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Why women who want to get to the top need to be like Margaret Thatcher


Self-belief: former PM Margaret Thatcher

Self-belief: former PM Margaret Thatcher

Self-belief: former PM Margaret Thatcher

It has emerged that Margaret Thatcher's influential Press secretary, Bernard Ingham, tried hard to get her to "soften" her image, when she was Prime Minister. He sent her a long letter at the height of her political career - the mid-1980s - suggesting that she should tone down her "hectoring" tone: that she should try to come over as less strident and bossy.

He thought that the Iron Lady of British politics - whose second volume of authorised biography has just appeared - should try to project a more feminine, more emollient, more conciliatory, more compassionate, image.

She refused. She wasn't interested in what other people thought of her. Indeed, from the mid-point in her political career, she became, if anything, more "strident" and "bossy".

She affirmed, ever more decisively, her own sense of authority in government and over her Cabinet. Until, after a long premiership, she finally fell from power - when one of her lieutenants, Sir Geoffrey Howe, decided that he had been bossed about once too often.

Thatcher's style - let alone her politics - wasn't everyone's cup of tea, but you have to admire her stubborn refusal to conform to anyone's notion of how a female political leader should be: her absolute disdain for appealing to any kind of feminine stereotype. She was perfectly comfortable within her own sense of femininity, but she was not going to embody anyone else's.

In this, Margaret Thatcher is surely a leader who should be studied as a template for women in politics. Thatcher didn't need "gender quotas" to advance her political career, because she was in possession of something much more persuasive: she was rooted in the certainty of her own vision. She knew exactly what she stood for, within herself, and she was driven forward by the certainty of that inner conviction.

In some ways, Thatcher's biography reminds me more of the stories of the saints who featured in my convent upbringing rather than the CV of a politician. I don't mean she was saintly - she certainly wasn't - and anyway, not all of the saints were saintly either. But they were driven by a steely sense of purpose.

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Joan of Arc knew that she was anointed by God to go forth and lead the King of France into battle, even though she was just a teenage peasant girl. Thatcher seems to have had that same sense of mission about her own vocation from an early age.

She knew what she believed in: Victorian values. Yes, her voice rang out with conviction when she spoke about the virtues of industry, thrift, independence, initiative and improved prisons and municipalities.

She brushed aside suggestions that child labour and grim workhouses had also been part of the picture - people who made that point were "belittlers" and "naysayers".

Her biographer, Charles Moore, says that Thatcher carried around, in her head, a vision of how she saw Britain, and always cited her favourite hymn as I Vow to Thee My Country. She saw inflation as "a disease of money", abhorred debt, and exalted "liberty" - and would brook no opposition to these convictions.

For those who disliked her, many of her values added up to an arrogance, and even a narrow-mindedness - especially in regard to trade unions, or, indeed, the Irish, for whom she had little sense of affinity.

But the interesting aspect of Thatcher is not what her values were, but her confidence in upholding them. And for any woman who is seeking to break through that "glass ceiling" of male dominance, Thatcher's self-belief and unassailable sense of conviction are worthy of study, and even perhaps emulation.

Where did she get that sense of self-worth? How did this grocer's daughter from an undistinguished town in Lincolnshire have such self-belief that she grasped every opportunity that came her way, never doubting her own ability to accomplish what she set out to do?

Maggie grew up in a world where women of her class were not expected to thrust themselves forward. By the laws of sociology, she should have been just as repressed and kept in her place as any suburban housewife of the 1940s and 50s, not studying for degrees in chemistry and the law while giving birth, and setting her cap at a political career.

So what drove her forward, against the expectations of her time? That self-belief, the self-affirmation, an unassailable sense of self-worth. Where did these come from? Partly, we must assume, a lucky selection of genes - some people are just born with that kind of confident personality - and then greatly endorsed by her father's confidence in his younger daughter.

Alderman Roberts, Maggie's somewhat humourless father, gave her the self-belief, and inspired the ambition, but he also accompanied this with discipline, principles of thrift and application, and unbending rules about attending church three times on Sundays. The influence of a strong Methodist formation remains a root element in Thatcher's life story.

Margaret Thatcher was hated as much as she was admired: at her funeral, some who loathed her cried out in jubilation "ding-dong, the witch is dead!" But anyone who wants to get to the top in politics, or in any other field, mustn't object to being hated.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for her beliefs, and that's the kind of conviction that you need to be great. Or even, perhaps, to get on.

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