Profile of a Conviction Speaker: Margaret Thatcher (Part 1)

“Those who live by the sword die by the sword”

Margaret Thatcher, along with Ronald Reagan, was a conservative conviction politician who had a powerful influence on politics at the end of the Cold War years. She, like Reagan, moved both economic and foreign policies to the right. In foreign affairs, she aligned with theUnited States, helped to spread the gospel of free markets, and fought the Malvinas or Falklands War.

Unlike Jack Kennedy, who was recognised for his political type oratory, Lyndon Johnson for his powerful negotiation skills, or Ronald Reagan for his persuasive skills, Mrs Thatcher was, perhaps, recognised for her argumentative or forensic communication style. She was a very determined and argumentative lady.

Margaret Thatcher wins the leadership contest

Edward Heath, the conservative Prime Minister, called an election in February 1974 and asked the people to decide between his government and chaos. The country rebuffed him, and he was narrowly defeated. So it is little wonder that many Conservatives wanted a change in the leadership. But a change to what?

The pro-monetarist Conservatives, as formulated by Milton Friedman (combined with F. A, Hayek’s thesis on the relationship between individual liberty and government authority), with Keith Joseph leading the pack, now had their opportunity to challenge the old guard and especially Edward Heath’s leadership. Many in the party looked to Joseph for leadership as Heath left a legacy in people’s minds of inflation and industrial unrest.  But this was not to be, as Joseph found himself with a problem.

Perhaps all success depends partly on luck, and for Margaret Thatcher her real opportunity came as a result of a speech Joseph made in Edgbaston on 19th October 1974. All of the media interpreted Joseph’s speech as arguing against working class families having children. Rightly or wrongly Joseph was branded and forced out of the race to challenge Heath’s leadership. The right of the party then searched for another candidate. Mrs. Thatcher stepped forward as the new standard bearer of Friedman’s monetarism, to stand in Joseph’s place.  This resulted in a very bitter personal conflict between the incumbent and the challenger. In February 1975 she defeated Heath after an acrimonious contest, and became leader of the Opposition. One perception of these events was that the Keynesians’ consensus politics had lost out to the ideological ‘right’. Another perception of these events is echoed by Douglas Hurd’s more diplomatic interpretation, “The years of Mr. Heath’s government should be regarded as a necessary first attempt, the rough work of pioneers”. For Hurd, this ‘first attempt’ simply meant the first attempt at introducing monetarist policies.

Public opinion had turned against Labour, and a general Election was called in 1979. Margaret Thatcher and her new brand of conservatism were victorious and won the general election with a 43 seat majority.

The New Establishment

The new government led by Mrs. Thatcher and her monetarist supporters immediately lowered direct taxes, while at the same time increasing indirect tax (V.A.T.). The excuse was that the budget had to be balanced, and indirect taxation, was less harmful than direct taxation. The economy seemed, to the layman, to be in turmoil, with many of the older industries just closing down, especially in the north, and unemployment rising. So indirect taxation became a political issue. Also, the Government increased interest rates to keep inflation down, which hurt small businesses and especially home owners with mortgages. Irrespective of these measures, unemployment continued to rise especially in the north. Through all of this, Mrs Thatcher kept her resolve and preached daily that long-term gains would be made if people remained firm and resolute to the present policies. An example of her direct style built on facts is illustrated in the extract below. She delivered this speech to Scottish conservatives in 1979.

I am delighted to make my first public speech as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the Conference of the Scottish Conservative Party. You are in better heart and more united than for a very long time. And so you should be.

We have had a splendid result throughout the country.

We had a net gain of 55 seats—6 of them in Scotland.

Our vote increased by over three million—and our vote in Scotland went up by almost a quarter of a million.

We had a lead over Labour of more than two million votes—the biggest lead of one major party over the other since 1935.

But there was one great disappointment. Not just in Scotland—but for all of us— Teddy Taylor’s defeat was a bitter blow. We lost our standard bearer at the hour of victory. Over the last few years, while holding Cathcart against the odds, Teddy has done more than anyone else to rally the Party in Scotland—to put us back on the road to success. It is a tribute indeed to his inspiration and his leadership that the army can march forward when its Captain has fallen. The House of Commons is a poorer place without you, Teddy—but you will be back, and in no long time.

I know that in the interval you will take comfort from the successes which you did so much to achieve.


In a speech on television about the Russian president, she followed the same straightforward speaking style.

I am cautiously optimistic. I like Mr. Gorbachev . We can do business together. We both believe in our own political systems. He firmly believes in his; I firmly believe in mine. We are never going to change one another. So that is not in doubt, but we have two great interests in common: that we should both do everything we can to see that war never starts again, and therefore we go into the disarmament talks determined to make them succeed. And secondly, I think we both believe that they are the more likely to succeed if we can build up confidence in one another and trust in one another about each other’s approach, and therefore, we believe in cooperating on trade matters, on cultural matters, on quite a lot of contacts between politicians from the two sides of the divide.

It was a difficult term of office for her, as the government was accused of being uncaring and uncompassionate to the less fortunate. Even the Church of England openly criticised the government for their lack of compassion for the unemployed and those young people entering the job market.

Although towards the end of her third year in office an upturn in the economy made it possible to cut interest rates, prospects of re-election looked dim. But lady luck struck once again, as it had in 1974/5, this time in the shape of the Falkland War. A victory here would ensure her of the next election, irrespective of how people felt about their personal lot. Certainly, as history shows, Margaret Thatcher interpreted the situation correctly and the nationalism which the War generated in the country at large secured another term of office for her.

The Falkland War and the 1983 Elections

Towards the end of Thatcher’s first term of office, even though the economic climate was quite hostile, the Gods smiled favourably on her with three gifts: the invasion of the Malvinas (or Falkland Islands) by the Argentinean military junta, the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980, and the total lack of leadership in the Opposition during her entire premiership. Indeed, the elections of June 1983 returned Mrs. Thatcher with an increased majority of 144 seats.

Mrs. Thatcher was steadfast in her ideological stand. At the Conservative Party Conference 1982, just one year before the next general elections, she told the assembly, To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catch-phrase –U-turn – I have only one thing to say: you may if you want to; the lady is not for turning.” Although she herself did not think this phrase up, she performed the part in an Oscar winning fashion.

She had faced a country in 1982 where manufacturing output had fallen by 30% over the last two decades and unemployment was currently rising; it was estimated to be somewhere between 4 and 5 million.  On the other hand, by the time of the 1983 election, inflation was in single figures and interest rates were allowed to fall. Although economic recovery was evident for the first time in years, most people were unaware of this.

It was two other issues that were to make the real difference to the election results: theFalklandvictory and the quality of the leader of the Opposition party.

Thatcher certainly knew how to take advantage of theFalklandsuccess. For example, she was so disappointed with the service atSt. Paul’s Cathedral for its lack of nationalistic flavour and appeal, that she took steps to rectify this omission by organizing a military parade through the City ofLondonwhere she was accompanied by the Lord Mayor ofLondonin taking the salute. The Queen and other members of the Royal family were not invited. In this way, she did not have to vie with the Queen for the focus of attention. This was the language of ‘action’ in motion.

Two different communication styles

In many ways Mrs. Thatcher was lucky in the person of Neil Kinnock, whom she found easy to defeat in open argument. He spoke in general terms with his utopian tone while she kept to specifics with her forensic tone. For example, relating to Parliamentary Question Time, Mrs. Thatcher gives us a clue to her preparation:

“I always briefed myself very carefully for Questions. One private secretary, my political secretary, my parliamentary private secretary and I would go through all the likely issues which might come up without any notice.” (MT p.41)

Thatcher prepared her arguments well and established her reputation in Parliament in her early years. She knew quite well, for example, that Question Time on Tuesdays and Thursdays was important to her in her effort to stamp her authority on the House and maintain its respect. It was always a question of winning for her. Tony Blair, for example, some years later, did not have to go as far as Mrs. Thatcher. He often lost to William Haig, the then leader of the Opposition, in Question Time, but it didn’t affect his credibility. Blair maintained the respect and support of the House.

As the British system is a parliamentary one, debating skills are held in high regard. Kinnock, as far as Thatcher was concerned, was far too emotional, far too wordy, and far too utopian to be successful in a parliamentary environment. Thatcher, with her forensic style and hard work, didn’t hold Kinnock in high regard for his lack of parliamentary skills, and especially his inability to keep to specifics even in Question Time. Details were everything for Mrs. Thatcher. Without accurate details, the argument could not be won.

Kinnock’s style of speechmaking was more appropriate to large audiences than to the confines of the House of Parliament.


Part 2 to follow which includes the Westland Affair, Poll tax and the conflict over the European Union

[1] This case traces the political career of Margaret Thatcher from a communication standpoint. The case is recounted from selected points in her biography with an emphasis on communication issues, and is not intended to be a political analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister.