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Apprentice legislator: Margaret Thatcher's first efforts at law-making, 1959-60

 

Margaret Thatcher was first elected to the House of Commons as MP for Finchley in October 1959, a backbench supporter of the Conservative Government of Harold Macmillan.

She rapidly made important steps in her career, and revealed some enduring qualities.

1959-60: apprentice legislator

By a stroke of luck MT came to prominence very quickly. At the beginning of each Parliamentary Session, backbench MPs enter a ballot for the chance to introduce their own legislation (known as "Private Member's Bills"). The top half dozen have a reasonable chance of becoming law, provided the Government doesn't oppose them. MT came second in her first try and so within weeks of election was in the unusual position of doing serious business with senior ministers and officials, attracting a lot of attention from the national press. Many MPs pass their entire careers without an opportunity as good as this.

In the months that followed there are numerous foreshadowings of later themes in her political life . She unhesitatingly chose a controversial subject for her Bill, involving trade union power, a move that was shrewd as well as brave, because the topic was inherently newsworthy. That summer a number of Labour Councils had withheld access to their meetings to provincial newspapers involved in an industrial dispute with print workers: her Bill would force all local authorities to open up to the press, and public, like it or not. The files show that Ministers and officials were wary of such a head-on attack, preferring instead the negotiation of a "code of practice". MT found herself particularly at odds with Dame Evelyn Sharp, Whitehall's first woman Permanent Secretary and a strong personality. Dame Evelyn found the new MP for Finchley demanding and unrealistic, an unwelcome interloper in the close, perhaps cosy, relationship between the Ministry and local government. She plainly hoped the Bill would fail; in fact MT recalls her saying as much, face to face.

Another long-term theme reveals itself in these early documents. Although she was the daughter of a long-serving councillor, mayor and Alderman of Grantham, MT was no admirer of British local government. By the 1940s and 50s party politics were coming more and more to dominate local elections, ending a long tradition of independent and ratepayer rule in which her father had played his part. (He never ran under a party label.) MT saw the trend as inevitable, and broadly accepted the logic: "Politics touch every sphere of personal life", she wrote in an article on this topic in 1949. But it had some painful results. When Labour captured Grantham in 1952 one of their first acts was to remove Alf Roberts from the Aldermanic Bench, an event which still had the power to bring MT to tears when she recalled it on television over 30 years later.

All this jarred on ministry officials, but MT got on much better with her political colleagues. She won over the Minister, Henry Brooke, during a chat in the Commons Library (and many years later took pleasure in promoting his son Peter to a job in her own cabinet). And meeting his deputy she had her earliest dealings with a man who was to have a huge influence on her career and outlook: Sir Keith Joseph. She was struck by his intelligence, helpfulness and charm, an impression that she never had cause to revise in more than 30 years of friendship and close cooperation.

To get her Bill passed, MT had to make compromises, and in making the necessary deals she showed what became a familiar blend of pragmatic toughness with a touch of theatricality. She understood from the first that Ministers would only allow the Bill through if they had drafted it, so she asked for precisely that. But when the first draft was delivered she made the demand - unheard of, but successful - to speak directly with the parlimentary draftsman and damned one clause after another as "far too weak", "impossibly weak", or "quite useless". As chief official, Dame Evelyn found this an "extremely unsatisfactory discussion", but as political head Henry Brooke saw the point at once: "Her technique is to say she must have much more than she really expects to get!" (MT wrote to Keith Joseph a few days later in a slightly contrite tone, as if fearing she had overdone things a little.) In the weeks that followed, she gained as well as conceded ground, pressuring ministers without ever losing their sympathy. Ministers played their own game too, using the threat of Mrs Thatcher to scare the local authorities - probably the first time this tactic was used, certainly not the last.

As well as finding her feet in Whitehall, MT had to steer the Bill through the Commons herself, opening her campaign in a thorough if exhausting way by sending 250 handwritten letters to Parliamentary colleagues asking for their support. She worked hard to win a measure of Labour backing for the Bill, realising that heavy attack from the Opposition would make the measure harder to pass and finding it no strain to be on good terms with some of her political opponents. She always had a few friends on the Labour side, to the very end of her career.

Her newness to it all is underlined by the fact that she made her maiden speech moving the Second Reading of the Bill, dispensing with the customary introduction praising her own constituency: straight down to business was always her rule. Notes for the speech survive and can be read here, prepared in much the style she used for important Parliamentary occasions throughout her time in the Commons. She made an impressive job, not aspiring to eloquence or grand effects, but marshalling her facts and making her case with clarity and force. Not only did the speech go down well in the Commons, MT found herself on ITN's News At Ten the following day, giving her first ever television interview, in what was considered an appropriately feminine context - on the sofa at home, flanked by twins Mark and Carol.

The vote on Second Reading was the decisive moment in the life of the Bill. Opposition to it among local authorities had grown sufficiently strong to pose a threat, with some Conservative backbenchers, and many Labour, hostile. The Government took a cautious line, not committing itself to support until the result was known, keeping the "code of practice" up its sleeve, neutral in a benign style. Victory by a good margin brought ministers off the fence. They even provided extra time for debate when a technical motion had to be moved to allow the public to be granted the same rights as the press, Keith Joseph doing the honours. MT had to pay a price, however: the scope of the Bill was narrowed to exclude most council committees, greatly diminishing the collective angst of the local authorities and their supporters in the Commons, but still banning a classic procedural manoeuvre by which the press had been ousted from meetings, when the whole council would announce it was "going into committee" and clear the gallery. MT accepted the compromise with reasonable grace, Bill Deedes among others expressing the view that otherwise the Bill would have been lost.

The measure became law on 27 October 1960 and came into effect in June the following year.

Documents on MT's Private Member's Bill, 1959-60