Admirers of Margaret Thatcher
tend to fall into two classes: those who admire her unconditionally and those
who admire her through gritted teeth. I
fall into the latter category. My
dentist was kept very busy during her premiership.
Her patronising and hectoring
manner, and that supercilious, manufactured voice – which owed nothing to the
Lincolnshire town in which she was born, or anywhere else – also made me wince,
and sometimes made me laugh. But both manner
and voice were effective weapons and, when combined, irresistible. Her best weapon, though, was not so much the
overbearing personality, but the unshakeable resolve in whatever cause it came
to be deployed.
“I’m not a consensus politician,”
she once boasted, “I’m a conviction politician”.
Her cabinet colleagues quailed
before this conviction, fearing a tongue-lashing. She had no qualms about delivering these sarcastic
rebukes in front of an audience, presumably pour
encourager les autres. They seem to
have worked, reducing her aspiring rivals, especially those among her cabinet
colleagues, to jelly – at least while she was present. Once she’d departed, some individuals summoned
the courage to conspire against her, to which her self-confidence rendered her
As someone perceptively asserted,
she was often the only ‘man’ in the room.
Only when she was absent did she become ‘a mere woman’.
As a businessman, I secretly applauded
many of her policies, if not always the method of their implementation, as in
the case of the miners. In privatising
key industries, and refusing to rescue failing enterprises, she shook the
country out of the torpor into which they had sunk. I can remember from bitter professional
experience – I was selling on-line information systems – when the state-owned
British Post Office, then a notoriously ineffectual monopoly of postal and
telecommunications services, took nine months to install the data line our
clients required for our services. Yes,
nine months, long enough for the gestation of a human!
More importantly than the specifics
of her policies, Thatcher’s attitude to aspiration changed the national mind-set. Britain would have to compete in
the world, as she constantly stressed, and she actually managed to convince most
of the country that it could compete.
Not the miners, of course.
For all but three of her eleven
years in Downing Street I lived in the United States, so I missed a great deal
of the media coverage of the violent confrontations during the coal strikes and,
later, the poll-tax demonstrations. What
I did see made for frightening and unedifying spectacles, even more distressing
from a distance. I sometimes wondered
whether the old country that I remembered – a peaceable kingdom, if a less than
vibrant one, for most of my youth – might actually be in danger of sinking into
revolution and anarchy. Thatcher
prevailed in the first fight and failed in the second, but in both cases order
was restored. Some of her protagonists would
never forgive her.
I have to say that she was right
on the future of the coal industry, at least in principle: Britain could
no longer produce coal, a declining commodity anyway, at market prices. Something, it was clear, had to be done. But most
of the miners, who otherwise commanded considerable public sympathy, would
never concede the point, and by slavishly following a leader, Arthur Scargill, who
invited ridicule on many levels, they handed the advantage to the
In both of the celebrated
confrontations it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she had considered the
violence – however she personally may have abhorred it – a necessary
prerequisite for political victory. Whatever
the case, it marked her forever as both ruthless and shameless.
On the poll tax, she couldn’t
have been more wrong. Or, wrong-footed;
for once, her political instincts seemed to have deserted her. It was that emerging deficiency, when combined
with an increasingly imperious manner (she once announced that ‘we’ had become
a grandmother) which emboldened a furtive alliance of conspirators and rivals
to take her down.
Was she the greatest of Britain’s peacetime
prime ministers? It’s a question that’s
been asked ad nauseum since her death. The word ‘greatest’ is devoid of meaning,
unless it means she was the most influential.
In that case, she qualifies without reservation. For good or ill, she influenced Britain more than any other prime minister but
Clement Atlee, who had, ironically, set post-war Britain on the very course that
Thatcher sought to reverse.
Some of her peers on the
international scene were said to find her sexy.
Ronald Reagan was one, leading to
improbable rumours that they were having an affair – most unlikely if only for the
unnervingly ardent attention of Nancy and Dennis. The French president Francois Mitterand, a
socialist, once remarked that she had the lips of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes
of Caligula – a curious perception, even for a Frenchman.
I find myself remembering her personality
in alliterations involving the letter H: hair, handbag, haughty, hectoring. And, in the subversive activities of Messrs. Howe
and Heseltine (more H’s, you’ll notice) words derived from ‘humiliation’ come
Undoubtedly she was a towering
figure, but one who cast a long dark shadow.
We all still live under it, some of us with greater ambivalence than