Parallels abound between Gov. Sarah Palin’s quest to be a heartbeat from the U.S. presidency and Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in Great Britain.
Thatcher broke the glass ceiling in her country, where no woman had ever risen to such a top leadership position. The arguments against her were plenty: She had no experience in foreign policy, defense or national security matters. Most of her expertise was in domestic issues such as education. The old-boy network was united against her, but she took on the leadership in her own party.
In addition, the intellectual and political establishment disdained Thatcher. They looked down on her lower-middle-class background in a small town and her religiously strict background. She sparked the ire particularly of the academic left who called her “Attila the Hun in a skirt.”
Thatcher, who along with Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, slashed union-written restrictions and regulations to revive Britain’s sagging economy into the strongest in Europe. Winston Churchill II said Thatcher, along with his grandfather, were “the greatest British prime ministers in history.”
Thatcher, also against environmentalist protests, pushed oil drilling offshore in the North Sea in the northern extremity of her country, North Scotland. Scots enthusiastically embraced the drilling and pipe-laying that brought new prosperity to the region.
Similarly, Alaskans applauded their governor, Palin, who now is Republican vice presidential candidate for her support of oil and gas exploration.
Other similarities abound between Palin “the Barracuda,” which was her basketball nickname, and Thatcher, known as “the Iron Lady.”
Thatcher, like Palin, was not an accommodating or compromising politician. Her most famous phrase was: “This lady’s not for turning.” Her cabinet did not want her to rescue the Falklands from the grip of Argentinean Dictator Leopoldo Galtieri, but she did.
In Alaska, Republican leaders tried to stop Palin from going after corruption in her own party. Her intransigence upset the don’t-rock-the-boat Republicans in control.
In Britain, after a late Cabinet meeting, where most of Thatcher’s ministers had opposed cuts she proposed, she took them out for dinner at a trattoria near Ten Downing Street. The waiter approached her and the 10 men and started to read the specials.
Thatcher stopped him and said, “We’ll have the pasta.” The waiter nodded and said, “What about the veggies?”
“They’ll have pasta, too,” Thatcher replied.
Thatcher once said, “Some things are right; some things are wrong. Life is ultimately character, and that character comes from what you make of yourself. You must work hard to support yourself, but hard work is even more important in the formation of character.”
Palin has uttered much the same thing about her own life. It is not surprising that both grew up with the same small-town, middle-class, church-attending, hard-working values.
Thatcher was the youngest girl on the field hockey team when she was 11, and eventually became its captain. She later said, “It was not the playing that gave her pleasure, but the competition and winning.”
Similarly, Palin developed her zest for fighting to win in sports.
When Thatcher was elected to a Conservative Parliament in 1959 at age 34, the Conservatives under Harold Macmillan held office. But the old-boy network gave her only minor sub-Cabinet positions. She voted against abortion and voiced opposition to easing laws against gays for sodomy with minors.
Thatcher would win respect for her hard work and her speeches against waste and big spending.
In 1974, Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath lost to Socialist Harold Wilson, mostly because he appeased the unions in a national strike. There was a move to challenge Heath for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Thatcher announced her candidacy for the leadership position. She was not given a chance; her rivals had served in posts such as foreign secretary, defense minister and chancellor of the exchequer in previous Conservative governments. They also were part of the upper-class establishment that had ruled the Conservative Party.
Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, could boast of no posh prep school background, but her principal opponents, Willie Whitelaw, Sir Geoffrey Howe and James Prior did. One Conservative member of Parliament said they “wondered whether a woman could represent the country internationally dealing with defense and foreign policy matters thought to be provinces of men.”
Although her only Cabinet position had been a minor one in education under Heath, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the foreign secretary under Heath, had said at the time that “she’s smarter and tougher than all the rest of the Cabinet combined.”
Conservative leaders did not know how to deal with Thatcher. As her biographer, Chris Ogden of Time magazine, observed, her rivals’ experience with women was limited to aristocratic wives and demure and acquiescent females.
But Thatcher would tell election groups in England, as Palin would later in Alaska, “In politics, if you want something said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman.”
In Britain, Margaret Thatcher struck a resonant chord with Conservative Party constituencies and won the party leadership. Still, the party establishment was uneasy with her unapologetic free market programs and tough anti-communist policies. Shortly after she assumed the leadership post, the Conservative Central Party office approached me and asked whether I would draft a speech for the coming campaign in 1975 that was a softer, folksier approach.
When Thatcher read the draft, she remonstrated, “Haven’t you ever read ‘The Road to Serfdom’ by Friedrich Hayek?”
“Yes”, I replied.
“Well it doesn’t show it,” Thatcher said, ripping up the speech.
The fact was that I wrote the draft I was asked to, but the Conservative office had been afraid to risk her wrath by writing such mush.
The only time Palin has ever said “mush” was to Eskimo sled dogs. Like Thatcher, she is tough talking and outspoken. Palin’s actions speak louder than her words.
In 1979, Thatcher’s plain speaking on Conservative plans to cut taxes and regulations on business galvanized the party’s base and she was elected prime minister. Her vision of “a man’s right to work as he will, to spend what he earns to have the state as servant not master” inspired her country.
Three decades later, Palin has likewise energized her party and has become a rallying point. Would a Vice President Palin be a future Margaret Thatcher?
James C. Humes, a former presidential speechwriter, is the former professor of language and leadership at Colorado State University/Pueblo. He is now Schuck Fellow and Visiting Historian at the University of Colorado/Colorado Springs. He is the author of “The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan.”
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