It is strange how we are never ready for events which are, in principle, certain. The media have prepared for Margaret Thatcher’s death for years, and yet there was a rushed, improvised quality to much of the coverage when she actually did die. We have a curious habit of all saying the same thing, and feeling comforted by that, when really it is our job to say as many different things as possible. The BBC, which Mrs Thatcher, and even more Denis, detested, has been straining itself to be fair, but fairly bursting with frustration in the attempt. The way for it to express its subliminal opposition to her is by using the word ‘divisive’ all the time. By day two, this had become its dominant theme. The word is sometimes right, but at the BBC it has become a device by which the opinions of extreme critics can be bigged up against those of more sympathetic people. Film after archive film shows policemen banging riot shields before whacking bravely striking miners/black youths/poll tax protesters. The fact that 100 left-wing maniacs show off by celebrating her death in Brixton is put on a par with the genuine affection and respect shown by millions and the more measured criticisms of decent people. There is a counter-case, almost unheard, that, in some areas, Mrs Thatcher did bring the Franciscan harmony of which she famously spoke on the steps of No. 10. Take days lost to strikes — from 29,000,000 in 1979 down to fewer than 2,000,000 by 1990. Most of the greatest violence and bitterness, which began before she came to office, continued only as long as her success was in doubt. When, after Scargill and Wapping, she won, it stopped.
I must admit to the same mental unpreparedness as everyone else. In terms of the timing of my authorised biography of Mrs Thatcher, volume one of which will appear on St George’s Day, I was more or less ready. By odd chance, I finished correcting the last page of the last proof almost exactly at the moment when her death was announced. I did this on a train, got off and heard the news just as I was about to have lunch with a cardinal. I had to beg absolution and leave at once without eating, in order to start writing and commenting. I had not worked out in advance the right things to say, and I still don’t quite know what they are. Perhaps this was partly because I have long felt that Lady Thatcher died to the world earlier. The great blow, added to the slow loss of memory, was the death of Denis, almost ten years ago. It was seeing her so shattered and confused at his funeral that persuaded me that I should leave the editorship of the Daily Telegraph and get on with my book. Luckily, she regained more tranquillity in later years. Indeed she was more peaceful than during the beginnings of her decline, and was beautifully cared for. Nevertheless, it was an afterlife. ‘Old age is a shipwreck,’ said De Gaulle. If so, she was like the masthead of a fine old English vessel in that calamity, still proud as she slowly sank.
How stylish to die in the Ritz. Although in many ways a puritan, Lady Thatcher always enjoyed comfort, elegance and the feeling that something is well done. She was not austere, either in her way of life or in her judgment of others. She liked the Savoy Grill until the dreadful Gordon Ramsay spoilt the atmosphere and told the press that Denis was rude (pot and kettle!). After that, she happily moved to the Ritz. Denis was not rude, but he did have old-fashioned views about food. If his steak was rare, he would always say, ‘Take it away and bring it back when it has stopped mooing.’ The pre-Ramsay waiters enjoyed all that, but once the restaurant became a temple to the chef, rather than a friendly place for the paying customers, they left too.
On the day of Lady Thatcher’s death, my inbox filled to bursting with emails about her. The almost sole exception was an invitation to the launch of Roy Hattersley’s book called The Devonshires, in which he relates the august story of the Cavendish family. Hurrah for Old Labour, and its fine old tradition of deference!
When Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher did not have a great deal to do with The Spectator. She was not hostile, but slightly suspicious and perplexed. ‘This is Charles Moore,’ I remember her saying edgily as she introduced me to the Turkish prime minister at a reception. ‘He supports us some of the time.’ After the sinking of the Belgrano in May 1982, Ferdinand Mount, then the political editor, wrote a column deploring the incident and calling for a ceasefire. The then editor Alexander Chancellor, who had incited the piece when Ferdy had really wanted to fall silent altogether, put it all over the cover. Ferdy’s was an act of near-suicidal courage, as he was just about to leave to take up his job as the head of Mrs Thatcher’s policy unit at No. 10. She never said anything about it, and it had not the slightest effect on his work. It is inconceivable that a modern prime minister would be so laid back about employing someone so out of line with the overriding policy of the moment. If the Iron Lady thought well of a person, she would tolerate his unorthodoxy. She could, on occasion, be angry and vengeful, but very rarely was she petty.
Immediately after she won her third successive general election, in 1987, I took it into my head that it was time for her to go, and wrote what was intended as a cover piece saying so. Although editor, and therefore effectively unedited, I just had the wit to ask Ferdy Mount (who had returned to us) for his opinion. He said it would be mad to tell her to leave when she had just won another huge majority. He was right, of course, though I still think my essential argument — quit while you’re ahead — had some validity. I spiked my own piece. Anyway, I remain forever grateful to Ferdy. I am sure that if the article had appeared, Lady Thatcher would never have entrusted me with her life.