Margaret Thatcher: RIP, Iron Lady of the cast-iron words

Margaret Thatcher obituary on HowToWriteBetter.netThe news today of the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher leaves many people with mixed feelings depending on their political views. But however you feel about that side of things, Margaret Thatcher (later Baroness Thatcher) was one of the most powerful public speakers and users of words to communicate, in the second half of the 20th century.

Of course she used speech writers, but judging by her gritty determination and attention to detail much of her public speaking was written and driven by her.

Even way back in her maiden speech to Parliament in February 1960, she didn’t waste time on trivialities and used the beginning of her speech to establish where she was coming from. You can see, however, that she hadn’t yet got used to the idea of writing for spoken, rather than written speech. It looks OK as text, but try saying it and see how long-winded it sounds…

This is a maiden speech, but I know that the constituency of Finchley which I have the honour to represent would not wish me to do other than come straight to the point and address myself to the matter before the House.

Superb, ad-libbed put downs

The winter of 1978-79 saw huge unrest in the UK due to strikes and other industrial chaos – it was not for nothing that it was called “The Winter of Discontent.” Here we see how Margaret’s clever use of words shriveled an unfortunate Labour MP’s attempt to ridicule her prepared speech …

Labour MP: Does not the right hon. Lady understand that in a debate of this importance she must be much more specific than she apparently wishes about the dispute at issue? …. That is the reality of the situation. The right hon. Lady’s arguments are pure fantasy.

Margaret Thatcher: The hon. Gentleman suffers from the fact that I understand him perfectly.  He knows as well as I do that perhaps one of the reasons that …. Etc.

And another time, when hecklers managed to get into the hall where she was giving her keynote speech to the annual Conservative Party conference in Brighton (on England’s south coast) in 1980…

When I am asked for a detailed forecast of what will happen in the coming months or years I remember Sam Goldwyn ‘s advice: “Never prophesy, especially about the future.” (Interruption from the floor)  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.

That was perhaps Margaret’s most famous speech, due to this phrase which was an iconic moment:

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.

Sophisticated speaking techniques

In December 1984, Margaret showed another example of how she had harnessed  the power of speaking in short, simple sentences expressing only one main idea in each. This excerpt from a TV interview shows how effective that technique is … the part about how she could “do business” with Gorbachev also has become iconic…

I am cautiously optimistic. I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together. We both believe in our own political systems. He firmly believes in his; I firmly believe in mine. We are never going to change one another.

There were many more classic speeches, and later in her tenure at number 10 Downing Street some of her more bullish speeches helped end her period of leadership. It’s ironic to think that her superb skill in the use of words and both written and spoken communication, which certainly helped raise her up to the top job in British government, eventually contributed to her downfall.

I may not have agreed with her policies, but I will always admire her for being one of the great orators of her generation.


photo credit: rutlo via photopin cc




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