Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Thatcher gives a cuddle

Margaret Thatcher, one of Britain’s greatest 20th century prime ministers, has died aged 87. Undefeated through three general elections, she was revered across the nation by many and loathed by many others; internationally, though, she was a giant of her time, admired from Washington D.C. to Moscow. There is no evidence to date of Thatcher of being a diarist, but she is a major figure in the diaries of other political figures. Tony Benn and Alan Clark, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, were both dazzled by Thatcher, albeit in different ways; and Edwina Currie, well, she was a fan too, and when having to step down from her ministerial position was offered no less than a ‘cuddle’ by the Iron Lady.

Margaret Roberts was born in 1925, in Grantham, the daughter of a grocer, who was mayor of the town for some years. She went to a local school, becoming head girl in her last year, before entering Somerville College, Oxford, to study chemistry. There she became president of the university’s Conservative Association. She took a job as a research chemist in Colchester; but, through friends, successfully applied to be an election candidate for the Dartford Conservative Association in Kent. She failed to take Dartford from Labour in the 1950 and 1951 general elections, though attracted attention as the youngest and only female candidate. She married Denis Thatcher in 1951, and they had two children.

After qualifying as a barrister in 1953, Margaret Thatcher found a safe Conservative seat, and was elected an MP for Finchley in 1959. In 1961, Harold Macmillan promoted her to the front bench as a Parliamentary Undersecretary, and, after the 1964 election, she became the Opposition’s spokeswoman on Housing and Land, in which position she advocated a policy of allowing tenants to buy their council houses. In his administration, Edward Heath appointed Thatcher to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education and Science. After the Conservatives lost power in 1974, Heath was unexpectedly replaced by Thatcher as leader, largely thanks to the support of the 1922 Committee.

Thatcher led the Conservatives back to power in 1979, and then won two more elections, in 1983 and 1987. She is remembered for, among other major developments, reforming the trades unions; the restructuring of the British economy, including privatisation of state-run companies; the Falklands War; the Anglo-Irish agreement; her firm Cold War stance with Ronald Reagan that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall (it was a Soviet journalist that first called her the Iron Lady); signing the UK up to the Single European Market; the Council house right-to-buy scheme; and the Community Charge (also known as the poll tax).

In November 1990, during several days of high political drama, the Conservative Party tore itself apart in removing Thatcher as its leader, and then tried put itself back together with John Major as leader and prime minister. Thatcher returned to the back benches, until the next election, in 1992, when she retired from politics. Thereafter, she wrote two volumes of memoirs, took up a few appointments, and gave speeches, only occasionally giving her thoughts publicly on world affairs. In recent years, she suffered ill health, including dementia, and rarely attended public events. She died on 8 October 2013 at the Ritz Hotel where she had been staying since Christmas. The internet is currently awash with information about Thatcher, with almost every political personality and many others offering memories or opinions - see the BBC, The Guardian or Wikipedia.

However, as far as I know, no other media story is offering a diary angle, so here is a collection of extracts about Thatcher from famous diarists: from Tony Benn, on the left wing of the Labour Party; from Alan Clark on the right of the Conservative Party; and from Edwina Currie, one of the very few female politicians of the era who has published a diary. I have also appended a very short extract from my own diary: though I don’t now quite understand what I meant, it seems prescient with regard to how some would see Thatcher in future years.

From The Benn Diaries (Arrow Books, 1996):

15 May 1979
‘State Opening of Parliament. [ . . .] Mrs Thatcher made a most impassioned speech, from notes, except for one passage about Rhodesia which had been typed up no doubt on the insistence of the FO - the most rumbustious, rampaging, right-wing speech that I’ve heard from the government Front Bench in the whole of my life. Afterwards I saw Ted Heath and told him, “I’ve never heard a speech like that in all my years in Parliament.” He said, “Neither have I.” [. . .]

I said I had some sympathy with Thatcher - with her dislike of the wishy-washy centre of British politics. He gave me such a frosty look that I daresay I had touched a raw nerve.’

20 November 1990
‘To the House, and went into the Committee Corridor because I wanted to see what was happening in the first ballot for the Tory leadership - Michael Heseltine versus Margaret Thatcher. It is quite a historic event. By secret ballot, Tory MPs have the power to remove as Leader of their party a Prime Minister who has been elected three times by the British people. [. . .]

The Labour Party is of course keen to keep Thatcher, and Kinnock has put down a motion of censure against her, for Thursday, to try to consolidate Tory support around her. It is a disgrace that in eight years this is the first motion of censure against the government.’

21 November 1990
‘Mrs Thatcher arrived back from France. The rumour going round at the moment is that the men in grey suits went to see her to say, “Time to go.” [. . .]

In terms of stamina and persistence, you have to admit Margaret Thatcher is an extraordinary woman. She came out of Number 10 saying, “I fight on. I fight to win.” [. . .]

When Paddy Ashdown got up and said that the Paris Treaty was one of the great moments of the twilight of her premiership, she replied, “As for twilight, people should remember that there is a 24-hour clock”, which was a smashing answer. Kinnock tried to be statesmanlike but couldn’t manage it.’

22 November 1990
‘I was in the middle of an interview about the war in the Gulf for ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4 when my secretary burst in to say Margaret Thatcher has resigned. Absolutely dazzling news, and it was quite impossible to keep my mind on the interview after that. So people have been to her and told her that she can’t win. She called the Cabinet together this morning and told them. But the motion of censure is still taking place this afternoon.

To the House, which was in turmoil. We had the censure debate, and Kinnock’s speech was flamboyant and insubstantial. When he was cross-examined about the European currency he simply couldn’t answer. Thatcher was brilliant. She always has her ideology to fall back on; she rolled off statistics, looked happy and joked.’

From Alan Clark - A Life in His Own Words (Phoenix, 2010)

28 April 1977
‘Had interview yesterday with Margaret Thatcher for first time. She sat, china-blue. Almost too text-book sincere. No intimacy. The half-finished sentences, the implied assumption, that mixture of Don, Colonel-of-the-Regiment, ‘Library’, which one gets from almost every other member of the Shadow - Pym, Willie, Gilmour - even the lower rank like Paul Channon and William Clark - totally absent

26 February 1980 [In the cafeteria in the House of Commons, after Thatcher had been interviewed by Robin Day for Panorama.]
‘But goodness, she is so beautiful; made up to the nines of course, for the television programme, but still quite bewitching, as Eva Peron must have been. I could not take my eyes off her and after a bit she, quite properly, would not look me in the face and I detached myself from the group with the excuse that I was going up to heckle Michael Foot who was doing the winding-up for Labour.’

21 November 1990
I was greeted with the news that there had been an announcement. “I fight, and I fight to win.” God alive! [. . .]

I passed her outer door and said to Peter that I must have a minute or so. He looked anxious, almost rattled, which he never does normally. [. . .]

I went down the stairs and rejoined the group outside her door. After a bit Peter said, “I can just fit you in now - but only for a split second, mind.”

She looked calm, almost beautiful. “Ah, Alan . . .”
“You’re in a jam.”
“I know that.”
“They’re telling you not to stand, aren’t they?”
“I’m going to stand. I have issued a statement.”
“That’s wonderful. That’s heroic. But the Party will let you down.”
“I am a fighter.”
“Fight, then. Fight right to the end, a third ballot if you need to. But you lose.”
There was quite a little pause.
“It’d be so terrible if Michael won. He would undo everything I have fought for.”
“But what a way to go! Unbeaten in three elections, never rejected by the people. Brought down by nonentities!”
“But Michael . . . as Prime Minister.”
“Who the fuck’s Michael? No one. Nothing. He won’t last six months. I doubt if he’d even win the Election. Your place in history is towering. . . ‘
Outside, people were doing that maddening trick of opening and shutting the door, at shorter and shorter intervals.
“Alan, it’s been so good of you to come in and see me . . .”
Afterwards I felt empty. And cross. I had failed, but I didn’t really know what I wanted, except for her still to be Prime Minister, and it wasn’t going to work out.

From Edwina Currie Diaries 1987-1992
(Little, Brown, 2002). The first of these extracts is about a meeting with Thatcher at which she was accepting Currie’s resignation over her controversial remarks about salmonella in British eggs.

21 December 1988
‘We went across to the Chief Whip’s office, round the back of Number 12, and cleared texts with David Waddingham and Bernard Ingham. I didn’t realise I could help write the PM’s letter [. . .] In I went; we ritualistically glanced at each other’s letters, then talked for half an hour. [. . .] Anyway I had been fine till the end of the interview and indeed have not felt very upset since - but then she gave me a cuddle and it creased me for a minute, and when I told her how I felt she said, “That is because we are friends”, and that was that. Out the back way, and whisked off to Ray’s [her husband] office.’

25 November 1990
‘Now the legend starts - the godhead Margaret. Her performance at Prime Minister’s Questions and in the No Confidence debate on Thursday afternoon was sheer magic. Out with a bang, not a whimper. It brought tears to the eyes of even those who wanted her out. Magnificent is the only word.’

Finally here is a very brief extract from my own diary: the first mention of Thatcher in my diaries. I’d been away from the UK for nearly three years and was travelling in Chile, then ruled by the dictator Augusto Pinochet.

29 September 1976
‘My thoughts are of home, going home, and how beautiful Chile is - with English pubs it could be paradise - you’d have to change government and put Margaret Thatcher in charge.’

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