Cecil Parkinson: Underestimated – but unbowed

Even among Mrs Thatcher’s original shadow Cabinet, there were those who simply did not believe that she would be capable of dealing with the problems of a declining country. To a man they were wrong.

Each underestimated the determination of Margaret Thatcher. She did not regard the manifesto on which she had been elected as a set of pledges designed merely to win an election and to be abandoned when the going got tough. She intended to honour hers: to reduce the role of the state; to transfer power to the people. Trade union members were given the right to elect their leaders at regular intervals and to vote before being called out on strike. People would keep more of what they earned and taxes at all levels were to be reduced. Millions of people were given the right to escape from the grip of local authority bureaucrats and buy their council houses. The state-owned industries were returned to the private sector.

These were the right policies but they were also doggedly followed through by a leader who was not prepared to bend before short-term unpopularity. She did what she thought right and not what would produce a good headline, an approach that was vindicated as each of her successive election victories was greater than the last. Few MPs could claim that record, even fewer prime ministers.

Cecil Parkinson was Cabinet minister, 1983, 1987–1990

Charles Powell: The sunset years

Margaret Thatcher was not happy about losing office and she did not hide it. An election defeat she could have handled: she invariably prepared for it by packing up all her belongings in the No. 10 tenement flat on the eve of elections. Being defenestrated by her own parliamentary party was a different matter. She made life uncomfortable for her successor by leaked complaints about ‘the government’. But then she frequently complained about ‘the government’ when she was Prime Minister, even when I pointed out it was her government. She appeared to think they were nothing to do with her.

She was realistic enough to know that there would never be a comeback. But at the end of well-lubricated lunches with Bernard Ingham and myself in the 1990s she would declaim: ‘Come on, we are going to march up Downing Street and reclaim No. 10.’ Bernard and I offered to escort her as far as the Downing Street gates but no further, and were berated for our lily-livered -performance.

For some years she occupied herself with frenetic travel and speech-making, sometimes startling well-intentioned questioners by pummelling them into the ground as though they were Neil Kinnock at PM’s Questions. But it was the exercise of power she was built for, and without that she felt life lacked purpose. A dreadnought is out of place in a fishing fleet.

She was treated with generosity and respect by all four of her successors and enjoyed her occasional return to No. 10, though it’s hard not to believe it also caused pangs.

In later years she travelled less but occasionally came to stay with my wife on our small farm outside Rome. We put her to work picking cherries and docked tax and national insurance from her pay just to remind her what governments do to wage-earners. She liked to visit Italy’s great cathedrals and was tickled by the hordes of German and Japanese tourists who wanted to be photographed with her. ‘Don’t say, “we won the war”,’ I would admonish her. ‘Just once, Charles?!’

My wife took her to meet the Pope, which made me a bit uneasy as to what she might say. But my wife pointed out that Paul Johnson was going along too, so there would be no need for her to speak.

As she became more frail she was tended by her two carers, Kate and Anne, with affection and a fair bit of gentle teasing. Following an operation in December, she convalesced at the Ritz thanks to the generosity of the Barclay family, The Spectator’s proprietors. A small circle of long-time friends would come by, to satisfy her craving for information about what was going on. I timed my visits to coincide with the Ritz’s famed tea, and we quarrelled briskly over who had eaten the most chocolate biscuits. It was a gentle twilight to a life of extraordinary achievement.

Charles Powell was private secretary to Margaret Thatcher, 1983–1990

Hugh Thomas: A lover of ideas

Margaret Thatcher was a most refreshing and unusual personality. You felt that when you saw her you could launch any new idea with her. That was surprising, because in many ways she was conventional. But she liked ideas and she liked words. I remember having proposed some text to her which led to a long conversation as to the difference between the words ‘supine’ and ‘prone’.

Her ministers found her preoccupation with the right phrase or the right word excessive. ‘That Melbourne speech,’ Willie Whitelaw once said to me at Blackpool. ‘It’s excellent. It was excellent a week ago. But she’s spent all the intervening time revising what did not need to be revised.’

Actually I think that concern with words was an essential educational part of her preparation for any statement or lecture. She had a strong feeling for history even if she had never studied it. She once in my hearing told a surprised Oxford don that she would like to study under him when she had finished with all ‘this business of politics’. She liked to know the historical background of countries which she visited. I once gave her a potted analysis of the major Chinese dynasties. The ambassador, the great sinologue Percy Cradock, raised his distinguished eyebrows in amusement.

She often thought the Foreign Office too ‘wet’ to stand up effectively to the Soviet Union and preferred to talk to serious historians such as Hugh Seton-Watson, or Leonard Shapiro. ‘That is how United States presidents conduct their foreign policy,’ she once said. ‘They find experts for everything.’ She also thought that many diplomats were a little condescending. All the same, she was very polite, especially to her part-time workers such as myself. ‘Would you like to telephone your wife to tell her you might be a bit late this evening?’ she once asked. It was already 11.30.

I first met Margaret Thatcher with Leon Brittan, whose task was to find dons who might be interested in her vision of politics. She asked me to write down what was on my mind in politics. I did so. A week later I received a telephone call from a secretary who said, ‘Mrs Thatcher very much likes your speech on the ideals of an open society and will use it next week.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘It wasn’t a speech.’

‘Oh, Mrs Thatcher considers it is,’ said the secretary. She used the statement as a speech with scarcely a word changed. That’s how it all began.

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I was not a politician but a historian. All the same, she made me chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, which she and Keith Joseph founded as a free-market alternative to the Conservative Research Department. We had two bad arguments, one about the US invasion of Grenada, which I considered right, the other much more serious about German unification in 1989, but otherwise we were always on the best of terms. I loved doing things for her. It was great fun and I went on doing things for ten years and more. I shall remember Margaret with enthusiasm, affection and admiration.

Hugh Thomas was Chairman of the Centre for Policy Studies, 1979–1991

Matthew Parris: Mrs T and the poorlies

Did she have a heart? In two years working for Margaret Thatcher in the Opposition Leader’s Office, I never reached a conclusion, yet my personal admiration for her only grew. We received from the public between 500 and (at one point) 5,000 letters every week. With three letter-openers and secretaries, I had to deal with all of them. We quickly learned her instincts towards public correspondence.

She was not greatly interested in individ-uals’ ideas or opinions. She was interested in general movements of opinion and the overall public response to events, and to herself, and never discouraged us from bringing her adverse tidings. But it was her attitude to what we called ‘the poorlies’, members of the public who had turned to her in their personal troubles, that was unlike any other leader’s I’ve known.

Mrs T (as we all called her) insisted we show her anything we thought needed her personal touch; she was meticulous and unsparing in dealing with these, even when we ourselves felt she had better things to do than sit up late, her blue felt-tip in hand, penning sympathy, advice and reassurance.

I’ll never forget one such: her reply to a lady who, grief-stricken by the loss of her husband, wanted the comfort of knowing that the Conservative leader believed in heaven. In Mrs T’s otherwise consoling letter, her answer to this question itself stood bleakly out as oddly tortured, almost legalistic: ‘Christians believe in the Afterlife, and I am a Christian.’

I loved her for the trouble she took with people of no account, but could never quite banish a suspicion she was doing this because in childhood she had absorbed the strict lesson that this was what a nice person would do. But I took, and take, refuge in the words that Robert Bolt, screenwriting, places in the mouth of Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia: ‘With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.’

Correspondence secretary to Margaret Thatcher, 1977–1979; MP, 1979–1986

Peter Carrington: Resolution abroad

Perhaps it will be the Falklands war for which, in terms of foreign affairs and defence, she will be best remembered. The chief of staff over many years had assessed the situation in which the islands had been occupied by Argentina. There was at that time considerable doubt on their part as to whether an attempt to recapture the Falklands would be successful. She did not hesitate. It was the brave and typical reaction of a Prime Minister who had the courage and resolution to do the right thing. She benefited personally from that success and indeed as a result won the 1983 election with an overwhelming majority. As a consequence of her leadership, courage and success during the Falklands war, her prestige and that of Britain were greatly enhanced.

At her resignation, Britain’s position in the world had markedly improved. The economy was recovering strongly. Our armed forces were acclaimed for an outstanding operation thousands of miles from their homeland. She, together with President Reagan, had supported Nato and our allies during the Cold War, and by their resolution had ended both the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Starting as a Prime Minister with little experience of foreign affairs, she learnt quickly and acted decisively and left with Britain’s prestige high in the world.

Peter Carrington was Foreign Secretary, 1979–82

Andrew Roberts: A sublime defiance

Edmund Burke wrote that ten thousand swords would ‘leap from their scabbards’ sooner than see Marie Antoinette dishonoured, and it was when Mrs Thatcher encountered danger, such as at the time of the Brighton bomb, that we loved her the most. Westland, the 1987 crash, the Lawson resignation; these were tests of loyalty along the path. In July 1989 she refused to send a British representative to the celebration of the bicentenary of the fall of the Bastille, a sublime gesture of defiance against republicanism, revolution and terror.

How they must have fumed at the Foreign Office. Walking around Trafalgar Square early on the morning after the poll tax riot — ‘community charge riot’ somehow doesn’t have the same ring — came as a shock to me. There were bottles, bricks, hundreds of placards and a surprising amount of horseshit in Trafalgar Square, and burnt-out, overturned cars and smashed windows along Shaftesbury Avenue. But it was an exciting shock: if this was class war in the raw, I knew which side I was on.

My parents knew where they were on 22 November 1963 when they heard that JFK had been assassinated, and my generation knows where it was on that ghastly Thursday, 22 November 1990, when they heard that Margaret Thatcher had resigned. On that never-to-be-forgiven day, a powerful cathartic sense overcame me as I listened to the radio in my flat. To my surprise I started to cry. So I took the Tube to Westminster, bought flowers, made my way through the celebrating crowd and handed them to one of the policemen outside the Downing Street gates. ‘Must be a bad day for you?’ shouted one of the lefties sarcastically. ‘Yes, it is,’ I admitted, adding, ‘but it must have been a bad 11-and-a-half years for you.’

Andrew Roberts is historian and trustee of the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust

John Simpson: The first TV PM

For the television journalist, there is a brief moment where even the grandest and most intimidating figure has to give you their attention. It’s when you both settle down for an interview, and the microphones are clipped on.

With Margaret Thatcher, I relished those moments. Her officials couldn’t intervene, and you could talk to her about anything. Throughout the 1980s I followed her whenever she went abroad, and established a combative yet oddly warm relationship. She hated rudeness, but she didn’t like doormats. Feistiness (in a journalist, if not in a minister) was what she enjoyed. It was like interviewing Elizabeth I. ‘You’ll never get away with an idea like that,’ I said to her before some European summit. Trapped in the -miking-up routine, she outlined her entire strategy, off-camera. It was very instructive.

Margaret Thatcher was the first British prime minister to treat the television cameras as an ally. Macmillan affected to ignore them, Wilson loathed them, they made Callaghan bad-tempered; Thatcher understood that they were her direct line to the British public, and played up to them. Your task was to challenge her, to probe, to get a headline-grabbing answer: hers was to turn the moment to her advantage.

She enjoyed the difficult, irreverent question. On the plains of Cold War Germany, dressed in white like Lawrence of Arabia, she famously engaged in a tank-driving and shooting contest with Chancellor Helmut Kohl. ‘Did it feel good to have your finger on the trigger?’ I called out. She looked at me warily. ‘It was good to be firing a British gun,’ she answered: a no-score draw, I felt.

Unlike Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, Mrs Thatcher never cared how television or the newspapers presented her. She didn’t read the press and she didn’t watch the news. (She instinctively disliked the BBC, of course, but unlike some of her disciples she never had any intention of abolishing it. She had far too strong a grasp of British public opinion for that — something else that became clear to me during the miking-up process. ‘Oh, my dear, you are sensitive,’ she said to me once when I defended the BBC. ‘Don’t you see, it’s all part of…’ Her voice died away, but she clearly meant ‘the game’.)

Once, in a British graveyard in India, I was walking alongside her with a cameraman, interviewing her. Suddenly she put her foot down a hole and fell flat. A Downing Street aide screamed at me that these pictures would never appear on air. From knee-height came the familiar voice, as she was being helped up. ‘Oh, don’t be silly — of course he can use them if he wants to.’ Only Margaret Thatcher would have said that. And of course we didn’t use them.

Imagine if that had happened with Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell.

John Simpson is BBC political editor, diplomatic editor and world affairs editor since 1980 

Claire Berlinski: A legacy to women

The blows Margaret Thatcher struck against socialism at home and the Soviet empire abroad are her most noted achievements. But an even greater legacy was bequeathed to her sex. She was and will always be supremely significant to women. Unlike other women to whom she is often compared, she compromised no essential aspect of her personality. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, consciously displaced what femininity she had to reveal a drive for power; Eva Peron forsook her rationality, if ever she had it; Sarah Palin her dignity. Thatcher sacrificed nothing, except perhaps her relationship with her children. She made use of everything.

She was also singular in that in her success in capitalising upon her femininity, she has had no equal in political history, yet she had no use for feminism as a doctrine. She achieved things no woman before her had achieved, exploiting every politically useful aspect of a female persona and disproving every conventional expectation of women. She proved herself a rebuttal to several millennia’s worth of assumptions about women, power, and women in power. For women now aspiring to power, there is history before Thatcher and history after; no woman in politics will ever escape the comparison.

Claire Berlinski is author of There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters

Steve Hilton: Thatcher the disruptor

I was lucky enough to meet Mrs Thatcher a few times. Once, we talked about communism and my family’s experience in Hungary. I was incensed at how the ruling elite dabbled in capitalism for their own personal enrichment but denied the -opportunities of enterprise to most people. ‘Yes!’ she exclaimed. ‘I hate that. It’s how elites always behave! It’s the trahison des clercs !’

I took it as validation for my own instinctive hostility towards elites and establishments of any kind. That’s why Mrs T was such an inspiration, and I suppose why I was so upset — much more than I had imagined I would be — to hear the news of her death. I saw her as thrillingly anti-establishment; as much of a punk, and as brilliantly British, as Vivienne Westwood, who once impersonated her on the cover of Tatler.

Margaret Thatcher had the virtues most valued in today’s culture: innovation, energy, daring. She was Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Lady Gaga all rolled into one — and a thousand times more consequential than any of them. In today’s techno-business jargon, she was the ultimate political disruptor: determined to shake things up, unleash competition, challenge and confront vested interests. To be transformative, being reasonable doesn’t get you very far. In government, it is unreasonableness that improves -people’s lives.

Steve Hilton was No. 10 strategy director, 2010–2012

Alexander Chancellor: Two encounters

Margaret Thatcher, who had just become leader of the Conservative party, came to lunch at The Spectator’s old offices in 99 Gower Street on my first day as editor of this magazine, on 1 August 1975. Also present at the lunch were The Spectator’s then proprietor, Henry Keswick, and its political columnist, Patrick Cosgrave, who had campaigned hard in these pages for her to replace Edward Heath as party leader. I rather liked her, but I cannot myself have made a very favourable impression, for not long afterwards Keswick told me she had urged him to replace me as editor with someone of sounder political views. I could see her point, since at that time The Spectator was a bit wobbly in its devotion to her; but anyway, Keswick kept me on.

On our fleeting meetings thereafter she was always amiable and even sometimes strangely flirtatious, but it was 22 years before I saw her properly again, when she was staying for the Easter weekend of 1997 with my then Northamptonshire neighbour, Lord Hesketh, at his wonderful Hawksmoor house, Easton Neston, near Towcester. In the middle of dinner on Easter Sunday, she demanded that we all go and stand outside in the cold to see the Hale-Bopp comet as it passed overhead. ‘It reminds me of pheasant,’ she said. ‘Doesn’t it you, Mr Chancellor?’ (It didn’t at all, actually.)

On Easter Monday, a beautiful spring day, Alexander Hesketh brought Margaret and Denis Thatcher over to my house at Stoke Park, where she said another surprising thing to me. Staying there with my late uncle Robin was Jacqueline Hope-Wallace, a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, having once served under her as a civil servant in the Ministry of Pensions in the early 1960s, who was feeling bereft after the death of her long-term friend C.V. (Veronica) Wedgwood, the historian. I didn’t mention that they had been lovers but must have somehow implied it, for Lady Thatcher grasped the point immediately and said, as a very modern person might, ‘I didn’t realise they were partners.’ When they eventually crossed paths on the lawn, Hope-Wallace started to say, ‘You won’t remember me, but…’ when Lady Thatcher briskly interrupted her: ‘Of course I remember you — you wrote that marvellous report on pension reform…’. She went on to recall the names and personalities of all the other civil servants in that department. She thus made a forlorn old lady very happy. Ted Heath would never have managed that.

Alexander Chancellor was Editor of The Spectator, 1975–1984

Andrew Sullivan: She was Britain’s saviour

She was a liberator. She didn’t constantly (or even ever) argue for women’s equality; she just lived it. She didn’t just usher in greater economic freedom; she unwittingly brought with it cultural transformation – because there is nothing more culturally disruptive than individualism and capitalism. Her 1940s values never re-took: the Brits engaged in spending and borrowing binges long after she had left the scene, and what last vestiges of prudery were left in the dust.

Perhaps in future years, her legacy might be better seen as a last, sane defense of the nation-state as the least worst political unit in human civilization. Her deep suspicion of the European project was rooted in memories of the Blitz, but it was also prescient and wise. Without her, it is doubtful the British would have kept their currency and their independence. They would have German financiers going over the budget in Whitehall by now, as they are in Greece and Portugal and Cyprus. She did not therefore only resuscitate economic freedom in Britain, she kept Britain herself free as an independent nation. Neither achievement was inevitable; in fact, each was a function of a single woman’s will-power. To have achieved both makes her easily the greatest 20th century prime minister after Churchill.

He saved Britain from darkness; she finally saw the lights come back on. And like Churchill, it’s hard to imagine any other figure quite having the character, the will-power and the grit to have pulled it off.

Andrew Sullivan is a former editor of The New Republic and the proprietor of The Daily Dish blog

Francis Maude discusses the Thatcher legacy on our weekly podcast ‘View from 22’.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Alexander Chancellor, Andrew Roberts, Cecil Parkinson, Charles Powell, Claire Berlinski, Conservatives, Hugh thomas, John Simpson, Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher, Matthew Parris, Politics (UK), Steve Hilton