I finally met Margaret Thatcher about five years ago in quite surreal circumstances. We sat next to each other in a box at the Albert Hall one September evening watching the BBC record the Christmas edition of Songs of Praise. It was a rather sad few hours as her confused mental state wasn’t helped by being asked to belt out 'Oh, Come All ye Faithful' a full four months before the celebration of the nativity. The questions I would have loved to put to her could not be answered and there were no reminiscences.
It’s odd how with the success of the The Iron Lady film, a softer image of Lady T has been brought to the fore. As Ian McEwan writes today: 'Meryl Streep's depiction of a shuffling figure, stricken and isolated by the death of her husband, Denis, may have softened memories, or formed them in the minds of a younger generation.'
To those under 35 it is hard to communicate what a stridently tough nut and domineering figure she really was. She was the Spitting Image puppet always accompanied by the skinhead Norman Tebbit, not a feeble old woman. Margaret Thatcher moulded my life completely. As a child of the early 60s becoming a vaguely politically aware teenager as I did my homework by candle light during the power cuts, she was there as a fresh alternative to the feckless Ted Heath and creepy Harold Wilson. In my 20s during the 1980s she was omnipresent - provoking an utterly polarised mix of rage and passionate admiration.
Last night watching the telly I was left wondering what it must actually have been like to sit round a cabinet table and work with her. What was it like to have Margaret as your boss? The answer must have been pretty scary. From the contributions of Howe, Clarke, Hurd, Patten, et al one gained a pretty good impression of how bruising and in many cases pretty demoralising it must have been to be subject to such constant handbagging. Kenneth Clarke who is a classic self-admitted bruiser didn’t seem to mind too much. A bit of rough and tumble was what got him up in the morning.
She was immensely controlling and, at her worst, a considerable bully. She also didn’t appear to be that great at accommodating other people’s points of view. Woe betide you if she detected any wetness behind your ears or in your polices. To top it all if she was frustrated and not getting her way she wasn’t averse to turning on the water works. What on earth did anyone do when Lady T cried on them? Offer comfort? Who would dare?
Now the standard argument is that UK plc was in such a dire state back in 1979 that nothing less than a true conviction politician could have sorted it out. There was no room for half measures or trimming. It was her way or the highway. There was no alternative. Things were really pretty bad back then. We were a washed-up declining ex-super power with sky high tax rates, foreign exchange controls and Scargill centre stage, enjoying having us all by the short and curlies. She stood against what the FT today recalls as 'the stifling spirit of blue-blooded defeatism.'
The time for consensus, for beer and sandwiches at Number 10 with the unions to thrash out yet another compromise was gone. She had no choice but to behave thus and dish out her medicine which did make things better. Although, like many experimental drugs, it had some unforeseen side affects.
It is entirely understandable that those who continue to live in the wreckage of what were Northern mining or steel towns express some pleasure in her demise. But how do they think things should have played out? What would have been their solution? Time was running out. We couldn’t pay our way in the world then and we’re having a few problems doing so now.
You could say that we’re now lost in a sterile post-Thatcherite consensus. It would be fascinating to see if we could have her back and at the height of her powers, what her remedy would be now.