It is only since Mrs Thatcher’s Falklands triumph that her incredulous opponents have begun to understand the true extent of her ambition; and many of those who came to scoff now realize that they have been summoned to pray. An examination of the texts of her major speeches as Leader of the Conservative Party should have shown clearly, however, the nature of Mrs Thatcher’s struggle. Her object is not simply to be the most successful politician since the Second World War; she is embarked on a more epic enterprise: a heroic pilgrimage, an odyssey through time towards a fabulous moment in which past and future meet in a new Victorian age purged of the impurities of Socialism. Her aim is the conquest of history.
In this tormented undertaking, Mrs Thatcher relies on a mangled rhetoric conjured up from the disparate elements of popular experience and tradition. Passing through and ransacking the different levels of the culture, she pieces together remnants and patches that become, in her skilful hands, a seamless robe of domestic, economic, political, and indeed cosmic moralism. First, perhaps, is the domestic imagery, to reassure and comfort: ‘A nation is an extended family. Families go through their hard times; they have to postpone cherished ambitions until they have the means to satisfy them.’ (Margaret Thatcher, 1980.) The imagery enables her to move easily to more exalted levels, endowing each with domestic authority. Thus, for instance, the economy: ‘Men must have confidence in the common currency of everyday life. Honest money is a mark of the kind of society we Conservatives seek. So the steady reduction of the rate of inflation is essential, not just to good housekeeping, but for the deepest philosophical reasons.’ From the domestication of the economy, it is but one easy step to claims of grander significance, as when she conflates the natural evolution of capitalism – ‘our system, the free enterprise system which delivers goods to the mass of the people’ – with not just biological evolution but the ways of our forefathers:
Industrial revolutions are painful. We know that from history. Adaptation is painful. It’s a natural and sometimes a healthy human instinct to want to go on in the old way . . . . But the truth is, changes of this sort are part of real life. They are fundamental to our survival. If today people aren’t willing to move as their fathers did, the economy can’t thrive.
The moral aspects of her project, on the other hand, depend on resonances from a wide range of pirated primary religious culture – Methodist hymns, the Bible, and Pilgrim’s Progress. Thus she addresses the Conservative Annual Conference as though they were an assembly of the elect: ‘Throughout the long years of opposition, you have kept faith.’ Wishing she could offer a ‘less rugged road,’ she calls on her hearers to ‘resist the blandishments of the faint-hearts.’ Even when she is not explicitly using the language of the Bible, it emerges in the most unlikely places to shape the rhythm of her speech. Thus ‘We saved our living standards; our jobs we could not save’ is given an irrefragable authority by the half-remembered cadence of Matthew 27.42: ‘He saved others; himself he cannot save.’ The impalpability of these references creates a powerful, implicit sub-text, which buoys up the banalities of her vision into something unaccountably profound; sense merges with a mysterious evocation of universal truth.