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Baroness, Margaret Thatcher, nee Roberts, 1925-2013 …

  • April 9th, 2013
  • Posted by 7thmin

margaret_thatcher-resize.pngReminiscence on Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, who has died after a stroke (8.4.13).


A very cold night in Brussels, 1988, about 2 am with some 30, mostly British journalists, awaiting the end of a drawn-out European summit.

Bernard Ingham, later Sir, the press secretary, entertained the gathering, giving off Yorkshire bluster and bits of information obtained, presumably, from the Prime Minister in off moments, partly quotable from a “senior government official”; the expectant, bored crowd would work up to a decent level of levity, red faces, now and then roaring with laughter.

So the scene was set of the entry of Mrs Thatcher; showing little fatigue but some exasperation.

“I never did understand the French!”, she said.

“I never did understand men!”.

“Haw-haw”, we went.

Jacques Chirac, French Prime Minister at the time, had said “bollocks!” to her discourse, (or perhaps: “Does this housewife want my balls on a platter?”).

“Say sorry, rude frog!”, shouted a London tabloid.

Margaret Thatcher brought theatre to the Prime Ministership, not in the Winston league but the best player in the showmanship forte since.

Yet the Prime Ministerial briefings after these sometimes fraught gatherings of Heads of Government were always good in one important sense, that more than most they delivered straight talk and plain facts.

Usually, late developments would have meant that the bits of information dealt out for holding stories while the talks went on, were well out-dated or contradicted; so the long wait for the PM herself would be justified and made worthwhile.

Margaret Thatcher it seems clear to me was a hard working Minister who would analyse what she had and tell it in a responsible way.

That seems also to have been a window on personality, giving off both the tough mind and a certain lack of worldliness.

There was scant cynicism in the reactionary economic and social credo that she preached and set out to impose, somehow really seeing it as the best thing for all.

So it was with going to war; no time for fatuous byzantine manoeuvring; the situation called for war, so the battle fleet had to set sail.

Politics, and life, had a touch of debates at the grammar school.


The narrative of the Thatcher years is a well-worn path.

Mrs Thatcher, elected Prime Minister in 1979 in the aftermath of recessionary years battled-through by Labour, IMF intervention, endless trouble with militant trade unions finding their backs to the wall as the economic times changed; immediately pulled the plug on subsidised basic industries, driving them to the wall.

Economic performance plunged; the economic indicators after a few years had the economy at new lows and public disaffection rife. It was especially so in Scotland; never since would her party get a real foothold there. Later analyses showed the closure of pits in the Welsh mining districts had gone too far to be economic; but at the time there was no argument just bitter conflict. The Prime Ministerial rhetoric of British freedom was no impediment to sending out the mounted police to put down workers’ protests in the streets of the Realm.


Going to war turned hostile opinion into public support, but again the political cynicism inherent in patriotic wars and khaki elections, took second place here to a species of actual belief.

A military dictatorship in Argentina had been agitating to get back the Falkland Islands; occupied them; proved intractable, and so, in the view of the British government of that day, impelled it to recover the territory by force of arms. “Gotcha!”, shouted a London tabloid, when the Royal Navy sank the enemy cruiser Belgrano.  The Falklands action was heavy with risk and showed character on the part of the leader.

The victory was acclaimed from several angles. The defeat and consequent fall of the regime in Buenos Ares was unlamented. Contempt for it was manifest; the world fed up with South American dictators; their criminality, cruelty, venality, vomit discourse, waste, stupidity, falseness, and joke military costumes; letting down the aspirations of  humanity, their own citizens especially, to see reason and decency prevail. The particular regime had been ordering up on the international arms market, and was positioning to become a major destabilising force in its region. Its demise gave the left wing of the world a headache: what many had wanted to see done, was done by Margaret Thatcher.

Similar attitudes came into play in the conflict over Irish nationalism – the IRA and its adversary, the Provos.  It became no-holds-barred. IRA terrorists bombed the Brighton hotel where the Conservatives, along with their leader, were in conference. IRA hunger strikers in gaol were allowed to starve.


Though hardly a diplomat Margaret Thatcher made some headway through getting on well with Ronald Reagan. The link symbolised some progress being made in shoring up the trans-Atlantic connection, and so shored-up British sentiment against being in Europe. The United Kingdom budget program matched “Reaganomics”, a realisation of neo-libertarian, “neo-con” ideas, worked up out of a distortion of 19th Century economic theory – stripped of the assumptions of social morality of its time. In the United States also, implementation was having its difficult impacts, billionaires arriving here, people elsewhere checking into the so-called Reagan Motels – thousands out sleeping in cardboard boxes. The Reagan version was to cut income tax, spend very heavily on the armed forces, and borrow money to cover the consequent massive deficits. (The world’s biggest creditor became also the biggest debtor). The Thatcher version was to get middle-to-upper income tax to around 20%, plugging much of the gap with public asset sales and the windfall proceeds of North Sea oil.

Margaret Thatcher got on well with Mikhail Gorbachev, the good hearted would-be Soviet reformer; not so well that Britain or any other Western country would or could bankroll his system to the extent needed to prevent its implosion. Reverting again to a naive or unworldly view, Mrs Thatcher stuck out against German reunification in the aftermath of the crisis in 1989; finishing well out on a limb. Francois Mitterrand and Helmet Kohl negotiated the settlement:  a reunified Germany within an expanded European Union, and the common currency. The new US President, George H Bush, no ideologue, an actual diplomat by metier, assented.


The super-confident media patter, style of a high school debating captain in full force, was well drilled. Make-overs and rehearsals for the performer, complaints for editors, instructions for television reporters, to stop “interrupting”. Verbal fisticuffs occurred with Australian media, ruder in style than the British. One interviewer managed to stop the flow of the visiting PM. “You couldn’t possibly be wrong?”, he asked. Others got more than they gave out. Those antipodean experiences had their impact. Once I bid for an interview for Australian media, during a fight within the European Community over farm trade, the British position on rural subsidies much in sympathy with Australia’s. The message came back with an official impersonating Ingham: “Not those Australian bastards, not on your friggin’ Nelly.”


It was a surprise to see the quick way the end came, a process of inexorable defeat; enemies near and far, foes or Party friends, closing in on Margaret Thatcher. Again, the thinking of the school debating hall seemed to inform the decision to impose a Community Charge, a poll tax, on all citizens.  Why shouldn‘t all pay for local government services? Why impose it all on property owners through their rates? However, the campaign forfeited the native-freedom argument once part of the Thatcher mantra. The tax would reach to the level of citizens who actually could not afford to pay. Not a tax on income, purchases, or property, it was a charge everybody would have to suffer – for being alive. Many experienced the idea that way, as oppression. Amid street demonstrations heading towards mayhem, stubborn defence of the tax by the Prime Minister, and falling poll support for her government, the idea had to be dropped. Things could never be the same. Known in the press as a team of boys subject to periodic “hand-bagging”, the Ministers conspired. Planning the come-uppance did have a tone of misogny to it.

November 1990: Rushing back from a conference in Paris (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe – CSCE), to face the plotters, Mrs Thatcher gave her famous swan song address at the British Embassy. Being present was a last chance to see again the characteristic mentality. It showed a mature self-realisation she was gone, with no actual denial, yet with a persistent will to argue the point, that still there was no reason for departure; assertively, half-naively, unworldly-like.


An outstanding characteristic of the eleven-year rule of Margaret Thatcher was that while riding high, fully eight of those years, this strong woman was the subject of extraordinary admiration and veneration in her own time. Talked about all the time, fiercely defended at the drop of a hat. Adherents, who gave gratuitous praise, insisted she was “beautiful” and “wonderful”. News reports lapsed into recounting affairs of state in terms of the emotions of the leader: Mrs Thatcher would be “furious” about this, “smiling upon” that. Some of it was manufactured. During negotiations over fixing the ozone layer, flaks were sent out with constant reminders to journalists that “Mrs Thatcher is herself a scientist, you know”. (She had been a research chemist, then a lawyer).

In other quarters of course there was bitter criticism and ridicule. Bold actions beget resistance, and some of the consequences, large-scale joblessness and impoverishment in cases, were starkly resented. When the comedian and commentator Clive James mentioned Mad Cow disease, he presented on the screen, for illustration, footage of Mrs Thatcher inspecting a cow.

As for the admiration, a potent factor was that this was a political leader prepared to do, explicitly, persistently, definitely, what her constituency wanted. Essentially, most wealthier people wanted the government to cut their taxes, attack trade unions and suppress left wing opposition; while appreciating some patriotic anti-Europe rhetoric and a military victory. That would be difficult for  ordinary, risk averse politicians to bring themselves to deliver.

Margaret Thatcher embraced the task with eagerness and earnestness, thinking quite honestly that the platitudes of bourgeois life made up a system of values and a program for the common good. It was much as if, one should debate things out in a clear voice, like at school, then decide what was to be done, and no matter what, you then did it.

Baroness Thatcher declined in old age, losing her mental powers; as depicted kindly in the film of her later life, The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep.

Picture wikipedia