There is no question now that the death of Margaret Thatcher has been seen as a significant event worldwide. Britain’s only female prime minster and the country’s longest serving premier of the last century, was also Britain’s most controversial leader. Adored by her fans and yet still capable of producing anger in her detractors 23 years after leaving office.
Cleverer people than me are already writing political analyses of her period in office so I shan’t try to add to the media babble except by marking the moment with some personal recollections of the woman and that time.
In October 1980, as a very junior TV political researcher for Granada Television, I was dispatched to the Brighton Conservative Party Conference. I stood in the journalists’ corale at the foot of the conference platform with the newspaper photographers and hacks, the Conservative Party loyalists sitting behind me and in front, on the stage, Margaret Thatcher was making what is now one of her most famous speeches: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” I was there in a professional capacity, along with a horde of other slightly scruffy “neutrals” separated from what turned into a rumbustious celebration by the Tory faithful.
Lefty liberal me was astonished by the charisma and power of this woman on my first sighting of her “in the flesh”. Of course I knew that she hadn’t written that speech, it was the work of playwright, Ronald Miller, but there was no question about the power in the way she delivered Miller’s words. She was not turning, she said, on the economy. This was the beginning, in many people’s minds, of what Thatcherism really meant. She was not going to change her mind over monetarist economic policy even though even many of her own party were advising a less drastic solution to the then rising unemployment figures, there were two million people unemployed in October 1980 and the country was in recession. She didn’t turn and unemployment continued to rise.
Going into that conference, I wore a grey suit. It was an unusual style for me but necessary as I was meant to be mingling with the Conservative Party elite and I tried to look the part. I had my journalist credentials on my lapel as I walked towards Brighton’s concrete Conference Centre and even before I got there I could hear the shouting. Crowds of demonstrators stood behind iron rails and a human wall of policemen and, quite unexpectedly, I felt myself running the gauntlet of abuse as I walked through the barriers on into the conference apparently mistaken for an eager young Conservative. Up until that point in my life I had never heard such anger and hatred expressed by so many people. I was shaken to my core. So there it was, in a nutshell, the great divide between Mrs Thatcher and her opponents. It has never healed.
After her speech, she descended from the stage and mingled with the audience, at one point she was propelled by crowd pressure in my direction and, briefly, she brushed into me. I realized, even then, that her security would need to be tightened but these were the still comparatively innocent days before the IRA blew up the Brighton hotel where she was staying for the conference four years later. In that moment of physical contact, I realized how vulnerable politicians really were and, also, that, charismatic or deluded, they were all just human beings.
During my time working on political programmes, I came across many of the leading figures from all sides of the political divide in those dramatic and painful times. It wasn’t easy to find heroes in those days. I saw Margaret Thatcher deliver many more speeches feeling that I was witnessing a phenomenon but also the destruction of Britain as I knew it.
In 1980-81 I filmed the some of the consequences of the closing of the Shotton and Corby Steel Works, a symbol then of the eventual collapse of British industry, and the effect that it had on the local population. I also filmed in the village of Grimethorpe during the now World famous 1984-85 Miners Strike and, without entering the debate over trades union power, I saw at first hand the despair and hardship of the miners and their families. It was very difficult to see these things and to remain neutral over government policy. The damage to British manufacturing has not been mended and if it is true that some trades union excesses were curbed for the good, today’s loss of adequate representation for many poorly paid workers is a tragic legacy of those times
I kept that grey suit and was often sent on party political assignments to the House of Commons, to the political conferences and, on one memorable occasion, to a drinks party given at Conservative Party Central Office for newspaper and television journalists. It was there that I had my only face to face meeting with Margaret Thatcher. A little bit of me wanted to blow my professional cover and tell her what I really thought but I would never had done that even if I had dared. I was doing a job. Instead, she asked hospitably if I had a drink and talked about Granada Television with well-informed good nature while drinking what looked like a rather stiff glass of whisky on the rocks. Considering the hectoring and often patronising manner that came across on television, and I hate to admit it, she was actually a rather attractive woman with a fetchingly down-to-earth manner and, yes, even a sense of humour.
On later filming projects, in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Hungary, East Germany and what was then Czechoslovakia, I met many people who spoke fondly of the “Iron Lady” seeing her as an essential ingredient in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thinking of that drinks session with her, I could quite believe that she would have used her charm on the Americans and Russians to help bring about the end of the Cold War and the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall. As we come to bury Margaret Thatcher, let that be praise enough even if not everyone in those former Soviet nations can still celebrate the dawning of the true downside of Thatcherite capitalism.
I know I would never have liked her on a personal level and I still stand on the side of her detractors despising her narrow-mindedness, her intolerance, her philistinism and her brutality but I was privileged to have been able to observe her and that time at first hand. She was undeniably a powerful and charismatic leader and personally more fun that I had imagined too. Her personal achievement as Britain’s first female Prime Minister has to be acknowledged and it seems strangely appropriate for the nation to bury her with some dignity and without some of the tasteless but understandable abuse sung by her more thespian-minded detractors but – ah yes, and it’s a big but – but much damage was done to Britain and to many British people in those days and I fear worse to come in the unsteady hands of the present government run by her enfeebled heirs.