Excerpted from “Churchill and Margaret Thatcher,” my essay for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the original article with endnotes and more images, click here. To subscribe to weekly articles from Hillsdale-Churchill, click here, scroll to bottom, and fill in your email in the box entitled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is never given out and remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Q: How often did Margaret Thatcher meet Winston Churchill?
In a recent podcast, Steve Winduss interviewed Bill Murray, son of Churchill’s longtime bodyguard Edmund Murray. Bill recounted a 1964 meeting between WSC and Margaret Thatcher. Were there any other encounters?” —P.R., England
A: Twice, in 1950 and 1964
Charles Moore’s From Dartford to the Falklands, his biography of Margaret Thatcher, describes what he thought at the time was their only meeting. It occurred in January 1950, when 25-year-old Margaret Roberts (as she then was), ran for Parliament for the first time.
The contested seat was Dartford, Kent, then a Labour Party stronghold, held by Labour’s popular Norman Dodds. Miss Roberts ran a spirited campaign. A famous Churchill associate, Bill Deedes (later Lord Deedes), who did win a seat in that election, remarked: “Once she opened her mouth, the rest began to look rather second-rate.”
Roberts reduced Dodds’s previous majority by 6000 votes over the combined Conservative-Liberal competition. In 1951 she ran again, a one-on-one match, cutting into Dodds’s lead again. It was the beginning of a career that would see Margaret Thatcher elected for Finchley in 1959. And the rest is history.
Bill Murray revealed that Churchill wrote a letter endorsing Margaret Roberts’ candidacy:
We have set out the methods by which we Conservatives intend—if returned to power—to restore our national finances, regain our independence, and set our country once more on the highway to eventual prosperity. Miss Margaret Roberts, the Conservative candidate, is pledged to support this policy, which I commend to you. I ask you to give her your votes in the full confidence that she will discharge her parliamentary duties by combining the care of your interests with the interest of the British nation.
There is no indication that they met in the campaign, but the stage was set for an encounter. On 7 June 1950, Margaret Roberts was the “youth speaker” offering a vote of thanks to Churchill at a party rally at the Royal Albert Hall. This was a mass meeting of 7000 members of the Conservative Women’s Association.
“The Winston meeting went off quite well,” she wrote her sister. I was absolutely terrified of the enormous audience but got through all right. Everyone was very flattering about it.” Alas, Moore writes, “there is no record or memory of the private words that she and Churchill exchanged or of what she said in her vote of thanks.” Fortunately for history, there is a complete record of Churchill’s.
“The noble structure of State-planned controls…”
It was a grand, rollicking rally that Churchill rose to address. In the January election, the Conservatives had gained 90 seats, only 16 short of Labour. Combined with the ten Liberals, whom Churchill was overtly courting, they were close to a majority. It was obvious that Prime Minister Attlee would have to go to the country again, soon. Churchill took aim at the bureaucratic super-state he saw developing under what he always referred to as “the Socialists”:
Three years ago I proclaimed the watch-words, “set the people free.” What a clamour the Socialists raised at that. How shocking, they exclaimed, that anyone should seek to weaken that noble structure of State-planned controls and regulations enforced by two million officials, national and local, by which alone we could be kept alive. But now we see them on all sides casting away these very restrictions and controls which they assured us were the only means by which we could enter the brave new world from which they are running away so fast with their tails between their legs (laughter).
“An experiment in freedom”?
With words that resonate today—when we face the same sort of attitude by a regulatory state vying to rule us—Churchill then turned to Hugh Dalton, Labour’s Minister of Town and Country Planning. In summarizing a minor rollback of regulations, Dalton had declared: “This is an experiment in freedom. Be careful you do not abuse it.”
Was there ever a better example of the Statist mindset, then or now? Churchill was outraged:
Could you have anything more characteristic of the Socialist rulers’ outlook towards the public? Freedom is a favour; it is an experiment which the governing class of Socialist politicians will immediately curtail if they are displeased with our behavior.
What a way to talk to the British people! As a race we have been experimenting in freedom, not entirely without success, for several centuries, according to what I read in the history books, and have spread the ideas of freedom widely throughout the world. And yet, here is this Minister, who speaks to us as if it lay with him to dole out our liberties as if he were giving biscuits to a dog who will sit up and beg prettily. But all I can say is that we have chopped off several better heads than Dalton’s in the past.
Fourteen years on: 1964
Charles Moore wrote that 1950 was Margaret Thatcher’s only meeting with Churchill, but the recent podcast reminds us of another. Bill Murray explained that his father Edmund, Churchill’s bodyguard, first met Thatcher in March 1964. As the elder Murray wrote, they met in a troubling circumstance.
Eddie’s daughter Aileen, returning home one night, was followed by a stalker near a patch of wood in East Finchley. The police found no trace of him, but Eddie believed the miscreant had sheltered in a badly fenced wood. Since it was in Mrs. Thatcher’s constituency, he called her to complain. The very next day
I had a letter from her private secretary, and the day after she came to see my wife and me and was very kind indeed and promised to look into the question of the railings. The next time I went to look, months later, new railings had been erected and the wood was only open during hours of daylight, having new strong gates that were locked at night.
MPs usually didn’t visit individual constituents, but Mrs. Thatcher knew Murray from Churchill’s visits to the House of Commons. Given the awe she felt for Sir Winston, it is believable that she went out of her way to assist.
The second meeting
Sergeant Murray next describes how his encounter with Margaret Thatcher led to her second meeting with Sir Winston:
Mrs. Thatcher could never pass the door to the [House of Commons] Smoking Room, when she saw me standing outside, without looking through the glass of the door to see my boss. I suggested that Sir Winston would be very happy to meet her, but she was always too shy to go in. However, there did come a day when she came along the corridor in front of the Smoking Room when I was there with Sir Winston, just on our way towards the lift and the car. With great pleasure I was able to tell Sir Winston as I introduced him to the lady who was one day to fill the seat he had been so proud to hold as Prime Minister of our great country, that she had helped me in a domestic matter. They shook hands and I felt at the time that Mrs. Thatcher was a very happy woman. Sir Winston beamed at her, seeming to indicate that he was also very happy that one of his party could spend time helping one of his friends.
Per Murray’s account, it is hard to imagine the Iron Lady, always known for forthrightness, being shy about anybody. But Margaret Thatcher’s respect for Churchill was lifelong. And Churchill’s words on the regulatory state in 1950 could have been her own words, 30 years later. When it came to liberty, neither of them was for turning.
Audio and further reading
Scroll to “Eddie’s Shannon Experience” in Lectures at Sea, 2019.
John O’Sullivan, “Margaret Thatcher: A Legacy of Freedom,” Hillsdale College Imprimis, 2008.