Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Heath Government, 1970 - 74 (Part One)

Margaret Thatcher served as Education Secretary throughout the term of the Heath Government, 1970-74. In many ways 'Thatcherism' was the product of that experience, both for her and for the Conservative Party.

Edward Heath had a poor opinion of his Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, and of her department, from the very beginning of her tenure in 1970, official records show. Margaret Thatcher struggled to interest the Prime Minister in education policy, with little success.

Bad chemistry between the two seems to have explained much of the difficulty. A proposed meeting to discuss "The Principles of Education" took 18 months to arrange and Thatcher's suggestion that it take place over a weekend at her home in Kent was instantly dismissed by Heath. An official thoughtfully suggested to the Prime Minister in October 1970, only four months into Thatcher's tenure as Education Secretary: "I doubt if it would be practicable to exclude her from the discussion, but you might perhaps like to bring in a number of non-officials to liven things up".

Nevertheless the long awaited meeting, which took place at Chequers in January 1972, proved helpful to Thatcher, then at the low point of her time at the Department of Education and Science (DES). Ironically, the press interpreted it as a sign of Heath's confidence in his Education Minister and her officials.

The "Principles of Education" were not much discussed at the meeting, in fact. The minute shows Heath springing into life only on the subject of music teaching. Thatcher was well-briefed, as ever, and responded in detail, instantly conceding the Prime Minister's request that the London music colleges receive direct funding on the same scale as the Royal College of Art.

Private minutes also show that Heath was highly critical of DES officials - as Thatcher was herself on occasion - finding their paperwork slow and inadequate. In November 1971 there were discussions between the Prime Minister and officials at Number Ten on "the internal problems of the Department of Education and Science", an unusual proceeding in Whitehall terms.

The DES could never get it right. Heath complained angrily (with some justice) that "an amicable process for consultation" on reform of student union finance had turned into "a very sour wrangle with Dons and students alike". Less fairly, a technical change to the law governing work experience for children was rejected by him as "reactionary & wrong", though it had the endorsement of the Cabinet's Home Affairs Committee and in modified form was eventually accepted by the Prime Minister himself.

Thatcher on her part criticised to Heath's face his cherished "Programme Analysis and Review" initiative, designed to identify cuts in bureaucracy and make expenditure savings. She pointed out the heavy demands it made on officials and doubted whether it would improve decision-making. In this she was prescient: historians generally rate PAR a costly waste of time.

By the end of 1972 Thatcher's position politically was stronger and her relations with Heath a little less strained. She had no difficulty persuading the Prime Minister to accept a new White Paper Education: A Framework for Expansion, securing for the DES its share of the rapidly increasing level of public expenditure.

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