Sea-change in politics saw Margaret Thatcher swept into power in historic election

Margaret Thatcher arrives at Tory headquarters in London after the general election victory of 1979
Margaret Thatcher arrives at Tory headquarters in London after the general election victory of 1979

On the 40th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher becoming PM, historian GORDON LUCY examines the 1979 general election

During the 1979 election campaign James Callaghan, Labour’s shrewd and avuncular prime minister, told his close aide Bernard Donoughue: “You know there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.”

Margaret Thatcher entered the House of Commons in 1959 as MP for Finchley. She had been turned down for the safe Tory seat of Beckenham in 1957 on the grounds that Westminster was no place for a woman with a young family, a reflection of what a different world the 1950s was.

Although first appointed to junior ministerial office (as parliamentary secretary to the minister for pensions) in 1961 and to the Cabinet (as education secretary) in 1970, her political ideas were far from fully developed and it was less than obvious to Tory MPs even in February 1975 (when she became party leader) what exactly she stood for.

Her political thinking was substantially shaped and refined between 1975 and 1979, taking account of the significant shift in public opinion to the right in those years.

In an essay entitled ‘Conservative Century’, published in 1994, Anthony Seldon explained: “The Thatcher experiment was motivated at least as much by hunger for office as by ideology: scholarly attention has focused too much on the intellectual roots of ‘Thatcherism’ and too little on its pragmatism and adaption to the rightward and anti-statist movement of public opinion.”

Significantly the Conservative manifesto in 1979 was entitled ‘Time for a change’. In a foreword, Mrs Thatcher claimed that the election was perhaps ‘the last chance’ to restore the proper balance between the state and the individual.

Conservative electoral strategists recognised that it was not only the highest taxpayers who favoured lower taxation and that a large proportion of the electorate was increasingly happy to opt out of parts of the welfare state.

They also recognised the appeal of selling off council houses to tenants at half price to large swathes of the electorate but beyond that there was little or nothing in the Conservative manifesto about privatisation or the widespread deregulation of industry.

In the autumn of 1978 it looked as if Callaghan was going to call an early election, one which he had a decent chance of winning, because the economy was in better shape than it had been and the Labour government had recovered some of its popularity.

With the benefit of hindsight, Callaghan unwisely decided against calling an election because he expected another round of pay policy to demonstrate the success of his economic strategy but his government was derailed by ‘the Winter of Discontent’.

Callaghan had hoped to keep public sector pay settlements below 5% but tanker drivers secured a 14% pay rise, driving a horse and cart through the policy. By the end of January 1979, water and sewerage workers, ambulance drivers and dustmen were all engaged in highly visible and disruptive industrial action.

The trades unions were busily undermining a Labour government, just as they had brought down the Heath’s Conservative government in February 1974.

On March 28 the Labour government lost a vote of confidence, the first time this had happened since 1924. Parliament was dissolved on April 7 and the election took place on May 3.

Mrs Thatcher firmly laid responsibility for ‘the Winter of Discontent’ at Callaghan’s door. She reminded the electorate how close the country ‘came to being governed by picket’ since 1974 and she revelled in being labelled ‘the Iron Lady’ by the Soviet Union after a strongly anti-Communist speech in 1977.

From the very outset, the Conservatives seemed poised for victory, running 10 points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls.

The fly in the ointment, from a Conservative perspective, was their leader’s personal unpopularity compared to Callaghan’s popularity.

Mrs Thatcher proved to be a formidable and energetic campaigner, undertaking a punishing schedule of walkabouts, factory visits, radio phone-ins, house meetings and speeches. She almost ran her campaign team into the ground. She gave it everything she had because she believed that she would only get one chance, the Conservative Party being unforgiving of failure.

In the event she secured a majority of 44. Labour’s share of the vote slumped to 36.9%. The Tories took a 43.9% share with a swing of 5.2%, the largest since 1945.

The general election of 1979 was the only the first of three sweeping election victories which made Mrs Thatcher the longest serving British prime minister of the 20th century.

Apart from Labour’s Clem Atlee between 1945 and 1951, no other prime minister in the 20th century transformed the British economy, politics and society so comprehensively.

On the day of Lady Thatcher’s funeral, Peter Mandelson, the principal architect of ‘New Labour’, acknowledged that she had ‘reframed British politics’.

Lord Mandelson observed: “I think what she was right to do was to bring home to us the reality that Britain could not afford rampant inflation, that state monopolies needed commercialising, that personal tax rates were too high and that enterprise was too unrewarding.”

Furthermore: “She was also right to argue that deregulation can be a valuable spur to innovation and efficiency and of course she tackled what was then a very disruptive and irresponsible trade union culture.”

Mandelson also recalled her unsolicited advice when he became secretary of state for Northern Ireland: “You can’t trust the Irish, they are all liars.”

Perhaps this was a lesson she had absorbed from her encounters with Charles Haughey and Dr FitzGerald and their respective entourages. Certainly she believed the Irish failed to live up to their commitments and obligations, not least with respect to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

In her own estimation Mrs Thatcher never made mistakes but came very close in her memoirs to admitting that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was one.