Bernard Ingham: What Hillary Clinton can – and should – learn from Margaret Thatcher

Hillary Clinton has paid tribute to MP Jo Cox, who was murdered yesterday.
Hillary Clinton has paid tribute to MP Jo Cox, who was murdered yesterday.
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HILLARY Clinton looks to be set to become the world’s most powerful woman.

I cannot believe that Americans, however disaffected with their politicians, will choose to elect the unpredictably inflammatory Donald Trump.

I expect them, if only by default, to acquire their first woman president.

She is long overdue – 56 years to be precise.

It was in 1960 that Sir Lankans made Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaika the world’s first woman PM. She followed her husband who had been assassinated.

She was a force in Sri Lankan and wider politics until 1977 when she resigned amid economic problems and ethnic rivalry, having led two governments – from 1960-65 and then 1970-77.

She was a toughie like Golda Meir, the formidable PM of Israel from 1969-74, though Meir had difficulty in 1973 in forming a new coalition after Israel had been found unready to say the least for the fourth Arab-Israeli war.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) was not dubbed the Iron Lady by the Soviets for nothing and until recently Angela Merkel (2005 onwards) was regarded as heavy metal rather than putty far beyond Germany.

I mention Mrs Clinton’s more important women predecessors in the top job – if that is what she wins – because they give us some perspective of the challenge she will face as the leader of the democracies.

My views are informed as Thatcher’s Press secretary for 11 years and a decade before that as Barbara Castle’s spokesman. I have some idea what women political leaders have to put up with.

Hillary Clinton will come late in her own right to the White House because her country is conservative and, as Trump shows, has more than its share of the male chauvinist pigs who let themselves rip against Castle and Thatcher.

He reminds me not just of our trade union leaders in the 1960s and 1970s, but also of the more neandearthal on both sides of the House of Commons who saw her as a bit of an interloper from a provincial corner shop.

As the wife of a former president, who could be as much a problem as an asset, and as a former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has far more background than Thatcher. She had served in Cabinet only as Education Secretary and had next to no experience of foreign affairs.

Indeed, Thatcher seems to have come to office the least experienced of her woman predecessors across the world since Merkel led two Ministries before becoming Chancellor.

Thatcher proved that experience matters less than conviction and iron will.

We shall not know what Clinton is really made of until she settles in as president. We never do until it is too late – as, for example, with Anthony Eden, a thoroughbred for national office if ever there was one who comprehensively blew it over Suez.

It matters how she copes with those who still think a woman’s place is in the home and petty opposition, especially from her own side, because it can be – indeed is sometimes intended to be – wearing.

This means that her constitution really matters. Can she take the insults and the hours without wilting? Democratic politics reminds me of ravenous wolves trying to bring down a tiring elk.

But in the end what would define a Hillary Clinton presidency would be her view of the world and how she:

Tackles the dangerous Vladimir Putin and Europe’s grave weakness;

Helps China to play a constructive role in world affairs;

Calms down the Middle East and persuade the tyrants of Africa and elsewhere that their own country needs them to stem the exodus of the enterprising and able-bodied as much as the West needs to control immigration;

Faces down and defeats terrorists; and

Promotes world growth and reforms its failing institutions.

We should not expect too much after the disappointments of Barack Obama. And if we vote to leave the EU we shall have to persuade Mrs Clinton we are not “little Englanders” or “quitters”.

In fact, she would find us a more useful ally out of the EU rather than in it. An Anglo-American approach to world problems would carry far more weight than an EU/American line up. History shows that the EU is all talk and precious little action or money to finance it.

President Hillary Clinton may not excite the British, but what matters to us is whether she has convictions and the guts to carry them through.

We need a constructively powerful US president working candidly with its oldest ally.

We rather admire bossy women who get things done.