As the world mourns the death of Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter from Grantham, Lincolnshire, who became Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century, even the most devoted Thatcherites may have overlooked how she rose to power by accident.
In fact, had it not been for a slip of the tongue, we might have read in history about the “Iron Baronet” in Britain and Margaret Thatcher might, at best, have been in his Cabinet.
Sir Keith Joseph emerged as the leading contender to lead the Conservative Party after it lost the 1974 elections and long knives were out for its moderate leader, former Prime Minister Edward Heath.
Joseph was 56 years old, and a true believer in free markets. He had served as housing minister under Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home and social services secretary under Heath.
He was clearly to the right of all three of the prime ministers he served under and believed that Macmillan and Heath were political “wets,” who too often took the same positions that the opposition Labor Party would have taken.
Like Jack Kemp in the United States, Joseph had his own vision of an opportunity society which he dubbed “civilized capitalism” — where spending cuts would limit government’s role in the market.
With the full support of his colleague and friend Margaret Thatcher, Joseph organized the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974, a think tank to promote free market ideas.
Thatcher later credited Joseph with introducing her to the ideas of University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman, a mentor to champions of free markets worldwide.
By the fall of 1974, all signs pointed to Joseph challenging Heath for the Conservative Party leadership. But on Oct. 19, he made a speech on social conservatism warning about single parents “who were pregnant in adolescence” and went on to say “the balance of our population, our human stock, is threatened.”
“Joseph, whom the right had considered their natural leader in the battle they hoped would soon come with Heath, had seemed to rule himself out of the succession following the reaction to the speech,” wrote Daily Mail political columnist Simon Heffer, characterizing the speech as “about the need for birth control to be made more available to the lower classes — caricatured as the ‘Pills for Proles’ speech.”
Much of the press in and out of Britain condemned the remarks as a call for eugenics. Joseph, who was Jewish, was offended by the analogy and denied that was what he meant, but realized it would be difficult to contest the party leadership.
He turned to his friend Thatcher, whose highest office had been education minister, and urged her to stand to lead the party.
So strong was the animosity among Tory members of Parliament against Heath that Thatcher — even with a slim resumé and the obvious reluctance of some to support a woman — led the former prime minister on the first ballot.
Heath, whose supporters wore stickers saying, “We want the grocer, not the grocer’s daughter,” deferred to ally William Whitelaw, but it was too late. Thatcher had the momentum, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sir Keith Joseph went on to serve as a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet and became a close adviser to the prime minister until his retirement from politics in 1986. He then became Baron Joseph of Portsoken.
Since his death in 1994, Joseph has been memorialized as the godfather of “Thatchersim.” But had it not been for a slip of the lip, he might well have been prime minister himself and the world might have mourned the “Iron Baronet” as it now mourns the “Iron Lady.”
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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