Well, I met Mrs Thatcher the other day in her room at the House of Commons and we talked for rather under an hour. Knowing that I came from the Guardian she must have mistaken me for some kind of radical, to be led into the True Faith. This was rather fun. We sat one at each end of a sofa, and she said, “The object of the exercise is what?” I said I should like to write a profile, based on an interview. She said oh dear, those things always came out awfully artificial. Since I know this to be sometimes true, and since I have written my fair share of profiles which for one reason or another have missed the point, I just mumbled something placatory and asked whether her father’s grocery shop at Grantham had been a great big one.
She said it was not big, just a family grocer’s, where some people paid by account and others, having drawn their 10-shilling pensions at the sub-post office attached, paid in cash. They also sold tobacco, sweets, and fruit, and she got to know a good cross-section of the community. She sometimes served behind the counter in the post office.
She was a capable girl, won a bursary from grammar school to Somerville where she read chemistry, and worked as a research chemist for British Xylonite and then for J Lyons. I said I did not know what xylonite was or what it was for, and she said I wouldn’t. Often they made a new and beautiful plastic and then sat round wondering what use there was for it. At Lyons she did pure research, which had very little to do with what a cake looked like.
“Hmm,” she says, “an unjustified amount, I might say. However, I usually think that epithets signify more about the author than about the subject. Do they not?” Several times in the course of the conversation she used this kind of rhetorical question, in this archaic form, with the not stuck at the end. Do they not? Is it not? Only barristers don’t say isn’t.
I suggested that any Tory minister of education unless he is a Butler, is going to have to put up with a lot of criticism because so many people in education, particularly in the unions, will be out of sympathy with the right. She replied that it has sometimes struck her that more people are interested in education for reasons of egalitarianism than for reasons of education.
But surely, in England, education had traditionally been part of the egalitarian process? Hadn’t it been Disraeli who said, in 1867, when the franchise was widened, that we must educate our masters?
“Of course you must,” she said. “No one quarrels with that for one moment.” But one should educate children taking account of differences in ability, and not with the idea of producing all the same. And it was perfectly right that one should be able to choose to send one’s children to independent schools.
I agree with this, and said so. I think it would be an intolerable interference with liberty to close independent schools. So there was nothing between us, but she made her point again, that it was educationally wrong to demand that “everyone-shall-have-the-same”. She stressed each word. No one demanded this of the housing. People could live in different kinds of houses.
Living in a council house was different, was it not, from living in Bishop’s Avenue. She explained that Bishop’s Avenue was wealthy. You could spend your money on better houses, or on a good Savile Row suit, or on sending your children to the continent every vacation, so was it wrong to buy a different education? Mr. and Mrs. Thatcher sent their son to Harrow.
I was busy murmuring, of course, it wasn’t wrong, and yes she was right, and something or other about us all agreeing on equality of opportunity. Exactly, she said. By then I was anxious to put forward an idea with which she could agree, so I said of course if you gave children equality of opportunity, then you gave them what amounted to an opportunity to prove themselves unequal.
“I wouldn’t quarrel with one word of that,” she said. “How do you think I got where I am?” Both she and Ted Heath had floated to the top. Anxious to get Mrs. Thatcher in competition with her leader, I suggested she had had a better raft to float up from: hadn’t his mother been a maidservant?
She said her own mother had been a dressmaker and had served in the shop. I said yes, but her father had become mayor. She asked what that mattered.
So we went on to the topic of educational journalists. She said they were there, and she had to cope with them. They didn’t always give her credit where credit was due, but that, she thought, was part of journalism. They had “put far more on to the milk thing”, and not give her credit for getting a lot of extra money for primary schools. This would give more children more opportunity, and was far more important than knocking off free milk for those who did not have a medical need for it.
Well, she had introduced the topic of milk, though if she hadn’t I should have. But why had she knocked off milk? She explained that she had to economise, but she was also determined to give a better education. So she looked around for economies which would do the least damage and decided to stop free milk for the over-sevens and to put up the price of meals, which were due to go up anyway.
But could she have picked anything which would have made so small a saving at the cost of so much condemnation? Look, she said, Labour had put up the price of school meals by half, and nobody had squealed; the education correspondents hadn’t given them absolute hell, oh no.
“Wait a minute,” she said, and she was now advancing on me across the sofa. I waited. Labour, she said, had knocked off milk from secondary schools, and no one told them they mustn’t do that because some children went to school without breakfast and that therefore they must supply milk free to the whole lot.
Very well, I said, but hadn’t she now got herself an unworkable piece of legislation in the Education (Milk) Act? The local authorities were forbidden to give free milk to children, but some were ignoring this, and Manchester was putting in a dash of cocoa to make the drink not milk within the meaning of the act. What was she going to do? Prosecute?
She said I would have to wait until the act settled down. I was asking her something that was difficult, and to say something she must not say at the moment. But there was always the discretionary penny rate which councils could spend on anything they chose, though if they spent it on milk there would be less for the disabled.
Yes, but if councils just ignored her, would there be any councilors surcharged for improper spending? Look, she said, just wait and see. Surcharging was not a matter for her but for the district auditor. When I suggested that the auditor wasn’t going to have much discretion in the matter, was he, she said that I was trying to draw her into something into which she could not be drawn. As far as the ordinary public was concerned, a lot of the problem would go, except insofar as it was politically kept alive, if milk were offered for sale in schools, and it wasn’t her fault that it was not. She had paid for hers as a schoolchild.