How British Jews Built Thatcherism

Many of U.K. Jews deserted the left and voted for Margaret Thatcher. But it was largely thanks to a handful who built her election campaign that she became prime minister, changing the face of British politics in the process.

A nagging thought, as Thatcher Week reaches its peak with Wednesday's funeral: Never a supporter, and now observing from afar both the pomp of British ceremony and the swelling chorus of disapproval outside St Paul’s Cathedral, I am bothered by the role that Britain’s Jews might have played in Margaret Thatcher’s political successes.

Certainly Thatcher succeeded in attracting far more Jewish voters for the Conservative Party than ever before, having won them over from their traditional support for the Labour and Liberal parties. She elevated so many Jews to the higher reaches of British political life that a predecessor sniffily commented – with a tang of residual post-war golf-club anti-Semitism – that one was more likely to find an Old Estonian than an Old Etonian in government nowadays.

But although the shift towards Jewish support for Mrs. Thatcher in micro-political, communal terms was revolutionary, by itself it did not have nationwide resonance; the substantial crossing of party lines was not an important macro-political shift equivalent to, say, American Jews deserting the Democratic Party for the Republicans within half a generation, as one colleague put it to me. True, many Jews were now part of the upwardly-mobile tide of Middle England that carried her to power, but they voted as individuals, not as a group.

To understand this distinction, it is necessary to put the U.K. Jewish community and their ballot box influence in perspective, especially in comparison with the Jewish community of the U.S. Firstly, there is no discernible 'Jewish vote' in the U.K.: The community is neither large nor concentrated enough to make a difference in more than a small handful of voting districts. More significantly, there is no one issue on which Anglo-Jews determine their vote, and no easy choice between the major parties on the question of Israel, perhaps the most likely issue on which Jews might do so. Both mainstream Labour and Conservatives have been consistent both in their broad support for Israel, and in their approbation of Israeli policy in the occupied Palestinian territories.

There have been occasions when Jewish voters as a collective have been significant, as Anglo-Jewish historian Geoffrey Alderman reminds us in his book, The Jewish Vote in Great Britain since 1945. The election of Lionel de Rothschild, the first practicing Jew to take his seat in the House of Commons, followed a concerted Jewish campaign in the 1850s against the then-exclusively Christian oath of office. More recently, Jewish votes played a role in preventing Ken Livingstone’s re-election as Mayor of London in 2008.

But these are exceptions. Indeed, as Alderman notes, the community’s influential ‘cousinhood’ leadership, drawn from families who arrived in England long before the mass immigration from Eastern Europe of the 1880s, strongly rejected any suggestion of corporate or political identity. Historically, to be "Englishmen of the Mosaic persuasion", and in that order, was quite sufficient. To act as a communal voting bloc was too public and invited too much attention, focusing on Jewish citizens’ difference and not their quiet assimilation into British society.

Thatcher grew up with an almost complete lack of contact with Jewish people. There had few opportunities to encounter Jews in market-town Lincolnshire in the 1930s, although her sister’s Jewish pen-friend Edith Muhlbauer, a refugee from Austria, stayed with the family for several weeks in 1938 on her way to safety, leaving a profound impact on the young Thatcher. A working-class scholarship girl, she was largely free of the prejudices of Britain’s traditional elites who formed the backbone of the Conservative party.

When in 1959 she was selected to represent the constituency of Finchley in parliament, with its sizeable Jewish population, it was her father’s Methodist values of hard work, education and community she most easily identified amongst her Jewish constituents. "Not the faintest trace of anti-Semitism," her Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, himself Jewish, later approvingly noted.

Even if the idea of U.K. Jews voting as a bloc on specific issues never took root, it was a small number of individual British Jews that had a decisive effect on Margaret Thatcher’s political fortunes. As Thatcher positioned herself to challenge for the leadership of the Conservative Party in the mid-1970s, her ally Sir Keith Joseph (himself of Jewish origin) played the role of "John the Baptist to the Madonna of Finchley", as described by Professor Dennis Kavanagh in his obituary of Joseph, who died in 1994. It was Joseph, a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and the founder of the Center for Policy Studies, who converted her to the liberalist political philosophy of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman’s monetarist economics.

These two schools of thought became the twin bedrocks of what was to become Thatcherism, the forging of a radical alternative to the failing consensus politics of post-war Britain. Other Jews took their seats around her cabinet table - Leon Brittan, Nigel Lawson, Malcolm Rifkind, Michael Howard and David Young – although none matched Joseph in intellectual and ideological influence. In her memoirs, Thatcher said, "There have always been Jewish members of my staff and indeed my Cabinet. In fact, I just wanted a Cabinet of clever, energetic people - and frequently that turned out to be the same thing."

Decisive, too, was the appointment of the virtually unknown Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency, founded by the brothers Charles and Maurice, Baghdad-born Jews, in the run-up to the 1979 election campaign. Thatcher had already dabbled in image management, changing her voice, her clothes and her hair to appear more authoritative. "Every politician has to decide how much he or she is prepared to change manner and appearance for the sake of the media," she wrote in her memoirs. "It may sound grittily honorable to refuse to make any concessions, but such an attitude in a public figure is most likely to betray a lack of seriousness about winning power."

Evidently, she suffered no such lack of seriousness, and the Saatchis vindicated her decision, capturing Britain’s frustration with the Callaghan government in a ruthless attack ad of three simple words: "Britain Isn’t Working," above a long line snaking out of the unemployment office. It became the defining image of the election – and she won.

Margaret Thatcher restricted her inner circle to those she defined as "one of us." Whether mourning inside the Cathedral or protesting outside it today, British Jews will know today that a few of them were in that category.

AP