Margaret Thatcher

Great Speeches: Margaret Thatcher - 10th October 1980

Blog Speechwriting People

This post is part of a Series on Great Speeches. In 2007 The Guardian published a series of booklets, with accompanying cd, entitled Great Speeches of the 20th Century, ranging from Martin Luther King to Earl Spencer, Emmeline Pankhurst to Virginia Woolf.

Margaret Thatcher had been in power for almost 2 years when she delivered this speech at the Conservative Party Conference. Simon Jenkins writes that, “she was confronting a recession, a sceptical nation, a frightened party and a rebellious cabinet”. 

And yet, she begins by describing the simplicity of her position as Britain's first female Prime Minster: “At Number 10, I have no junior ministers. There is just Denis and me, and I could not do without him”. Or Willie Whitelaw, her “marvellous deputy”.  

She highlights the achievements of her colleagues: Geoffrey Howe, Jim Prior, and Michael Heseltine. In fact she credits them with giving the nation, “the chance to turn a dream into reality” - through repayment of international debt, privatisation, and home-ownership for council tenants.

The Iron Lady

However, she was also clever enough to make use of her apparent weakness. When the Soviet newspaper Pravda labelled her The Iron Lady, she famously responded, "'The Iron Lady? Standing here in my green chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up, my fair hair gently waved… Absolutely!'".

Having given credit to her husband and colleagues, she reminds the delegates of her grasp of the current situation and quickly establishes her readiness for the difficulties ahead,

At our party conference last year I said that the task in which the government were engaged - to change the national attitude of mind - was the most challenging to face any British administration since the war. Challenge is exhilarating.”

She sees her primary enemy as inflation and ‘control of the money supply’ as essential for postwar Britain as it had been for much of continental Europe. The speech makes no use of rhythm or repetitive phrases. This is no speech against injustice. But it is a cry for resolve and resilience, for justifying the hard choices, “how we see the task before us and why we are tackling it the way we are”.

We Shall Not Be Diverted From Our Course

She speaks often of ‘our people’, men and women’, ‘community’ and ‘family’ reflecting her belief in small government and the goodness of society: “The state drains society, not only of its wealth but of initiative, of energy, the will to improve and innovate as well as to preserve what is best. Our aim is to let people feel that they count for more and more. If we cannot trust the deepest instincts of our people, we should not be in politics at all”.

But this is not about warmth and wellbeing. Her speech is about the journey ahead. She is loathed to look back, except to learn from experience - at the ‘winter of discontent’ as it came to be known - and is determined to point people forwards: “we shall not be diverted from our course”.

Although she preferred not to play with words, but to address issues directly, here she uses that now infamous phrase, for which this speech is remembered: turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning”.

The reference to a 30 year-old play must have been lost on most but her listeners erupted in applause at the sentiment. The play - The Lady’s Not For Burning - was a romantic comedy set in the Middle Ages, but it reflected the world's "exhaustion and despair" following World War II. The conference audience might not have been familiar with it but Thatcher’s speechwriter would have been. And it reminded them of her Iron Lady image, capable of standing fast in the face of difficulty, and seeing things through without compromise.

Her speechwriter was Sir Ronald Millar. He was an English actor and playwright during World War II, who became a speechwriter almost by accident. He went on to write for three British prime ministers, before writing scripts for MGM. Thatcher said of him - “He made a real difference to getting our political message across successfully” - and his use of this phrase captured the moment. It added to an image which endures today, and which served Thatcher, and the country, very well.