PMs & WB - Thatcher


updated 28 November 2013

To mark the announcement today, 8 April 2013, of the death of Baroness Thatcher (1925-2013), we reproduce the following:


Extracts from Margaret Thatcher’s remarks at launch of the final volumes of the Norman St John-Stevas' Collected Works of Bagehot, at The Economist, 14 April 1986:


“Bagehot’s detachment about Parliament was perhaps only possible because he failed to become a member, despite four attempts to do so.  Bagehot didn’t become a member because he was not always tactful and had a manner of direct speech which did not commend itself to selection committees.  Well, thank goodness some of us got through in spite of that!”



“Bagehot was not just a constitutional commentator.  He was, perhaps, the most distinguished of all financial journalists.”


“His work illumined not only the problems of his time, but our time.  His writings have been discussed, analysed, doubtless plagiarised, but they still remain fresh and apposite… I have no doubt that 100 years from now it will still be read.”

This event coincided with the US bombing of Libya, using some planes based in the UK.  This was a major political crisis for the PM, against which a publishing launch must have seem relatively unimportant.  Nevertheless, she fulfilled the engagement, as she described in her memoirs: 


 “That afternoon it was confirmed by telephone from Washington that American aircraft would soon take off from their British bases.  I received the news shortly before attending a long-standing engagement at the Economist: this was a reception to celebrate the great Victorian constitutionalist Walter Bagehot or Norman St John Stevas, his contemporary editor, depending on your point of view.  As I entered the Economist building off St James’s, Andrew Knight, the magazine’s editor, remarked with some concern how pale I looked.  Since my complexion is never ruddy, I must have appeared like Banquo’s ghost.  But I wondered how Andrew Knight would have looked if he knew about those American F1-11s heading secretly and circuitously     towards Tripoli.  Nevertheless I praised Bagehot, kissed Norman and returned to Number 10.”


[The Downing Street Years, 1993, pp446-7]


A few days later, she cited this as an example of her work ethic, when giving a magazine interview:

“… I am called a workaholic. Yes, I do work. I do check the things, the facts, in my speech—check, check, check again. I do. Even on Monday night, when I had to be at the completion of the Bagehot volumes, you know, our great editor of the "Economist" years ago, the great constitutional journalist, financier, we had ever had. I had to launch the remainder of those volumes with Norman St. John Stevas. I had to make a speech. Nevertheless, I went to make that speech. I had taken endless trouble with it.” 


[Transcript of interview at 10 Downing Street with Parade, an American Sunday newspaper magazine, given on 17 April 1986, published on 13 July 1986: Thatcher MSS (digital collection):]

Thatcher frequently cited Bagehot in support of her policies and views.  For example, in a speech at No.10 in 2000, at a dinner for the Chinese General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, she said: "There is, I believe, a moral here: we must use ideology to articulate our ideals, but not to stifle practical ideas. Walter Bagehot, the English constitutional writer, knew this. He said that "of all nations in the world, the English are perhaps the least a nation of pure philosophers." In 1988, in an article for National Review on the presidency of her great friend and ally, Ronald Reagan, she wrote: "The second is that he holds opinions which strike a chord in the heart of the average American. The great English journalist Walter Bagehot once defined a constitutional statesman as a man of common opinion and uncommon abilities. That is true of President Reagan and one of his greatest political strengths. He can appeal for support to the American people because they sense rightly that he shares their dreams, hopes, and aspirations; and he pursues them by the same route of plain American horse-sense." [National Review, 30.12.88, Reagan’s Leadership, America’s Recovery].  

Even before she became Conservative Party Leader and then Prime Minister, she was quoting Bagehot.  In November 1974, after the two general election defeats and in the run-up to her challenge to Edward Heath for the party leadership, she spoke to the Institute of Directors' Annual Conference at the Royal Albert Hall: "A few days ago the Economist newspaper launched four volumes of political essays by their famous former editor Walter Bagehot. One such essay referring to businessmen in politics is entitled "The Special Danger of Men of Business as Administrators"! It was written in 1871. Doubtless you could retort with a homily entitled "The Special Danger of non-businessmen at the Department of Trade and Industry." You are not alone in that view."  

On one occasion, she had to find a Bagehot quote at short notice.  As PM, just before the 1983 general election, she was due to speak to the CBI's annual dinner at London's Hilton Hotel, and, on being told a week before the event that the speech of welcome by the CBI President, Sir Campbell Fraser, would include a Bagehot quotation, she determined to find a Bagehot quotation of her own to match it.  She used this in the peroration of her speech on 19 April: 'In your speech of welcome, Mr. President, you gracefully quoted Walter Bagehot . Bagehot 's analysis of how a nation changes, of how its people are galvanised into action, is penetrating and profound. He wrote: "Changes do not at first act equally on all people in the nation. On many, for a very long time they do not act at all. But they bring out new qualities, and advertise the effects of new habits. A change of climate, say from a depressing to an invigorating one, so acts. Everybody feels it a little, but the most active feel it exceedingly. They labour and prosper, and their prosperity invites imitation."'

[This section is based on material preserved on the marvellous website of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation:]