LONDON — For Margaret Thatcher, he was quite simply “England’s greatest man.” And while the late prime minister’s propensity for hyperbole may have gotten the better of her on occasion, Sir Keith Joseph was nonetheless one of the most significant figures in modern British political history.
Born 100 years ago this week, Joseph was Thatcher’s mentor, ideological guru and political soulmate. Without him, the “Thatcher revolution” of the 1980s — which sought to slash taxes, crack down on the over-mighty trade unions and privatize unprofitable state industries — may never have happened.
And, of course, this experiment in free-market economics launched by the Thatcher government when she entered office in May 1979 reverberated far beyond Britain’s shores. Imitated by its admirers and reviled by its detractors throughout the world, “Thatcherism” was the work of many hands, but none more than Joseph’s.
It was a debt Thatcher freely acknowledged. In the first volume of her memoirs — which she dedicated to his memory — the former prime minister wrote simply: “I could not have become leader of the opposition, or achieved what I did as prime minister, without Keith [Joseph].”
From a woman who was not inclined to share the credit for her achievements in office, such accolades were rare.
Joseph was, though, the most improbable of revolutionaries and his alliance with Thatcher an unlikely one.
The child of a wealthy and well-established Anglo-Jewish family, Joseph’s father was not simply a successful businessman, but also rose through the arcane world of London politics to become lord mayor of London (not to be confused with the office of mayor) in 1942.
Nor did the family confine itself to municipal politics: close relatives — Isidore Salmon and Louis Gluckstein — both served as members of parliament in the 1930s and 1940s.
If Joseph was not a revolutionary by background, neither was he one by temperament. Sir Alfred Sherman, a fellow Jew who would play a critical role in both Joseph’s political journey and Thatcher’s rise to power, later wrote of his ally’s “tendency to wilt under pressure.” He also lacked another crucial element of the revolutionary’s makeup — absolute confidence in his cause.
For the journalist David Lipsey, Joseph displayed “a very Jewish sense of personal guilt which [made] him absurdly hard on himself.”
These traits were not commonly associated with the Iron Lady. Whether battling the Argentinians in the South Atlantic, the miners in the coalfields of northern England or civil servants in Whitehall, Thatcher relished conflict. Joseph went out of his way to avoid it.
But this was not the only respect in which the two differed. Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer and came from a lower middle class, Methodist and provincial home. Joseph’s background was upper middle class, Jewish and metropolitan.
The future prime minister displayed a precocious interest in politics, rushing to join the Oxford University Conservative Association, reveling in her first visit to the Conservative party conference, and fighting her first parliamentary seat at the age of just 24.
By contrast, Joseph spent his university years playing cricket — he was “interested in wide issues but not identifiably political,” suggested one observer who met him shortly after the war — and did not seek to enter the House of Commons until he was 37.
Despite their multitude of differences, however, Joseph and Thatcher shared a common attribute: both had a sense of themselves as outsiders. Indeed, as I argue in my recently published book, “Margaret Thatcher: Honorary Jew” this perception of herself would form an important element in the prime minister’s bond with the wider UK Jewish community.
At Oxford, she experienced snobbery from the public school-educated grandees who dominated the Conservative Association, while liberal intellectuals on the academic body showed her similar disdain.
“We used to entertain a good deal at the weekends,” the principal of her college later remembered, “but she didn’t get invited. She had nothing to contribute, you see.”
When she sought a safe parliamentary seat, Thatcher, by then a young mother, faced repeated rejections.
Even once she entered parliament, Thatcher wrote in her memoirs, in the eyes of the upper-class establishment which dominated the Conservative party, she “offended on many counts” — because of her class, gender and her respect for the “values and virtues of middle England.”
Joseph’s rapid rise through the Tory party’s ranks — six years after being elected an MP in early 1956 he was a member of Harold MacMillan’s cabinet – suggested that no such barriers stood in his way. The dashing young minister was even spoken of as “the Tory Jack Kennedy.”
However, Joseph was acutely conscious that, as he later put it, to be successful a Jew had to “spark on all four cylinders.” His upbringing may have been immensely privileged but it was not without its challenges.
At prep school, Joseph had suffered anti-Semitic verbal bullying. As a teenager, he saw his father subjected to a vicious, if unsuccessful, Jew-baiting election campaign by a political opponent. And although the Josephs may not have encountered the most violent manifestations of anti-Semitism sometimes experienced by working-class Jews in the East End of London during the 1930s, the family was highly conscious of the gathering European storm.
A number of its members, for instance, chose to Anglicize their names (Joseph’s father, Samuel, changed his middle name from Gluckstein to George).
The Conservative party at the time also had a long — and deserved — reputation for being unwelcoming to Jews, stretching back to its attempt to slam the door on large-scale Jewish immigration to Britain in the early 20th century. If not universal, examples of Tory anti-Semitism, often expressed in a barely coded form of snobbery, were not hard to come by.
Thus, despite socioeconomic changes that would later shift Jewish political allegiances to the right — anti-Semitism in the party lingered on. This was evident in the response of one of those who interviewed Joseph for inclusion on the party’s candidates list.
“As a Jew,” he commented, “I suppose he is not every constituency’s man and, therefore, his placing would need care.”
Joseph was not oblivious to local mutterings against picking a Jew to represent the party when he successfully sought selection in Leeds North East, a constituency in the north of England which itself had a sizeable Jewish population.
Nor can Joseph have been unconscious of the fact that, for his first 14 years in parliament, he was one of only two Jews to sit on the Tory benches in the House of Commons (in 1966, there were 38 Jewish Labour MPs) and that, when he was promoted to Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1962, he became the first Jewish member of a Conservative cabinet in over two decades.
Within the parliamentary party Joseph was popular, but regarded, wrote one observer, as “something of an outsider.” His intellectual brilliance, wealth and Jewishness combined to make him seem “lamentably exotic.”
But Thatcher too was “something of an outsider” and the pair soon struck up a rapport.
They met for the first time shortly before she entered parliament in 1959 when Joseph came and spoke on her behalf in Finchley.
The visit was well-timed: an appalled Thatcher had discovered after her selection that leading local Tories had become entangled in a scandal involving allegations of anti-Semitism at the Finchley golf club. Once she arrived in parliament, Joseph helped her shepherd her first private member’s bill through the Commons.
Five years later, with the Conservatives out of power, Thatcher found herself working for Joseph on the Tory frontbench. She considered him “a friend, not just a senior colleague, whom I liked,” but also “very much… the senior partner.”
This was not always how the relationship always appeared to others.
“Most of his colleagues would have bridled at being corrected by a bossy younger woman who had only been in parliament for five years. He reveled in it,” remembered one Tory party researcher who worked closely with them.
With the defeat of the Labour government in the 1970 general election, the new prime minister, Ted Heath, appointed both Joseph and Thatcher to his cabinet. The Tories had been elected on a promise to break with the consensus politics practiced by British governments of left and right during the postwar years and had pledged to cut spending and taxes and clip the wings of the unions.
Two years later, however, with unemployment rising and the powerful miners’ union threatening a strike which could bring down the government, Heath executed a dramatic u-turn. He rowed back on some of the restrictions introduced on the unions, abandoned free-market policies and began to pump money into the economy to boost growth.
The gamble failed: the following year, with inflation soaring, the miners went on strike again demanding higher pay. Heath decided to stand his ground and called an election designed to enhance his authority. An unimpressed electorate ejected the Tories from office.
While they had remained publicly loyal to him, both Thatcher and Joseph were privately dismayed by Heath’s u-turn and the political and economic disaster which had ensued. Freed from the burdens of government and collective Cabinet responsibility, they now had the opportunity to say so.
But, in what was to become an increasingly turbulent battle for the Tory party’s soul — and, ultimately, its leadership — it would be Joseph, not the naturally more combative Thatcher, who would initially take up the cudgels.
In this, he would be steeled by Sir Alfred Sherman. “Both you and Keith are Jews,” Thatcher once remarked to Sherman, “but your Jewishness is very different.”
In fact, the two men were different in just about every way possible, although as Thatcher’s biographer, Charles Moore, has suggested, her comment was a reflection of the fact that “she linked [Sherman’s] Jewishness with that of Joseph as part of their combined virtue.”
The product of a working-class East End home, by the age of 17 Sherman had become a communist and joined the fight against fascism in Spain. After World War II, he soured on communism and was expelled from the party. He soon discovered a new faith of which he would become an equally passionate advocate.
In the unpromising terrain of 1950s socialist Israel, where he had gone to work as an economic adviser, Sherman became a fervent supporter of free-market economics.
On his return to Britain, Sherman took up a post at the house journal of the Conservative party, the Daily Telegraph, and met Joseph. The two men kept in touch and Sherman, a skilled wordsmith, occasionally helped the rising Tory star with his speeches.
But Joseph paid a price for Sherman’s assistance. “Brilliant, funny and terribly rude,” in the words of one who worked closely with him in the 1970s, Sherman relentlessly harangued Joseph for the failures of the Heath government of which he had been a member.
“Keith, the trouble is you agree with me but you haven’t got the backbone to say so,” said Sherman, commanding him: “You have to do something about the state of the country.”
Goaded into action, and with Sherman penning headline-grabbing words, Joseph now delivered a series of speeches which shredded not just the party’s most recent spell in office, but the whole direction of postwar Conservatism.
For one journalist, Joseph resembled nothing less than “a prophet come down from the mountain … There was an Old Testament ring to his cries of woe … [as he] beat his breast in immolation for his own part on the betrayal of the ark of the Conservative covenant.”
“Since the end of the Second World War,” Joseph declared in his opening salvo in June 1974, “we have had altogether too much Socialism.” The Tories, who had been in government for half of that period, had tried, and failed, to “make semi-socialism work,” he said. Now was the time for a radical break with the past.
Joseph spelled out in a speech two months later what that might mean. The timing was hardly propitious. To Heath’s fury, his former cabinet colleague had refused to soften his words despite the fact that the country was about to return to the polls in a general election triggered by a Labour government confident that it could strengthen its tenuous position in parliament.
Once again, Joseph pulled no punches. He assailed Heath’s economic record, suggesting that its abandonment of “sound money policies,” triggered by an unwarranted fear of unemployment, had led to the rocketing inflation from which the country was still suffering.
His prescription — cutting spending and accepting that the jobless queues might temporarily rise as a result — marked a watershed in modern British politics.
This was thus the moment at which the postwar consensus — the belief, shared by both Labour and the Conservatives, that the overriding priority of government should be to secure full unemployment — began to unravel.
The speech, Thatcher later wrote, was one of the “very few… [that] fundamentally affected a political generation’s way of thinking.” It would also provide the founding principle of her premiership, and one from which, she was determined, there would be no Heath-like u-turn.
Where Joseph led, Thatcher “almost invisibly” followed, as one journalist described it. Her public statements may have been more guarded than his, but she had staked her political future on Joseph’s cause, agreeing to become the vice-chair of the new think tank he had decided to launch.
The Tories’ defeat in the October 1974 election placed Heath’s position in jeopardy. Thatcher had no intentions of trying to unseat him herself, instead believing that “Keith must be our candidate.”
However, a disastrous speech by Joseph on poverty in which, referring to supposedly high birth rates among poor mothers, he suggested “our human stock is threatened,” scuppered his potential candidacy.
Amid a media uproar, Thatcher threw her hat into the ring and announced she would challenge Heath. It was undoubtedly a brave move.
“I was really rather shocked,” she recalled towards the end of her life, because Joseph “really was the leader.”
Heath’s poor performance at the polls and unpopularity among Tory MPs ensured Thatcher’s victory over him in January 1975. As Sherman rightly argued, however, Joseph’s role had been critical.
“If it hadn’t been for Keith, Heath’s position would not have been shaken, and Margaret would not have become leader,” Sherman said.
Albeit delivered in her own, rather more populist, style, Thatcher’s campaign against Heath had echoed her mentor’s indictment: that voters wanted to see more clear blue water between the two main parties, many having becoming convinced that, rather than attempting to roll back socialism, the Conservatives were simply offering a watered-down imitation of Labour.
Now leader of the opposition, Thatcher, with Joseph’s unfailing support, attempted to turn the Conservative party in a new direction. She charged him with winning a “battle of ideas” — one that would be waged against both Labour and their still-powerful opponents within the Tory party. Joseph later described the task he and Sherman undertook as turning Thatcher’s “beliefs, feelings, instincts and intuitions into ideas, strategies and policies.”
Joseph was both prolific and prophetic. Aided and abetted by Sherman, he churned out private memos, speeches, articles, pamphlets and books.
A Shadow Cabinet paper in April 1975, for instance, urged a future Tory government to depart from the “path of consensus” and align itself with “suburban middle-class values” by cutting taxes and spending, curbing immigration and the unions, and bolstering defense spending and measures to protect the family.
Thatcher was delighted; many of her more liberally minded colleagues were appalled.
“This startling paper,” believed Moore, “furnished the main elements of what came to be called Thatcherism, both in specific policy and in general psychological terms.”
Joseph’s speeches in the four years preceding Thatcher’s victory in 1979 were similarly predictive, containing, noted one writer, “everything that was distinctive about the economic and political philosophy of Thatcherism.”
Joseph was, though, much more than Thatcher’s “intellectual gadfly… free of painful necessities like decision-taking” as some contemporary critics charged. He was a target for much criticism that might otherwise have been aimed at the Tory leader herself. Despite his aversion to conflict, it was a role he never shied from.
“I am always ready to pick up any attack that is made upon you and to speak in your defense,” he wrote her on one occasion.
Moreover, like a modern-day Daniel he took the free-market case into the lion’s cave of Britain’s universities. Unperturbed by heckling and frequent attempts by far-left students to prevent him speaking, Joseph delivered over 150 speeches on campuses extolling what he called “the moral case for capitalism.”
“All that work with the intellectuals,” as Thatcher later put it, was crucial to her later successes and restored the right’s “intellectual self-confidence.”
For this, and Joseph’s “unswerving loyalty” as a member of her cabinet in the 1980s, Thatcher would be forever grateful.
He was a “darling man,” she told one civil servant (not a term she’s ever likely to have used about any other member of her government), while she ordered another minister to “look after Keith… he needs someone to protect him.” Joseph, in turn, happily confessed: “I beam at the very sight of her.”
After he left the cabinet, there were no tell-all memoirs and never a word of public, or most probably private, criticism of the prime minister. He was angered and shattered by the manner in which the cabinet effectively ousted her in 1990, and defended her record until his death four years later.
Their relationship, which changed the course of British history, was one of equals. Each complemented, respected and trusted implicitly the other. As Joseph rightly later reflected, Thatcher had a political “instinct and flair” that he lacked.
He was the outrider — “the licensed thinker scouting ahead in Indian country,” as one of Thatcher’s cabinet members later termed it — but she always determined the pace, deploying political antennae that saw her through three general election victories and only faltered towards the end of her 11 years in Downing Street.
Writer Robert Philpot is the author of “The Honorary Jew: How Britain’s Jews Helped Shape Margaret Thatcher and Her Beliefs.” He is the former editor of an independent centrist Labour magazine, Progress, and is now a contributing editor to it. His articles have appeared in The Jewish Chronicle, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Commentary and History Today. He previously served as a special adviser in the Northern Ireland Office and Cabinet Office.
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