The Lady's Not For Turning... 35 years on

Written by Simon Lancaster on 10 October 2015 in Opinion
Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 Tory conference speech first established the myth of her the great crusader.  How does it stand up today?

Thirty-five years ago today, Margaret Thatcher made her famous ‘The lady is not for turning’ speech to the Conservative Party conference in Brighton.

Regardless of your political persuasion, you can’t help but admire it as a piece of political persuasion. It was probably the most important British political speech of the last fifty years.

Famously, she worked on it with the playwright Ronnie Millar. The blend of Thatcher’s scientific approach to argument with Millar’s sense of drama was the combination that made it such a success.

Politics is theatre and, in Margaret Thatcher, Ronnie Millar created one of the nation’s most memorable characters, although people may disagree whether she was a hero or a villain.

Thatcher accepted and reveled in her mythological status.

When she was first dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’, by Pravda of all places, she responded, ‘The Iron Lady?  Standing here in my green chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, my fair hair gently waved… Absolutely!’

Her 1980 conference speech took her mythological status further. She moved into the image of a modern day Boudicca, standing atop the tank, seeing off repellent invaders, fighting for her beliefs.

In Margaret Thatcher’s eyes, politics was war. Douglas Hurd once said that she was at her happiest when she was embattled. Even when she was not, she would create the condition: embattled against the Cabinet, against Whitehall, against the Country, against the world.

Her state of mind manifested in her metaphors, as is so often the case. The first leap any speechwriter needs to make is to get into the metaphorical world which the speaker inhabits.

In Thatcher’s world, Britain was at risk of invasion. ‘Our prime economic objective [is] the defeat of inflation. Inflation destroys nations and societies as surely as invading armies… She sought ‘the conquest of inflation.’

The Labour Party represented a violent physical threat, on a mission to ‘cripple local businesses… drain society of initiative, of energy, of the will to improve and innovate…’ and ultimately seeking ‘the death of capitalism

And she was the one to see off these threats, leading a party ‘united in purpose, strategy and resolve’. She guaranteed that Britain would have ‘the courage and resolve to sustain the discipline for long enough to break through to success.’

And, as if that wasn’t redolent enough of Churchill, the peroration sealed it: ‘Freedom could be imperiled. So let us resist the blandishments off faint hearts, let us ignore the howls and threats of the extremists, let us stand together and do our duty, and we shall not fail.’

In Thatcher’s world, there was no delineation between the literal threat of war with Socialist Republic of Russia and the metaphorical war with socialists at home. It was war. And she was determined to move the tank forward.

This opened up a world of journey metaphors, present in a number of phrases: ‘the road to recovery’, ‘sweeping aside… obstacles’ and of course the most famous line: ‘To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U turn’ I have only one thing to say. ‘You turn you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’

The metaphor of politics as a journey has since been enthusiastically adopted by all. Everyone is a progressive. Cameron used journey metaphors throughout his conference speech last week. So did Blair when he famously said, ‘I do not have a reverse gear’, echoing Thatcher, although I preferred William Hague’s riposte, ‘I don’t think I’d have a reverse gear if I had Peter Mandelson behind me’.

There is a problem with the journey metaphor. It implies the country can only go one way. It makes it hard to go backwards, even if a decision has been got wrong in the past. Can you imagine a political party standing on a platform of ‘Taking Britain backwards’? 

When I was at school, I remember learning about politics not through the metaphor of a journey, but a pendulum, swinging back and forth between the two parties, keeping the nation as a whole ticking on nicely… That’s a metaphor for a healthy two party democracy.

Corbyn stands today as the first Labour leader prepared to challenge Thatcher’s speech, albeit thirty five years after the event. None of his predecessors did effectively.

Foot was more concerned with defections to the SDP during his brief tenure as leader. Kinnock’s most successful attacks fell not upon the Tories but upon the Trots. By the time we’d got to Smith, Thatcher’s speech had been swallowed whole: John Smith’s most memorable quote: ‘economic success and social justice are two sides of the same coin’ was a scarcely concealed allusion to a line from Thatcher’s 1980 speech: ‘Without a healthy economy, we cannot have a healthy society.’

So how does Corbyn do it?  First, he’ll need to counter her arguments. He will be confident he can do this. The clue to Trident’s ineffectiveness as an independent nuclear deterrent came from Thatcher herself when she said it was being acquired ‘with the co-operation of the United States’ He will also be confident he has the argument to tackle her on public spending.

But this will count for nothing unless he can match her sense of drama. Now he’s appointed the Shadow Cabinet and his council of economic advisers, perhaps he should start scouring Theatreland for his own Ronnie Millar… 

I wonder if David Hare’s got much on at the moment?


Simon Lancaster is the author of Winning Minds: Secrets from the Language of Leadership  


Share this page


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.