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‘If you want anything said, ask Mrs Thatcher’

In May 1979 the United Kingdom elected its first female Prime Minister, in spite of her own comment ten years earlier: ‘No woman in my time will be Prime Minister or Chancellor or Foreign Secretary—not the top jobs. Anyway I wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister. You have to give yourself 100%’. A few years later, having become Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went on to say ‘In politics if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman’. In fact, the things she said were so memorable that she has become one of the most quoted politicians of modern times. Most people recognize ‘there is no real alternative’, ‘the lady’s not for turning’, ‘the Falklands Factor’, ‘Rejoice, rejoice!’, ‘Victorian values’, ‘We can do business together’, and ‘There is no such thing as Society’.

Society and the environment

Like many frequently quoted individuals, some of her sayings have been ‘improved’ over time in the public mind. It is fairly well known that ‘There is no such thing as Society’ was originally followed by the comment ‘There are individual men and women, and there are families’. ‘Rejoice, rejoice!’ is an abbreviation of ‘Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our armed forces and the Marines. Rejoice!’. ‘The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money’ started life as ‘Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money’ – a much less memorable line. And ‘It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands, when you have spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment’ has recently been shown to derive from a copy-editor’s memory of a speech not reported at the time:  ‘What really thrilled me, having spent so much of my lifetime in Parliament, and talking about things like inflation, Social Security benefits, housing problems, environmental problems and so on, is that when it really came to the test, what’s thrilled people wasn’t those things, what thrilled people was once again being able to serve a great cause, the cause of liberty’.

This is an ex-parrot!

She has never been noted for her sense of humour – there is the story of how the Monty Python ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch had to be explained to her – and the comic aspect of some of her sayings is usually unconscious. One thinks of ‘I don’t mind how much my Ministers talk, as long as they do what I say’, ‘We have become a grandmother’, and, at a farewell dinner for William Whitelaw (her Deputy Prime Minister between 1979 and 1988), ‘Every Prime Minister needs a Willie’.

The handbag

But apart from her own contributions to dictionaries of quotations, Margaret Thatcher has inspired many others, both friend and foe. It was a Soviet newspaper which first called her ‘the iron lady’. The Labour politician Barbara Castle summed her up on the very day she was elected leader of her party: ‘She is so clearly the best man among them’. Another Labour opponent, Denis Healey, quoted her own backbenchers as describing her as ‘the Great She-elephant, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, the Catherine the Great of Finchley’, while it was his wife Edna who memorably summed her up as having ‘no hinterland; in particular she has no sense of history’. However, it was a Conservative who fixed one of the most enduring images associated with the Thatcher years, when Julian Critchley said in 1982 ‘She cannot see an institution without hitting it with her handbag’. The verb ‘to handbag’ meaning ‘to verbally attack or crush ruthlessly and forcefully’ has since entered the dictionary.

Caligula or Marilyn Monroe?

Images of her determination and strength are repeated over and over again. The French President François Mitterrand briefed his European Minister Roland Dumas that ‘She has the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’. On her final downfall, the Conservative MP John Biffen described her as ‘a tigress surrounded by hamsters’. But perhaps most evocative is the response from Lord Carrington during the Falklands War: when asked ‘If Mrs Thatcher were run over by a bus…?’, his reply was ‘It wouldn’t dare’.

 

This article originally appeared on the OUPblog.