earned money because the job they have — selling Margaret Thatcher as a vote winner — is enough to make any sensitive adman take up roadsweeping for a living.
Thatcher won the Tory leadership four years ago this month, leaving Ted Heath to sulk and snipe and to await an electoral debacle to bring him back into favour. At the time the Tories might have chosen Willie Whitelaw, whose style as a political con-man is rather like that of Harold MacMillan; he does not castigate the workers but seeks to persuade them that happy capitalism is simply a matter of everyone knowing, and keeping, their place.
To elect Thatcher was very daring because she is a woman, or at least she seemed to be at the time. She can also, despite being a woman, think and learn, with a degree in chemistry and a qualification as a barrister. Even more, she is a wife and a mother (Mr. Thatcher keeps a respectful, shadow like place in the background) which means she can converse with ordinary mums in Tescos about the price of soap powder and corn flakes.
Why, then, is she so hard to sell? The working class do not ask a lot of their political leaders—certainly they don’t reject them for being unable to cure capitalism’s problems — but they do react against the sort of tight laced personality which Thatcher projects. Above that mask of make up, the Thatcher hair is as carefully sculptured as an expensive meringue. Her clothes, never rumpled or in disarray, might have been pasted on her like wallpaper. Her bird-like face concentrates in a formidably level stare on the tricky questions of the TV interviewer.
And when she opens her mouth her voice falls with the spaced out emphasis of so many strokes of the cane. If Macmillan came over as the confident, relaxed country squire, and Callaghan as everyone’s favourite uncle, Thatcher is a figure from our childhood nightmares — the stern headmistress. In her presence we all mentally bend over and await six of the best.
Recently she has been having the trade unions into her study to lecture them on how irresponsible they are, to try to get better wages for their members:
Parliament has placed them above the Law. Anyone who does not use power responsibly must expect his position to be reconsidered by Parliament.
Her detailed proposals to keep the unions in check — for example by making social security and tax rebates harder for strikers to get — seemed to delight some Tories (if she ever makes it to Number Ten, Thatcher will have some plum jobs to hand out to anyone who has avoided upsetting her). Others were uneasy, remembering how Heath virtually threw away power in 1974 by provoking the chaos of the three day week.
Heath also presented as a tense, gritty personality. As the election draws near, is Thatcher trying to unlace a little, to fit in more easily with what working class prejudices say a woman should be like? Keen observers of her recent appearances on television will have noticed that her hair has been ever so slightly ruffled. On one historic occasion she smilingly allowed her legs to be photographed.
That happened at the Boat Show, when an enterprising photographer nipped in beneath her as she was swung, legs demurely crossed at the ankles, high over the floor in a harness. Although the picture appeared in the Guardian, where most of the photographs come out looking like a foggy day on the Embankment, there was no question but that it showed Thatcher’s legs and so introduced an alarmingly sexual element into her personality.
What, the conscientious voter wondering where to place his cross might ask, next? Will Thatcher now appear on television looking as if she has been ravished by Brian Walden? Will we see her in a bikini? Or on Page Three of the Sun?
Politicians have been known to stoop as low in their desperation for votes. Lord Hailsham was once fond of putting us off our breakfasts by being photographed romping in the sea in bathing trunks. Fortunately he ceased to be a serious contender for the Tory leadership and so could stop his disgusting public displays.
How much of this sort of thing should be taken seriously? Well the most important thing for the working class to consider is the nature of the choice which Thatcher claims to offer. One possible effect of a woman being a contending political leader is that, when it comes to considering the choice, the debate may be diverted from the real issue into a phoney one over the alleged merits and demerits of women against men.
Which misses the point, that capitalism, whether women or men hold the big jobs, has to be run against the interests of the majority of its peoples. The real issue, then, is whether capitalism continues or whether we have a society in which all human needs are satisfied and in which people express their freedom in an absence of prejudice, including that known as sexism.
It may be late in the day for Thatcher to prove that she is a woman and successfully seduce the working class into voting for her party. Let us hope that any sense of outrage is directed against the system she represents and not against her.