Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: a Prime Minister for the nuance-free Twitter age

It was a Thursday morning, double-history. I can’t recall what we were meant to be studying — almost certainly the Nazis or the Tudors since that was all we ever studied — but instead of ordering us to open our books, Mr Heath turned on the television. Today, he said, we are going to be watching history. Today, the BBC informed us, the only Prime Minister we had ever known had decided to stand down.

Momentous events often happen on November 22. John F Kennedy was assassinated then, for a start. Monarchy was restored to Spain on the death of Franco, Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female Chancellor and the Orange Revolution kicked off in Ukraine. It was when Jonny Wilkinson drop-goaled England to the rugby World Cup, too.

For that third-form class watching history being made, the sight of Mrs Thatcher being taken to Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen and a collection of grey-haired men coming forward to express their sorrow, doing their best to hide the dripping daggers that they had wielded the night before, marked the end of an era. Born too late for her to snatch our milk, we had only ever known her as PM.

When she left Downing Street for the last time it shook up our knowledge, our security, of the way the world was. We felt the same when John Craven left Newsround.

Enough has been written on Thatcher’s influence and legacy, with neither her supporters nor her detractors giving much ground in the past two decades. It was appropriate that she should live long enough to reach the age of Twitter, since the 140-character format encourages black-and-white opinions with little nuance.

I struggle to understand both the simpering adoration (I know one Tory MP who has a framed photo of her by his bed) and the utter hatred from people who overlook what a mess the country was in before she came to power. As today’s Times leader reminded us, the day Thatcher became Prime Minister The Times had nothing to say on the matter since the print unions had closed the paper for much of 1979. Surely destroying the power of the unions, who had destroyed her three predecessors and wrecked the economy, was to her credit.

Thatcher was, for me, very much an “on the one hand... on the other” politician. She did some good, she did some bad; she was compassionate to some, intolerant of others; she healed the country, she damaged the country.

One thing is certain: the critics who say that she was divisive are utterly wrong. No other politician has so united the country in having a strong opinion about them, one way or the other. No one ever remembers Thatcher with a shrug.

As a grammar school boy with a strong work ethic, I should have been her sort of person but there was also something about her that made me think we would never have hit it off. That manic certainty, for a start, and the fact that despite (or through) growing up in Colchester I loathed the crass, vapid, money-centric, culture-free Essex Man she had created. They were her people, not me. I was Tory, but an old-school One Nationer.

We are all Thatcherites now, the Prime Minister declared this morning. Maybe economically we are, or most of us. But as I have got older, I have identified more with the Tory wets. I suspect that if I had been one of her MPs, I would have had too much compassion (or too little spine) to approve some of her measures. I always admired John Major’s hesitation more than her conviction.

I met them both when I worked at Conservative Central Office more than a decade ago. The early William Hague philosophy of compassionate conservatism based upon kitchen-table issues, a positive move that gained no traction with the electorate who wanted to punish the Tories with at least two terms out of office, had been ditched in favour of a strong anti-euro, anti-immigration, play-to-the-base policy. It was a grim time.

Part of this shunt, this attempt to pick up at least the love of the Daily Mail if not a parliamentary majority, meant bringing back Thatcher. “The Mummy returns” she declared at conference, to rapturous applause in the hall and shudders round the country. I felt uneasy, knowing that any of the good she had done in her first two terms in office would be swamped by more recent memories of the poll tax and section 28.

Thatcher was brought round the Central Office “war room”, supposedly to rally morale. We spoke briefly. She complained about the BBC being biased and told me not to let John Humphrys keep getting away with it.

I also met Major during that campaign. The first time we spoke, he asked what was happening in the news and having run through a few headlines I told him that Surrey were winning at the Oval. We then chatted about cricket for 20 minutes.

The next time he came round was just after the new Wisden had been published. He saw it sitting on my desk and, ignoring the manifesto, grabbed the yellow book and started to thumb through it. For a few minutes, the election was forgotten and we talked instead about the upcoming Ashes. Both would inevitably result in a thrashing. Call me soppingly wet, but this was my sort of PM.


Charis Croft said...

Ok, self serving Thatcher anecdote alert.

My mother was an old Somervillian, like Lady Thatcher, and one day she took me with her to the opening of some building or other. (or maybe a quad. Or a sundial. I forget).

I think Mrs Thatcher was due to arrive to make a speech, or perhaps it was named after her. However, walking past some elderly female dons, clad in their academic gowns and caps, I clearly remember them saying, in their crisp, distinctive Oxford accent 'Margaret Robinson? I remember her. A rather indifferent chemist'. Thus Oxford passed it's opinion on her, in the only terms that will ever matter to Oxford - it's own.

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