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December 07, 2005

Margaret Thatcher: A Tribute in Words and Pictures - (Ed.) Iain Dale

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Margaret Thatcher: A Tribute in Words and Pictures
edited by Iain Dale
Pp. 288. London: Daily Telegraph/Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005
Hardback, 20

I have often found that even non political friends seem fascinated by anecdotes about Lady Thatcher. This volume has such an abundance of them that even the most fanatical devotee should be sated. It is very much a coffee table book with hundreds of glossy photographs interspersed with the reminiscences (mostly) from Lady Thatcher's allies.

Its editor Iain Dale, who founded Politicos and now works for David Davis, has assembled some excellent contributions from eminent personages but his own humble effort was one of my favourites. Dale recalls introducing the Iron Lady to an American friend in 1995. She told the young American:

Your President, President Clinton - He is a great communicator.
She prodded the young man in the chest and added:
The trouble is he has absolutely nothing to communicate.
The word "tribute" is interpreted loosely by one of the contributors, the former journalist Edward Pearce. He writes:
I am not a fan of the Lady, too rigid, too narrow, too full of animus, a sort of Protestant ethic gone rogue.
But this is an exceptional contribution for being so mean-spirited. Most are more generous although some of the contributors prefer to dwell more on themselves than Thatcher.

Often it seems that the most interesting or important thing they can remember her saying to them is the offer of a peerage. Others were so young and junior when meeting Thatcher when she was Prime Minister that they were too overawed to discuss anything of great consequence.

Certain themes do emerge, however. For instance of how she would switch with alarming suddenness from aggressive argument to acts of personal kindness and consideration that as Prime minister she could have been forgiven for not spending time on.

Neil Hamilton recalls being summoned to Chequers to assist with writing jokes for a Prime Ministerial speech for a debate on the Queen's Speech in 1989. The speech was to be seconded that year by the Tory MP Jeremy Hanley. Neil writes:

What could Margaret say about him? I suggested a mild witticism combining a reference to his intelligence and amiability:
"He is very clever and amusing but never allows his brains to go to his head".

The joke seemed pretty obvious to me, but not alas to Margaret, who exploded:
"I can't say that! If his brains aren't in his head, where will people think they are?"

We grappled with the abstruse metaphysics of the humour for some time but, try as I might, I could not get her to see the punchline - she was convinced everyone would think she was suggesting his brains were in his backside.

Sir Alfred Sherman, in a powerful and bitter contribution, dates the decline of Lady Thatcher from her dispensing with his services. He lamented that the "deShermanisation" of the Centre for Policy Studies:
set in motion de-Thatcherisation, leaving her bereft of a lodestar and vulnerable to her colleagues-cum-enemies. Legend and literature contain many such instances.
But Sherman also writes with affection of happier times in their relationship:
In opposition, and to some extent in government, we worked closely for hours on end, often a deux, sometimes with her PPSs. During the day, we worked in the Leader of the Opposition's office, overlooking Boudicca's statue, evening and weekends we worked at her home in Flood Street, Chelsea, in the dining room, with a typewriter on the table. When we had progressed, she would go into the kitchen to prepare food, giving instructions through the linking door, exemplifying her dual roles. In her flat at number 10 - living above the shop - she was in and out of the kitchen as no other premier ever was.

It is not easy for labourers in the vineyard to get into the minds of the great, who achieve greatness precisely because their mind and spirit work distinctively. I found she possessed a razor-sharp mind and great application, but because they had been honed in natural science and the law her thinking was linear rather than lateral, but it was her will which marked her out.

In his contribution her former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay recalls the tricky protocol of such a post. Mackay writes:
In the order of precedence which is established for state occasions the Lord Chancellor takes precedence immediately after the Archbishop of Canterbury, before the Archbishop of York and before the Prime Minister.

I hope it is easy to imagine that I felt very embarrassed, and so did my wife, at the idea of preceding the Prime Minister. Again, her charm and grace always showed on such occasions she would always encourage us to take our proper place in front of her, making it a lot easier for us to do so than if we had we not been shown that charm.

I wonder if Lord Irvine felt similarly awkward striding out ahead of his former pupil T Blair? Perhaps not.

Former Liberal Party leader Lord Steel used to get more than his share of tongue lashing from Margaret Thatcher from the despatch box. But here he writes:

On one of the many occasions when she felt obliged to invite me to dinner at Number 10 for a distinguished foreign guest (we always parade our multi-party democracy on such occasions), my wife was struck down with 'flu and could not travel from Scotland. She greeted me:
"So sorry to hear Judy is ill. I didn't want you to be alone so I've arrange for Carol to join us and partner you into dinner."

A genuinely thoughtful and kind touch.

In a beautifully written contribution Oliver Letwin recalls what it was like working for her in Downing Street, perhaps indicating that it would be easier to be a member of her staff than one of her ministers or TV interviewers. He says:
In disaster there would be flowers sent. In error there would be support and acceptance. The worst case I can recall arose from the Local Government expenditure round. I had a little computer, and felt terribly proud to have installed a little programme of my own invention to determine the fiscal effects of certain decisions that fell to be made. Alas, in committee, the conversation took an unexpected turn, and it was only the next morning that I discovered that my programme failed to work when a negative replaced a positive. Down to the study to admit the error. Not a single word of reproach from the Lady: she was, despite all the appearances to the contrary, wholly able to absorb the idea that her staff were imperfect human beings.

"They were turbulent times. It was something of a shock to be sent home one weekend, when the miners were out, and the dockers had just come out, to read the histories of the General Strike. But they were also times of seemingly boundless possibility. The impossible was being done - the rolling back of the socialist state - and she was hungry for more ideas. They might be devoured with delight or spat out in disgust: but the appetite for more was always there. It was as if we were living on the edge of a hurricane. We swept forward, blown and buffeted, but hugely exhilarated.

"And at the eye of the hurricane a still storm."

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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It is strange to read this review, with all its various tributes and reflections, on a night when Lady Thatcher has just been admitted to hospital, feeling faint.

I do hope she recovers soon and enjoys, as she ought to do, both the praise she still elicits, and the vitriol she still stirs up - both, in their own way, are profound tributes to the way she made the weather in which most of us grew to political maturity.

Posted by: Bunny Smedley at December 7, 2005 09:55 PM
•••

I write here as I have located no other site wherein I might be able to request this comment be forwarded to Lady Thatcher. As a Canadian, I and my family find you as one of the most fascinating characters that good old England has produced. We have always admired your candidness, your absolute kindness and compassion, and your ability to "get the job done" without any nonsense. May you truly enjoy your retirement years, Lady Thatcher. My family and I wish you only peace, health and prosperity during this Christmas Season and the year ahead. You have always been "a breath of fresh air" to the Canadian public. May God bless you.

Sincerely, Wm. Dean Davis

Posted by: William Dean Davis at December 9, 2005 06:47 PM
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