Remembering Britain's 'Iron Lady'

All Things Considered host Melissa Block talks with Margaret Thatcher biographer, John Campbell, about the former prime minister's character, drive, successes and failures.

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Margaret Thatcher once said: I think sometimes the prime minister should be intimidating. There's not much point in being a weak, floppy thing in the chair, is there? Well, to say that Margaret Thatcher was no weak, floppy things is, of course, to state the obvious. John Campbell is the author of the biography "The Iron Lady," and he explains that despite Thatcher's humble beginnings as a grocer's daughter, she went to Oxford University and was intent on a political career no matter what.

JOHN CAMPBELL: Nobody took her very seriously because, of course, she was a woman and there was a glass ceiling that was expected. Nobody at Oxford saw her as a future prime minister because no one would've believed it possible for there to be a woman prime minister. And that's continued for most of her political career.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about that because Margaret Thatcher was interviewed on TALK OF THE NATION on NPR back in 1993, and she talked about her role as the first and only woman prime minister of Britain. Here's what she said.


MARGARET THATCHER: I would hate a person to ask me a question, are you a quota woman or are you a merit woman? Well, I would like whatever I did to be that I got there because I was the right person for the job. It didn't matter as a man or a woman. I had the right qualities for the job, the right beliefs, the right principles. I wasn't a quota.

BLOCK: John Campbell, did Margaret Thatcher see herself in any way as blazing a trail for women politicians or did she really feel that she was above and beyond that?

CAMPBELL: I don't think she did at all. There was a lot of criticism that she didn't do very much to help other women following behind her. She didn't see herself as a woman. She used to say she was much prouder of being the first scientist to become British prime minister. She didn't...

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. She studied chemistry.

CAMPBELL: Yes. She studied chemistry at Oxford. No. She competed as a man in a man's world and didn't want any favors to her as a woman. On the other hand, I think you have to say that she used her femininity very skillfully both on the way up and when she got there. She was distinctive because she was a woman. She stood out. That was what made her a sort of global superstar.

BLOCK: If you look at Margaret Thatcher's time as prime minister, you see time and again that Britain is engulfed in riots, labor riots, race riots. Do you see her, looking back, as an engine of social division in your country?

CAMPBELL: Oh, she was certainly a very divisive figure, and she almost intended to be. She wasn't a consensual politician. She had a very black and white view of what was right and what was wrong and what was good and what was bad. And as long as there were enough people on her side to vote for her and win elections, she was quite happy that there was an enemy that was being defeated. She was very lucky all through her career. She had clear enemies, and most of them played into her hands, and she was able to defeat them in turn: leaders of the labor party, leaders of trade unions, President Galtieri in the Falklands. She thrived on enemies, and she liked to win battles. I mean, in a smaller sense, she liked to win arguments.

BLOCK: Well, of course, the one argument that she ultimately lost was with her fellow Conservatives and their mutiny put her out of office. How do you describe what led to that downfall?

CAMPBELL: Oh, while it was partly this thing called the poll tax, which was a local government services taxes, which was very unpopular. Within the Cabinet of her senior colleagues, it was her hostility to Europe and the European community. And thirdly, I think it was just because she had been there so long, she was hectoring, she was becoming increasingly autocratic. And her colleagues were fed up with that and the public was fed up with it in a sense. She had killed her dragon. She'd won her battles. She'd done what she came in to do. And she was becoming exhausting and people had had enough. They wanted a quieter life, which they voted to get under her successor, John Major.

BLOCK: John Campbell wrote the biography "The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister." Mr. Campbell, thank you so much.

CAMPBELL: Thank you very much.

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