The Iron Lady was not always so steely

Perhaps Reagan could have given Thatcher some advice on tough audiences? (Original caption: Photograph of President Reagan walking with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at Camp David, 11/06/1986; Reagan Library, ARC 198578)

Today’s guest post comes from Miriam Kleiman of the National Archives Public Affairs Office.

The National Archives and Hollywood again converge, this time in a lengthy Foreign Service cable, declassified in 2006. Dated October 15, 1975, and sent from the U.S. Ambassador Elliot Richardson (of Watergate fame) in London to the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the cable details Margaret Thatcher’s dramatic political debut as leader of the Conservative Party at its Blackpool conference a week earlier.

Thirty-six years before Meryl Streep starred as Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Ambassador Richardson noted the “obvious anxiety” reflected in Thatcher’s voice. She delivered a “highly skilled and effective presentation,” but he notes that “perhaps as a result of her nervousness, spoke charmingly using a lower-pitched voice with an occasional Ethel Merman belt [my emphasis added].”  At the conference “Mrs. Thatcher was its undoubted star and gave a virtuoso performance in the role.” It is unfortunate that Hollywood writers missed this cable.

Sent from the U.S. Embassy in London, the cable’s subject line is “Conservative Party Conference: Margaret’s Conference.” Her speech was the conference highlight, following days of what Richardson calls “plodding through agenda.” Ambassador Richardson describes her talk in great detail, noting “Mrs. Thatcher was very nervous about her speech” and that she “approached rostrum with certain degree of apprehension, since she realized burdens on her to make a significant speech to establish her status as party leader.”

Richardson acknowledged that there were added pressures for Thatcher to deliver a successful speech, due to questions about her future leadership and her knowledge that “press, radio and TV were devoting some of their heavy resources and big guns to covering her debut performance before the party.”

But Thatcher “overcame the perils” and after a “quiet beginning warmed to her task and responded to the reaction she was receiving.” She was interrupted by applause “according to a BBC count, 68 times” and received a five-minute standing ovation “gained through pungent reexpression of well-known conservative points-of-view with, on occasion, striking uses of invective, wit and timing.”

Overall, Richardson wrote, the speech was “skillfully prepared and delivered repeating time-honored Conservative maxims but giving no really new Conservative policies.” The conference was well covered in the press, albeit “more heavily reported on than it merited.”

Richardson adds that Conservative Party Chair Peter Thomas declared that the Blackpool conference should be recognized as “Margaret’s Conference” in the future.

This memorable cable was declassified in 2006 in a systematic review. So far, there’s been no word on whether The Iron Lady’s screenwriter or director was inspired by its contents!

Eight years later, Magaret Thatcher was in powerful comapny. Photograph of the G-7 Economic Summit in Williamsburg, Virginia (left to right) Pierre Trudeau, Gaston Thorn, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, President Reagan, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Margaret Thatcher, Amintore Fanfani, 05/29/1983; Reagan Library, ARC 198538

2 thoughts on “The Iron Lady was not always so steely

  1. Thank you for sharing this piece of history. Hollywood always changes it around. I did not see the movie because the reviews I read indicated this. It was good to read some real history from the records of NARA in your post.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks so much for your nice post! We’re never lacking for records here at NARA, and I’m always amazed by such hidden gems! Stay tuned for a future post on Sinatra!

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