In politics, the term ‘Victorian’ was seldom used before the late twentieth century and appeared only occasionally in parliamentary debates as a signifier of the time, in phrases like ‘Victorian era’. The politician Margaret Thatcher’s famous introduction of the term into politics explains the approach taken in this chapter. Through her political rhetoric, Thatcher demonstrated how history can be shaped by politicians and how this complicates our shared understanding of the Victorians. However, Martin Sabrow identifies an undeniable tension between history and politics that can both ‘offer the reward of public attention’ but equally ‘destroy the radical independence of historical research’. In political rhetoric, history is usually simplified and current political action justified by dubious versions of historical events. How Thatcher dealt with the Victorians could be seen to exemplify this fear.

Margaret Thatcher, 1982 (b/w photo)

Thatcher’s repeated use of the term the Victorians is significant because it was such an influential political intervention and, in the view of her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, a key component of ‘Thatcherism’. As Raphael Samuel explains, she turned the word into something that became associated solely with ‘the traditional and the old-fashioned’. She knew that this approach would appeal to people, especially those who had been frightened or confused by the upheaval and change that had characterised the 1960s. She believed she offered a return to more stable times and, throughout the 1980s, she summarised her beliefs in phrases such as ‘self-help’ and ‘personal responsibility’ in a series of speeches. She connected these ideas back to the Victorian period and her rhetoric became imbued with these supposedly ‘Victorian values’. However, it was not until her famous 1983 interview with politician and broadcaster Brian Walden that her ideas were explicitly described as ‘Victorian’. Prior to this point, she had spoken about these values but had not labelled them. It was Walden who made this link when he suggested, in the interview, that she ‘outlined an approval of what [he] would call Victorian values’. Thatcher agreed wholeheartedly and argued that these ideas had been pivotal to the success of the Britain in the nineteenth century – and would be again in the 1980s. A few months later, journalist Peter Allen interviewed Thatcher. By this time, her use of the phrase ‘Victorian values’ had firmly entered her political vernacular. She made it plain exactly what these meant to her ‘…to work jolly hard…to improve yourself, self-reliance…pride in your country…all of these things are Victorian values’. But Allen argued that there were other, less appealing, values associated with the Victorians, such as the ‘workhouses’. Thatcher countered this argument, arguing that the Victorians ‘self-improved’ these situations through their ultimate commitment to ‘reliance and duty’. As Stephen Evans points out, this illustrates how ‘Thatcherism took a highly selective view of the Victorian age which deliberately excluded everything contrary to the world-view it wanted to propagate’. She was always quick to contradict anything unfavourable to them and, in so doing, started to present an increasingly misleading view of the period.

It is interesting to see how closely ‘Victorian values’ came to be identified with Thatcher during the 1980s when, in reality, once introduced by her, these values became part of the vernacular of politicians from across the spectrum. In the rhetoric of Labour politicians Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, the term ‘Victorian’ had no positive connotations. Instead, it was a ‘term of abuse’ and they used the phrase to highlight the inaccuracies in its use. But by using the term, they gave Thatcher’s interpretation a form of validity as well as offering another interpretation of their own and so proved that politicians, of all parties, could create and use history. Crucially, Kinnock and Foot chose draw heavily on Dickens’ interpretation. For example, Foot argued that Thatcher ‘extol[led] Victorian values without even a passing comprehension of the human suffering and indignity which the mass of our people had to endure’. Similarly, Kinnock in 1983 declared that ‘those [Victorian values] were the inhuman, selfish, materialistic values that Dickens had so memorably portrayed in Oliver Twist’.  But through this interpretation, they unwittingly appropriated Thatcher’s interpretation, which suggests there was some stability and shared understanding forming around the term.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her husband, Denis, on the doorstep of No.10 Downing Street, 4th May 1989 (b/w photo)

Brian Harrison said in 1986 that it was unclear whether ‘Thatcher’s revaluation of the Victorians will turn out to be anything more substantial than an ephemeral episode in political rhetoric’. While, following her resignation, few politicians took on her mantle and continued to promote such values in the long term, the impact she had was certainly long lasting. Clearly, Thatcher championed certain values that have been widely accepted as characteristic of the era and, although it was one-sided, there is clarity to her interpretation that is not evident in historiography or literature. Drawing some parallels with Dickens’ and Smiles’ work, Lucy Robinson points out that she was able to successfully wed her politics and policies of ‘monetarism, privatisation and a flexible Labour market… to the Victorian values of law and order and self-reliance’. There was also a strong idea of ‘heroism’ in her interpretation, as she harked back to the days of empire. She certainly encouraged a more fluid approach to the period, as she often stressed how timeless these values were. How influential her invoking these ideas were may be demonstrated by her three re-elections and the fact that historians like Matthew Sweet claim the very reason he wrote his work was to ‘liberate’ the past from her influence.

Freya George