How far did luck play a part in Margaret Thatchers leadership election victory of 1975?

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How far did ‘luck’ play a part in Margaret Thatcher’s leadership election victory of 1975?

As is typical of history, Margaret Thatcher’s leadership election victory of 1975 has produced many differing views from historians on the extent of Margaret Thatcher’s good fortune in her ascent to power within the Conservative Party. The central focus of the debate is whether her election had mainly been due to luck- events that she had no real control over and had ‘fallen her way’, or whether, although some luck may have been involved, it had mainly been Thatcher’s own personal attributes and doing that allowed her to gain an unexpected majority over Ted Heath.

Andrew Marr focuses predominately on ideological transitions within the Conservative Party. The general feeling conveyed in his chapter is that it was good fortune that had played the main part in her rise to power. Edward du Cann, and Keith Joseph, in his view, would have been worthier opponents more desirable to the Tory party, and it was their personal failings to stand for election that meant that Thatcher obtained votes ‘by default’; she had been the only reasonable candidate left standing, and thus obtained the votes necessary to win. Marr puts forward the idea that Thatcher essentially ‘adopted’ the Josephite figure and had good fortune as she inherited a policy that he had laboriously created and promoted, and had only received a large amount votes purely due to her association with the increasingly attractive Josephism.

Marr over-focuses on Joseph’s political ‘journey’. Although true that Joseph first brought to attention the idea of free market economics prior to Thatcher and publicised it before her, this does not mean Thatcher necessarily directly adopted Joseph’s theory, “took his place”, and won, as simply as Marr appears to imply. The time period of the book encapsulates postwar Britain to the most recent decade - 60 years, - and therefore the account of Thatcher’s leadership election lacks concise detail and only skims the surface of the actualities of the event. Marr’s decision to form the basis of his chapter on Joseph’s relations with the Conservative gives interesting insight into the shifting nature of the party, but causes focus to be lost on Thatcher- Marr’s almost complete omission of describing Thatcher’s actions and her ideology, and instead portraying her as a ‘product’, or object, on which Josephism is based is flawed in that we are unable to interpret the extent to which Thatcher the person played a part in her success. He also sacrifices detail on other very relevant factors- for instance the response of the Heath camp and, as will be later discussed, the personal antagonism toward Heath that contributed to the success of Thatcher. Thus, Marr’s lack of detail (and therefore omission of crucial factors) on the subject reduces the helpfulness of the source in contributing to the argument.

Thatcher’s personal and political qualities had certainly been instrumental in her success, whatever the political events surrounding her. After all, Marr’s assertion that Thatcher won mainly due to amassing Joseph’s popularity raises the question why it wasn’t any ordinary MP that had won the election. Thatcher obviously had to distinguish herself in one way or another. John Charmley follows this line of argument, and focuses on the bravery of Thatcher- her decision to risk the consignment of her career to the scrapheap and to force a leadership contest had been ‘extremely courageous’, and the manner in which she propagated her views allowed her to collect support within the Conservative ranks. Though there are two issues with Charmley’s account- his book is devoted to Conservative Politics, and it encompasses the history of the party since 1830. From these two issues two problems arise- the nature of the book means that Charmley re-tells the events from a very broad perspective, thus sacrificing detail that is is crucial to the evaluation, and the fact that it deals exclusively with Conservative politics means that Charmley may have too much of a ‘closed vision’ on relations in the tory party, thus omitting certain flaws within the Tory party. His omission of Ted Heath’s campaign and the downfalls of Thatcher’s opponents (du Cann is not even mentioned) means that the source is difficult to utilise effectively in order to accurately assess all factors that contributed to her election victory.

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Charmley’s assertions of this distinguishable courageousness and determination are soundly evidenced by her defiant statement after hearing of Joseph’s decision to not stand for election: “If you’re not going to stand, I will, become somebody who represents our viewpoint has to stand”. The quotation shows she had clearly been a woman that was willing to represent an ideology. Though courage can hardly ever be the chief reason for any success, and what must be explored is whether the primary basis Thatcher was elected on was on her representation of ideology. Richard Vinen and Hugo Young both refute the idea that ...

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