Margaret Thatcher was a transformative prime minister whose party's survival as a political force rested on rejecting some of her cherished ideals.
There’s a dramatic scene from the final hours of the BBC’s 1983 general election broadcast when the camera zooms in on political interviewer Robin Day. Day, sat opposite the re-elected Margaret Thatcher for a one-to-one interview, asks gingerly if a cabinet reshuffle is likely. With little prompting, the prime minister indicates that the stalwarts of the Macmillan-Heath generation will be retired, opening the way for a new generation of politicians.
The ’83 election was a landmark for Thatcher. It confirmed that she was no one-term wonder. Victory gave her the confidence to appoint men whom she regarded as being “one of us” to the ministries that mattered most to her. Nigel Lawson became chancellor; Cecil Parkinson went to trade and industry, Leon Brittan replaced William Whitelaw at the Home Office and Norman Fowler went to social security. Many of these new ministers, like Thatcher, were self-made and not from the party’s land-owning wing. She trusted them to take hard decisions such as privatising state utilities, going into battle with trade unions, opening up the clubby stock exchange to outsiders, or implementing a poll tax.
Paradoxically, the one man that Thatcher felt was ill-equipped to carry out her reforms was the intellectual Keith Joseph. Her mentor and one of the co-founders of Thatcherism, Joseph remained the controversial and often hated secretary of state for science and education, a ministry that Thatcher regarded as something of a backwater.
Thatcher trained as a chemist at Oxford. Her cabinet experience was in education and science, but throughout her life, education, training and research remained at the periphery of her political philosophy. Thatcher sought to empower individuals by giving them money through tax cuts and subsidised housing. But empowerment through access to education was not for her.
So much so that the first volume of her 656-page memoir The Path to Power includes just three pages on the science part of Thatcher's ministerial brief in a section of the book called “science and teacher training”. Though it does include this telling phrase: “Science is less amenable to political direction than politicians like to think. Indeed, the history of science is more similar to the history of imaginative art than to economic history.”
By her own admission Thatcher’s achievements as science and education secretary included leading the UK back into the Geneva-based particle physics project Cern (Labour had withdrawn in 1968), but for reasons that had little to do with frontier science. Indeed, she was no fan of the fledgling European Framework programme, which, by virtue of its need to organise and plan, Thatcher regarded as a socialist invention. In her memoir she writes of Cern: “I was haunted by the knowledge that if Britain had not pressed ahead with some nuclear research even in the cash-strapped thirties Britain and America would not have developed the atomic bomb.”
Among the other paradoxes of Thatcher’s political career is that most of her ministerial successors ignored their PM’s advice that science cannot be shaped by politics, or that research has no part to play in wealth creation. It was Keith Joseph who planted the seeds for the Research Assessment Exercise in 1985. His successor, Kenneth Baker, was even more interventionist and created the Link programme, one of the forerunners of today’s Technology Strategy Board. Baker also managed to secure more funding for the research councils—albeit by cutting the research budgets of individual Whitehall departments.
He provided growth opportunities for UK companies in information technology, partly through the privatisation of the two state telecoms companies, British Telecom and Cable and Wireless; and partly by directly funding companies, one of which has since morphed into the Cambridge-based multinational ARM, to put computers, such as the iconic BBC Micro in schools.
All of this happened under a prime minister who believed that the state had a lesser role to play in the lives of researchers, and that research had little role to play in the life of the state.
Judging by the coverage of Thatcher’s death, it is hard to imagine that more than two decades have passed since the end of her tenure. The leaders of her party have had to change with changing times. Conservative ministers today rely on chief scientific advisers in Whitehall, and have expanded the use of behavioural economics in policymaking as part of a broader programme of evidence.
The best politicians, like the best scientists, know when it's time to change course, or when to follow a new line of thinking if the evidence tells them so. It was a lesson that Thatcher never learned in life, but which her successors know all too well as they mourn her death.
Originally published on 16 April. Updated on 17 April 2013« back