Margaret Thatcher, The Lady’s Not For Turning, 1981

Margaret Thatcher

Prime Minister of Great Britain (1979–90)

Ever controversial, Margaret Thatcher remains the longest serving prime minister in the UK’s history, and has the distinction of being the first woman to hold the post. In her eleven years in office, she promoted the tenets of what came to be known as Thatcherism: deregulation, small government and free markets. She earned (and took pride in) the nickname ‘The Iron Lady’ during her tenure for her tough stance towards Soviet Russia. At the same time, critics accused her of championing harsh policies that produced a high unemployment rate. Throughout her long career in a sector dominated by powerful men, she consistently let unkind remarks (many of them gendered) roll off her back, leaving her poised and unruffled.

In the 1970s, during Thatcher’s rise to leader of the Conservative party, she began taking speech lessons. Like many female politicians, she faced intense scrutiny over her voice, which the press had earlier deemed ‘shrill’. She wanted to move towards a lower, more commanding tone. In 1980, a year after her election as prime minister, she gave a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, in which her vocal prowess was on full display (here in extracted form). In a clear and steady voice, she distilled her party’s vision, using humour and a dry wit to charm the room. (When a heckler interrupts, she pauses, and says, ‘Never mind, it is wet outside. I expect that they wanted to come in. You cannot blame them; it is always better where the Tories are.’) Towards the end, making reference to expectations that she would reverse some of her controversial economic policies, she delivers the famous line, for which the speech is named: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’

The Lady’s Not for Turning 1981

Decent people do want to do a proper job at work, not to be restrained or intimidated from giving value for money. They believe that honesty should be respected, not derided. They see crime and violence as a threat not just to society but to their own orderly way of life. They want to be allowed to bring up their children in these beliefs, without the fear that their efforts will be daily frustrated in the name of progress or free expression.

… There is not a generation gap in a happy and united family. People yearn to be able to rely on some generally accepted standards. Without them you have not got a society at all, you have purposeless anarchy. A healthy society is not created by its institutions, either…. a great nation is the voluntary creation of its people—a people composed of men and women whose pride in themselves is founded on the knowledge of what they can give to a community of which they in turn can be proud.

If our people feel that they are part of a great nation and they are prepared to will the means to keep it great, a great nation we shall be, and shall remain. So, what can stop us from achieving this? What then stands in our way? The prospect of another winter of discontent? I suppose it might.

But I prefer to believe that certain lessons have been learnt from experience, that we are coming, slowly, painfully, to an autumn of understanding. And I hope that it will be followed by a winter of common sense. If it is not, we shall not be diverted from our course.

To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”