Today we witnessed the passing of a phenomenon within a whirlwind: thoughts on Margaret Thatcher.
8 Apr 2013 at 13:24
The reaction to the death of Margaret Thatcher will be a game of two halves. The unedifying, intolerant and thoroughly nasty whoops of joy from the left and rather alarming prostrations of grief from her worshippers.
The truth of the matter is that Thatcher was not the ogre who despised the poor and ground their faces into the ground as she slashed public expenditure to the bone. And nor was she some sainted figure who could do no wrong. She was a determined, single minded woman who tapped directly into the aspirations of ordinary people. People who did not want the country run by the unions. People who were fed up with Soviet exchange control laws that only allowed them to take £100 out of the country. People who wanted themselves and their families to better themselves and their children to have equality of opportunity. People who wanted to buy the council houses that they had lived in all their lives. In short people who were fed up by being told by the state how to run their lives.
To her credit Margaret Thatcher stuck up two fingers to two shibboleths; the class system and ratchet socialism. And the cosy political elite did not like that one little bit.
If you think that Cameron is having a bit of a rough time with his backbenchers it was as nothing as to the venom that was poured upon her by not just her backbenchers but by her cabinet. In the early days she would be seen sobbing in the Whips office. Even during the Falklands war there were those both in Cabinet and the backbenches praying she would fail.
Her real legacy is that she changed the way Britain thought about itself and the way the world thought about us.
So let me explode some of the most popular myths. She did not cut back public expenditure. It increased in real terms by approximately 30 percent except for transport and defence which were cut by 3 percent. Neither did she expand the armed services. She cut them to the bone so much that there were ministerial resignations.
And Europe? She was not anti European at all, just wanting a just settlement for the UK. Ironically, Thatcher gave away more powers to Brussels in the Single European Act than ever before.
To be honest although I admired her single minded determination I always found her difficult, probably because she was devoid of any sense of humour. In the 79 campaign ITN’s Mike Brunson interviewed her in a hardware shop where she picked up an enormous drill and said without any understanding of why the camera crew were in hysterics, “this is the largest tool I have ever had in my hand”. And then sitting astride a large field gun after the Falklands war turned to the crew enquiring, “do you think this will jerk me off?”
I remember when I was first elected in 83 I was asked to join her with a crowd In her office behind the Speaker’s chair. As will all trooped in she put us at our ease by shouting, “whatever you do don’t queue up”, and going over to Giles Shaw who was Minister of State at the Home Office and asking how things were in Environment, to which he replied that he was actually in charge of the police. She gave him a glare and in full Lady Bracknell mode exclaimed, " don’t be ridiculous" and moved on.
And once when I had been called into Number 10 for a bollocking she rolled up ten minutes late. This was the time when there were thoughts that we would allow the USA to bomb Libya using our airbases. The party line was that this was not an option. So in an effort to ameliorate the handbagging that was to come I towed the party line ( for once). The lady gave me a steely stare and informed me that the reason she was late was because she’d just given the bombers the order to head for Tripoli. Oh, dear.
My favourite story was when I was on a boat with her organised by the City of London for her to light up the newly cleaned up Tower Bridge. The champagne was flowing and the Remembrancer sidled up to me in a terrible state. "She’s in a foul mood, positively spitting tacks, what should I do? " When I asked him what he was offering her to drink and his reply was champagne I came up with a solution. “At this time of night she prefers to drink whisky. Get a police launch to head for the nearest Bottoms Up and get a bottle of J and B.” He did and the rest of the evening was sweetness and light.
There will now be a debate about whether there should be a state funeral. The simple answer is that she deserves one but it would divide the country. Far better to have a family funeral and then a massive memorial service so that the world’s leaders can pay their respects.
Poor Margaret, life without the wonderful Denis must have been unbearable.
Today we have witnessed the passing of a phenomenon within a whirlwind.
It was a privilege to have known her although I won’t pretend that it was always easy.