How Do We Remember Margaret Thatcher? ‘The Crown,’ Nursery Education, and the Iron Lady

A lot of people on Twitter are nervous about watching Gillian Anderson play Margaret Thatcher on the latest season (or “series” if you’re British) of The Crown. Some viewers are afraid that the beloved actress will make the Iron Lady appear sympathetic, or even redeemable. “Don’t worry,” others assure her, “Anderson plays her like a serial killer—you can watch without losing your progressive credentials!”

But what if Thatcher was a more complicated historical figure, and what if all her policies were not inherently evil?

What if—and heaven help me…RIP my mentions—Thatcher had at least one policy idea that we, in our current hellscape of American social policy, could maybe even learn from?

In 1972, Margaret Thatcher dramatically proclaimed to the press, “I want to be remembered as the Minister who introduced nursery education for all in Britain.” Of course, absolutely no one—except perhaps me—remembers her for this uncharacteristically progressive policy proposal.[1] Her failed attempt to promote the care and education of young children while she was Secretary of State for Education and Science is seldom considered part of her formidable, and notorious legacy. When other scholars do mention it, they typically dismiss the proposal as a political ploy or a disingenuous blip in Thatcher’s career.[2] But to overlook her efforts outright omits a central turning point in the history of British childcare. The proposition that there be a public educational intervention in nursery schooling denotes a major shift in the state’s role regarding the traditionally private realm of the family.

“Wait a minute,” I picture you saying. “Maggie Thatcher the Milk Snatcher?? No way!”

In 1971, a year before proposing a massive expansion of nursery education, Thatcher ended schools’ provision of free milk to children over the age of seven, earning her the nickname “milk snatcher” in Parliament and the press. But there’s something interesting about this battle that gets lost in cultural memory: parliamentary contention over the issue did not focus on why the age of seven was chosen as a cut-off for the free provision of milk. The debates instead focused on whether children between seven and eleven years still had a medical or dietary need for milk, and whether parents or the state should shoulder this cost. The parliamentary discourse pivots on the assumption that younger children have greater needs than their older schoolmates. Thatcher’s position shows that while she was committed to decreasing government spending, concessions could be made when the health of the country’s youngest children were at stake.

So, what did nursery education entail in the early 1970s Britain? Essentially, it’s what we in the U.S. have come to refer to as pre-kindergarten. Thatcher’s policy, as outlined in a 1972 White Paper titled, Education: A Framework for Expansion, predicted that 90 percent of public nursery education would be dedicated to Britain’s four year olds and 50 percent of three year olds by 1981. By comparison, when Thatcher proposed the expansion of nursery school sin 1971 only 4.7 percent of the country’s three year olds and 33.8 percent of the country’s four year olds were enrolled in the state-maintained schools.[3] According to the White Paper, new childcare services were to be delivered through local education authorities—either in new buildings designed explicitly to house these new nursery facilities, or in classrooms within existing public schools. Financially conservative and pragmatic, the government would simply funnel monies into existing resources. Of course, with Thatcher, there was a catch. More money would be made available for nursery education by cutting back on higher education.

In the end, only a few additional nursery schools and classes were added in accordance to the White Paper. Thatcher’s proposal never came to fruition and was gradually defunded, first by her own party and then by the successive Labour government (who moved the funds back into higher education).

However, Thatcher’s very proposition of an expanded nursery program challenges our understanding of Thatcher’s guiding ideology. The so-called “Thatcherism” that has been promulgated in the literature emphasizes her commitments to a free-market economy that privileges private enterprise over social service provision. It also stands in stark contrast to how American Republicans viewed child care during the same period: as an undeserved welfare provision for the poor.

Nursery education is not an ideal model of child care, nor is it sufficient for meeting the need of every child and mother in Britain—and indeed, it wasn’t the kind of childcare contemporary feminists were rallying around either. Just like much of American pre-k now, nursery education in Britain was part-time and did not include “wrap-around care” for working mothers. The nursery education described in Thatcher’s White Paper was conceived, first and foremost, as an educational policy and was not intended to directly support women’s work or emancipation. Its part-time hours served the practical objective of reaching more children at a lower cost per child.

It also was not the only government policy affecting the care of children during this time. The Department of Health and Social Services, rather than the Department of Education, was responsible for both administering a separate day nursery program and supporting private playgroups. Day nurseries provided full-time care to a limited population of children with special needs, while many local health authorities administered the provision of childcare for unmarried working mothers. These childcare facilities explicitly supported women workers, but only those in the most desperate of circumstances. Playgroups, by contrast, were primarily organized by parents (largely middle-class, nonworking mothers) and required their participation. The playgroups focused primarily on the children’s socialization. Thus, these two programs served very different populations and purposes. Like contemporary American child care policy, services available to families with young children were arbitrarily siloed into distinct programs that separated “care” from “education” even though every child requires both.

American pre-k faces much of the same criticism from child advocates as British nursery education did in the 1970s. It also piques my interest in small-c conservative arguments for increasing social spending on young children rather than privatizing education or leaving families to fare for themselves out of an impossible commitment to “personal responsibility.” Thatcher proposed to extend the frontiers of the state in order to promote child well-being during the crucial first years of life. Importantly, she framed her proposal as an educational intervention rather than as a form of welfare or as a form of support for working mothers then coded as “feminist.”

Okay, so maybe Thatcher had a decent idea in the 1970s. You may be thinking, “but wasn’t it a blip? She never enacted nursery education as prime minister so we can still think she’s pure evil, right?”

From what I’ve seen in government archives (in her papers, in the Conservative Party’s papers, etc.), Thatcher never abandoned her stand on nursery education, though admittedly it would never become a priority again. In fact, on an afternoon television show in early 1981she was called out for her seeming hypocrisy in cutting spending as Prime Minister when she had staked her reputation on expanding nursery education just a decade earlier. The appearance came just after Thatcher’s “reshuffling” of the Cabinet after some of the ministers balked at her budget cuts.[4] Answering questions posed by a panel of female professionals, Thatcher defended her policies, especially on women’s issues. One woman on the panel, Dr. Tessa Blackstone, was closely acquainted with Thatcher’s policies. A Professor of Education at London University and a child development expert, Blackstone had consulted with the Department of Education and Science while it crafted Thatcher’s 1972 White Paper.

Blackstone provided Thatcher with an opening to back down from her previous commitment to nursery education, bluntly pointing out that the government’s cuts in public expenditure had led to funding cuts for nursery education in some localities. She asked, “Were you wrong in 1972 when you put forward these proposals? If you weren’t and if you were right, why are they being abandoned now?” But Thatcher did not take the bait. She did not denounce her earlier pet policy and instead defended her past position in saying, “I thought it far more important to get in a very good foundation and start at the beginning.” Thatcher did express her interest in moving monies from higher education to nursery education, stating, “I make no secret of it, I would prefer to put more in nursery education and primary education.” In so doing, she again reveals that her argument for cutting social services would allow for investing in the youngest of children.

“But!” you exclaim, “what about her comment on their being no such thing as society?”

As Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite has persuasively argued, Thatcherism was driven by an assumption that “individuals working in the interests of their family would produce a prosperous but also a moral society.”[5] During Thatcher’s tenure as leader of the Shadow Administration in the late 1970s, the Conservative Research Department bundled nursery education into the newly conceptualized focal area of “Family Policy.” This would go on to become a centerpiece of Thatcher’s policies as prime minister, particularly the “Parents’ Charter,” which emphasized parental choice of schools. Although little educational expansion would occur during the Thatcher governments, public nursery education remained conceptually, if not financially, part and parcel of her larger policy agenda. Thus, supporting families was at the heart of Thatcherism.

It’s fascinating, for instance, that throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Thatcher remained staunchly opposed to charging parents fees for nursery education. In internal memoranda to the Conservative Party, she argued that charging fees would not only be an administrative hassle but also objectionable politically, as the fees would be in direct opposition to the Education Act of 1944 that promised free education to all. Thatcher considered nursery education to be an extension of this pledge.

So, feel how you want to feel about Thatcher. In general, I don’t think Anderson makes you sympathize for her. If anything, I walked away from the fourth season more sympathetic for her overlooked daughter Carol than for her. (Though don’t feel too sorry for Carol—in real life she went on to become reality show famous for winning a competition that included eating kangaroo testicles). The show, despite skimping on the miners’ strike and domestic policy in general, succeeds in providing a more sympathetic portrayal of Michael Fagan, the unemployed painter who managed to sneak into Buckingham Palace not once, but twice, in order to tell the Queen about how Thatcher had ruined his life. But I do think that Thatcher’s support of nursery education, even if it doesn’t make her redeemable, shows her to be a fascinating, complicated human. She made a conservative argument for early education, and while we can quibble with how equitable the form she proposed would be in practice, is a remarkable argument for taking responsibility for young children’s well-being.


[1] I have written more about Thatcher’s proposals for nursery education in my dissertation and in “‘Cinderella of the Education System:’ Margaret Thatcher’s Plan for Nursery Expansion in 1970s Britain.” Twentieth Century British History, 29(2) June 2018: 284-308.

[2] Vicki Randall, The Politics of Child Daycare in Britain (Oxford University Press: 2000): 65; Jane Lewis, “Continuity and Change in English Childcare Policy, 1960-2000,” Social Politics 20:3 (2013): 363.

[3] National Archives, CAB 134/3522.

[4] Thames TV, Afternoon Plus, January 6, 1981.; The firing of her Cabinet members is portrayed in Season 4, episode 2 of the Crown titled, “The Balmoral Test.”

[5] Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, “Neo-Liberalism and Morality in the Making of Thatcherite Social Policy,” Historical Journal, 55 (2012), 511