Gone, not forgotten: Margaret Thatcher, our honorary Jew

The former PM, who died ten years ago this week, developed a visceral loathing of antisemitism that lasted all her life


British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, London, at the start of her third term in office. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

April 04, 2023 16:23

It is unsurprising, given her three decades representing Finchley in the House of Commons, that Margaret Thatcher was highly attuned to the views and attitudes of Jewish voters.

But the former Prime Minister — who died ten years ago this week — had a relationship with Britain’s Jews which went far deeper than mere political calculation.

It stretched back to her childhood in Grantham where in early 1939 her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, took in Edith Mühlbauer, the Jewish pen pal of his eldest daughter, Muriel.
Roberts’ sympathy for the victims of Nazi persecution was by no means universal, especially in provincial Middle England. Indeed, Grantham’s Rotary Club — of which Roberts was an enthusiastic member — had hosted sympathetic talks about Hitler and Oswald Mosley had attracted a crowd of 1,000 when he spoke in the town.

Seventeen-year-old Edith’s Viennese sophistication evidently impressed young Margaret, whose austere upbringing was anything but.

However, that wasn’t all the future PM remembered. “She told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an antisemitic regime. One thing stuck in my mind: the Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.” Thatcher recalled feeling “total shock”. “These things we didn’t just read about. They came right into our house.”

Thatcher’s lifelong abhorrence of antisemitism was certainly not widespread in the postwar Conservative Party in which the aspiring politician began to make her way in the 1950s.
Indeed, when she was finally selected for a winnable seat in 1958, Thatcher walked straight into a local scandal surrounding allegations of antisemitism — in which the Tory-dominated borough council was implicated — at the Finchley Golf Club. The scandal reflected a cloud of antisemitism that hung over the Conservative local association.

Thatcher herself was morally offended. She was also politically astute enough to know that the middle-class Jews who were defecting to the local Liberals were her natural supporters. Thatcher immediately began a drive to attract new members, “especially Jewish Conservatives”.

Jewish Tories were — certainly in the parliamentary party — something of a rare breed at the time. But Thatcher found one, rising star Sir Keith Joseph, to come and speak in Finchley shortly after she was adopted. Joseph’s visit marked the start of what would become a lifelong friendship and alliance. “I could not have become Leader of the Opposition, or achieved what I did as Prime Minister,” Thatcher acknowledged, “without Keith.”

That was no idle compliment. During the long march to Downing Street in the 1970s, Joseph and Sir Alfred Sherman — a fellow Jewish evangelist for the free market — acted as her praetorian guard while providing the intellectual underpinnings for the “Thatcher revolution”.

On Thatcher’s watch as Conservative leader, the party’s attitude towards the community was transformed. As she did with millions of her countrymen, Thatcher crafted an appeal which stripped the Tories of the whiff of elitism and snobbery which, as Sherman remarked, had made the party “unsympathetic as a milieu, rather than a political force” to many British Jews.

Thatcher — who, together with Joseph, had strenuously argued in Heath’s Cabinet against the decision to impose an arms embargo on both Israel and its Arab aggressors during the Yom Kippur war — also reoriented the Tories’ lukewarm stance towards the Jewish state. After her first visit in 1965, she returned enthusing about Israelis’ “sense of purpose and complete dedication, their pioneer spirit … [and their] tremendous courage and self-reliance”. Her foreign policy adviser, Charles Powell, believes she viewed Israel as “a lone bulwark of democracy in a pretty unpleasant area”.

Nonetheless, Thatcher had a rocky relationship with both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Despite his centre-left politics, she found instead the charm of Shimon Peres much more to her taste. It was no accident that Thatcher became the first sitting PM to visit the country on Peres’ watch.

As the newspapers occasionally noted, Jews figured prominently in her Cabinets. Thatcher’s response was simple: “I just wanted a Cabinet of clever, energetic people and frequently that turned out to be the same thing.” There was, however, perhaps a subtler explanation. In Joseph, Nigel Lawson, David Young, Leon Brittan, Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Howard she found men who, if not always sharing her views, shared her impatience with the upper-class “grousemoor” Conservatism of the party’s old guard. Patricians like Harold Macmillan were left to remark that there were “more Estonians in the Cabinet than Etonians”.

But, as the Sunday Telegraph, which in 1988 approvingly proclaimed Judaism “the new creed of Thatcherite Britain”, recognised, the Prime Minister’s sympathies went way beyond politics and personalities and, once again, their roots are to be found in her Grantham upbringing.

Speaking in retirement about her Jewish constituents Thatcher pointedly remarked: “My, they were good citizens.” She had never, she suggested, had a Jew come to one of her constituency advice surgeries in “poverty and desperation. They had always been looked after by their own community”.

That reflected the line Thatcher drew between the values she learned at Grantham’s Finkin Street Methodist Church — individual responsibility and self-reliance, the work ethic and importance of education, and the moral obligation to both better oneself and give something back to others — and those she encountered in the synagogues, and on the doorsteps, of Finchley.

As Lord Sacks suggested, Thatcher “liked the Jewish emphasis on accountability and responsibility, on entrepreneurial ambition mixed with compassion and on the priority Jews accord to giving back to their community”. She was inspired by the way Jews discharged that obligation through the duty of gemilat hasadim. And, as she described it, it was not difficult to discern the link in her mind between it and her own beliefs. “The Jewish tradition understands first, the importance of creating wealth through one’s own efforts,” she told the Board of Deputies, “and, second, the importance of sharing one’s wealth with others, the recognition that with wealth comes responsibility.” Or, as she put it to the Conservative Party conference on one occasion: “Only by creating wealth can you relieve poverty. It’s what you do with your wealth that counts.”

For her, gemilat hasadim was a very practical notion of compassion. Jews, she reflected in retirement, believed in “not just talking, but doing and giving”. For Thatcher, there were echoes in the notion of “duties to your neighbour” which her parents inculcated in their daughters. “We were always encouraged to think in terms of practical help and to think very little of people who thought that their duty to the less well-off started and finished by getting up and protesting in the market place”.

Thatcher’s admiration for the “Jewish approach to life”, she argued in 1988, was also about “the recognition that — as the philosopher Thomas Huxley said — the great end in life is not knowledge but action: the belief that you must always press forward to change and improve”.

This encapsulated the path she wished Britain to follow. However, as the Church of England, which, in 1985 had famously eviscerated her government’s approach to poverty, the inner cities and economics, had proved, it was an approach which found little sympathy among the bishops. Instead, Thatcher had to rely on her friend Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits – “the one prelate,” argued the Daily Telegraph, who in the Prime Minister’s view did not “give God a bad name” — for enthusiastic ecclesiastical cover.

Even in her final months in Downing Street, Thatcher proved herself a good friend to the community. Despite strong opposition from her own party, she doggedly drove the landmark War Crimes Act towards the statute books.

Sir Geoffrey Howe, Leader of the House of Commons and an opponent of the Bill, believed a recent visit to Babi Yar prompted Thatcher’s determination. Perhaps, as she looked out over the ravine outside Kiev where the Nazis murdered 30,000 Jews in two days in September 1941, the image of Edith Mühlbauer had briefly crossed the Prime Minister’s mind.

‘Margaret Thatcher The Honorary Jew – How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape the Iron Lady and Her Beliefs’, by Robert Philpot, is out now (Biteback, £6.99)

April 04, 2023 16:23

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