Lady Thatcher and the IEA

There are so many popular myths about Lady Thatcher and the IEA it is hard to know where to start in unbundling them all.

So let’s start with Lady T. herself.

Her father Alf Roberts was a prominent local councillor, alderman, and mayor and a very well read classical liberal who introduced her to J. S. Mill’s On Liberty and the writings of Rudyard Kipling. A favorite movie in the 1930s was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington about rent-seeking and her belief in free trade is said to have come from the American poet Walt Whitman who firmly believed ‘the spirit of the tariff is malevolent’ as it helps a few rich folk get richer while the masses get poorer.

She discovered Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom while at Oxford University and C. S. Lewis, Colm Brogan, and Karl Popper were other influences in the 1940s. By 1950 she was in public speeches stating that if we stick to principle we have nothing to fear from Communism. What an astonishing claim for that era.

Elected to Parliament in 1959 she planned a maiden speech on monetary policy! But then she placed very high in the ballot for private members’ bills. So, in an extraordinarily rare event in British politics, she made her maiden speech from the front bench and had 30 not 10 minutes. She planned on a bill to reform trade unions but her Whips blanched and refused. So she piloted through a bill to extend the rights of the press to examine and critique spending decisions by local authorities. No more routinely meeting in secret after Margaret’s bill became the law. Alf was not amused!

Thus before 1960 there is clear evidence of her reading classical liberal literature, an interest in monetary theory and union reform, a strong disbelief in Soviet propaganda, and a desire to scrutinise every penny of government spending.

She might not have been fully formed but she was well along. No wonder she felt uncomfortable in her party!

By the late 1960s she had twice spent six weeks touring the USA which made a big impression on her and likewise she on all she met over there. It was then that Margaret came on to the IEA radar screen.

Editorial Director Arthur Seldon wrote to longtime IEA associate Geoffrey Howe as follows:

‘May we hope for better things from Margaret?’

Howe famously replied:

‘I’m not at all sure about Margaret. Many of her economic prejudices are sound. But she is inclined to be rather too dogmatic… there is much scope for her to be influenced between triumph and disaster.’

So the IEA clearly sensed some real potential but it is not clear how much contact there was between that time and say 1974.

Margaret of course became Ted Heath’s ‘statutory woman’ in Cabinet 1970-1974 as Education and Science Secretary. Ted parked her far down the table and on his side so she had to lean way over to catch his eye. She is often judged as being a poor Education Secretary. I disagree and I do know that when an IEA delegation consisting of the founders of the University of Buckingham went to see her she immediately grasped what they wanted, jumping straight in with the following:

‘You surely do not need any help from me and if my Department gets in your way then let me know.’

From the twin Tory defeats of 1974 to spring of 1979 the picture is much clearer. She became the Tory leader in early 1975.

My predecessor Ralph Harris ‘loaned’ IEA trustee Nigel Vinson to Margaret and Keith Joseph as they set about establishing the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS). Nigel eventually returned to the IEA fold and as Lord Vinson of Roddam Dene LVO, Chairman of the IEA Trustees, then hired me in summer 1992 to start 1/1/1993 as the new CEO.

Then there is a pink file in the IEA archives at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, of the letters between Ralph at the IEA and Margaret’s House of Commons office regarding endless lunch arrangements at 2 Lord North Street and the guest lists. Reading that file recently it was clear that a great deal of thought and effort went in to that operation.

There were also stories of Margaret reading IEA tracts and making copious marginal notes. And of course the famous story of her visiting the leftist Conservative Research Department, dropping (some say smashing) Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on the table and declaring to the assembled leftists: ‘This is what we believe in.’

But Margaret understood the IEA model. Yes we had published on unions, inflation and abolishing exchange controls but I cannot recall a single word on say council house sales or privatisation or contracting out. Well maybe there’s a snippet there but not much. Margaret knew the IEA was really as per Hayek all about reaching the intellectuals with reasoned arguments rather than say cheap publicity or hackneyed punditry.

However it did not stop her using Ralph as a somewhat secret speechwriter.

On entering Downing Street she wrote to IEA founder and Chairman Antony Fisher you ‘created the climate of opinion which made our victory possible’. She ennobled Ralph as Lord Harris of High Cross and offered him a job. He took the title, refused the job, and sat as a cross-bencher. To him she wrote ‘It is primarily your foundation work which enabled us to rebuild the philosophy upon which our Party succeeded.’

And on the PBS series Commanding Heights she concludes ‘It started with Sir Keith and me, with the Centre for Policy Studies, and Lord Harris at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Yes, it started with ideas, with beliefs. That’s it. You must start with beliefs. Yes, always with beliefs.’

Well the final stage certainly did start with Sir Keith but a lot had gone on before that.

After her late 1990 resignation she had little to do with the IEA as she wrote her three books and toured the world lecturing. But between her series of strokes in 2001 and my standing down as CEO in late 2009 she came again to the IEA regularly for anniversaries, birthdays and the like. Her staff knew of our two wonderful function rooms at 2 Lord North Street and often requested their use as all manner of foreign think tanks, universities and others sought to honour her. She would not travel to them but they could and did come to her chez IEA.

‘John, why is this Mexican silver and not English silver?’ she once asked me looking askance at a rather lovely trophy. ‘Because the think tank that just gave it to you is from Mexico, Lady T’ I replied. ‘Oh’ she replied, still perplexed.

She may have tired of the IEA playing on her reputation and success. At the IEA’s 30th anniversary dinner Margaret became more and more impatient as all these men droned on. She was the last and 11th of all the speakers.

Finally she got her turn. She was very gracious. Of IEA founder Fisher and his first two directors Harris and Seldon she said ‘They were the few, but they were right and they saved Britain’ in a very Churchillian turn of phrase. But then the stiletto heel came out: ‘But remember while the cocks may crow it’s the hen that lays the egg.’

John Blundell is the IEA’s Distinguished Senior Fellow and was its Director General and Ralph Harris Fellow, 1993-2009. He is author of Margaret Thatcher: A Portrait of the Iron Lady(2008: Algora).