The mellowing of Margaret Thatcher
On the eve of her 80th birthday, the former prime minister is still more frightened of idleness than of terrorism. Charles Moore, who is working on her authorised biography, offers a rare insight into Lady Thatcher's life today
On Thursday, the Queen and Tony Blair and 600 others will gather at the Mandarin Hyde Park Hotel. On that day, Margaret Thatcher will be 80, and she has invited friends from all aspects and periods of her life to celebrate.
She was born above her father's grocer's shop: No 1 North Parade, Grantham. She later worked over the shop, too, living for 11 and a half years in the flat above Number 10. Now she lives in stuccoed Belgravia. It has been quite a journey.
Lady Thatcher has never been one to brood, about either past or future. Her greatest concern has always been to be up and doing, so it is doubtful that she gave great thought to her old age before it came upon her. But there are one or two clues to what she expected from it.
Back in September 1974, shortly before the second defeat of Ted Heath's Conservatives in that year, the party's shadow environment spokesman gave an interview about which she probably thought little at the time. But because of the magazine's long "lead times'' it did not appear until the end of November. By then, Mrs Thatcher had challenged Heath for the leadership, and the Heathites were desperate to discredit her.
They seized on this interview, in which she spoke about the effects of inflation on women and gave practical tips about how to deal with it. "I, for the first time in my life," Mrs Thatcher said, "have started steadily buying things like tinned food." Stock up the proteins in tins, she advised - "ham, tongue, salmon, mackerel, sardines" - and lay in the tinned fruits as well, because "sugar shortage will eventually work through to tinned fruit".
Heath's campaign managers drew the media's attention to the interview. She's hoarding, they said - how small-minded and antisocial can you get? Lord Redmayne, chairman of Harrods and a former Tory chief whip (who, one can safely assume, "hoarded" wine in his cellar), went on television to condemn her. For a moment, it seemed that her campaign would stop in its tracks.
In fact, the whole thing backfired gloriously. Mrs Thatcher invited the press in to inspect her larder, explaining that she had been practising common prudence. In the article, she had shown that she actually noticed what inflation was like for its victims ("It's interesting to mark the prices on the jars as you buy them and you can see how the prices go up").
Far from appearing repellent, she convinced women that she, too, was a sensible housewife who tried to look after the pennies as male politicians debauched the pounds. The row marked out her difference from her opponent, to her advantage.
But the funny thing is that the interview was not really about inflation at all. It was about retirement, and it appeared in a magazine with the ungripping title of Pre-Retirement Choice. The point of the interview was to ask Mrs Thatcher how she and her husband Denis (11 years older than her, and therefore approaching retirement) would spend their old age.
The shopping plan was part of this, because, as she explained, you need to stock up for a time when you have less income. She told the magazine that she was buying things like towels and sheets which would be needed in 10 years' time. Inflation was going to take away the value of pensions: "£2,000 a year might not be worth much, but a tin of ham is still a tin of ham."
Luckily, said Mrs Thatcher, she was a person who took pleasure in doing things with her own hands - decorating, for instance, and gardening. She said she would like to learn metalwork. She had 30 volumes of Kipling, and "the bindings are all raggy". "I will go on a bookbinding class and do these volumes one by one," she said. She could see, she added, that retirement required "a big psychological adjustment". "One minute your services are required and the next they are not. Now, it's easier for a woman because you turn round and there's a lot immediately and obviously to do in the house." When it actually happened to her, suddenly, in November 1990, it was not easier for the woman at all. For Denis, it did at least bring in a period of relative peace and quiet. For Margaret, the effect was shattering.
She had barely lived a day without working; she had never failed to do her job to the best of her great ability; she had never lost an election; she had brought unparalleled success for her party's MPs - yet now they were throwing her out. She was full of hurt and anger.
Naturally, Lady Thatcher never did go to those bookbinding classes or take up metalwork. I expect that the sheets and towels bought and stored in the mid-1970s had long since been replaced by more expensive models.
There was indeed a great deal to do about the house - or rather about housing, because she quickly realised that the "new-build" in Dulwich they had bought when she was in office was completely unsuitable. And, to the exasperation of her staff, she did seek solace in domestic labour, enthusiastically turning out and relining drawers that, to any but her perfectionist eye, were already neat and tidy enough.
But the quiet pleasures of ordinary retirement were not for her. Another thing she had told Pre-Retirement Choice was that "the most terrifying thing in life would be to have time on your hands and nothing to do". I think that is exactly her view - idleness is literally "the most terrifying thing" for Margaret Thatcher.
She can face without fear political attack, electoral danger, terrorist threat, superhuman effort - but not the emptiness of the silent hours. Doing nothing goes against her puritanical, religious commitment to work, and also her love of human company and excitement. For someone with such a strong ego, she is surprisingly self-critical. With time on your hands, self-criticism can become morbid.
So she wrote her memoirs and did her accompanying television programmes. She gave many fine and thoughtful speeches, mostly in the United States and the Far East. She warned about "rogue states" before the term became fashionable, spoke up for the oppressed in Bosnia and Kosovo, and continued to attack the centralising power of the European Union.
At home, she made several political interventions that, though usually right in principle, were sometimes ill-judged in practice. She also travelled the world, staying with the rich and meeting the famous. Huge and enthusiastic crowds still came to hear her.
Then, slowly, things changed again. The passage of time, and possibly the delayed effect of so many years of relentless work, blunted the edge of Lady Thatcher’s mind. By the late 1990s it became gradually apparent that her short-term memory was failing. She suffers not, as some have reported, from Altzheimer's, but from the effects of several tiny strokes. By the time the century turned, she had lost her - until then - passionate and detailed interest in current events.
She also began to lose her family. Denis died in the summer of 2003, and this, not surprisingly, marked the worst point in her state of health, which has improved considerably since then.
The marriage was an astonishing achievement, particularly for a man of his generation and attitudes. Without his shrewd support she was disorientated, bereft. Last year her older sister Muriel, the important remaining link to her childhood, died. This year, her son Mark was convicted in South Africa of assisting an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea, and left the country. Now, his marriage has broken down and her grandchildren live far away in Texas.
Kind friends invite Lady Thatcher to lunch and dinner, have her to stay, take her on foreign jaunts and she loves this and appreciates it, but a certain loneliness is inevitable.
"Old age is a shipwreck,", wrote General de Gaulle, and sometimes those words have come into my mind when comparing the Margaret Thatcher who dominated British politics with the elderly lady of today. But some qualities do not change and others, strangely, re-emerge.
The sense of duty remains overpowering. Lady Thatcher is assiduous in attending the House of Lords, even though doctors now forbid her to speak there or anywhere else, and in showing up for numerous memorial services and other public occasions. She is faithful in her churchgoing at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where Denis's ashes lie. To all those who want to give her a birthday present, she is suggesting instead that they give £25 each to the Royal Hospital to build a new infirmary and care home.
If you give her lunch, she will ask, as she leaves, if you will excuse her not writing a letter of thanks. You do, but she goes and writes it anyway. (Indeed, a minor trial of being her biographer is that hundreds of people show me treasured, hand-written thank-you letters from her. They are delightful, but as there must be literally tens of thousands of them, they do not greatly advance the historian's work. There can be no one alive who has written so many "bread and butter" letters in her own hand.)
She dresses and makes up and has her hair done with the greatest elegance and care. She is dignified and beautiful, believing that she must look her best. It has always been an iron law with her that she must not let people down, and she obeys it still.
Then there is a sort of sweetness. Many of those who have known Margaret, whether in youthful obscurity or powerful prime, remark when I interview them on her kindness and consideration, her basic good nature and her surprising tolerance of human frailty.
One of them remembers an incident on a speaking tour a few years ago, when Lady Thatcher bumped into an old academic friend in a foreign hotel and invited him to join her party for a drink. He came along, and got so drunk that he fell over, cracking a coffee table and his head.
"Oh dear," said Margaret, "he doesn't seem to be feeling terribly well. Let's take him back to his room." And she helped drag the dazed professor into the lift without the smallest embarrassment or disapproval, even when the lift went the wrong way and spilled the entire party out into the reception lobby.
Critics have often attacked Margaret Thatcher for harshness and indifference to the suffering of others. This has never been true, but there were certainly times when her anger or impatience made her too fierce in argument or too crushing to colleagues. No longer. In old age, smaller and frailer, she shows more of her innate gentleness and human warmth. The phrase is pathetically inadequate for such a character, but she is, among other things, a nice person.
I once asked Enoch Powell to write a piece for Harold Macmillan's 90th birthday. He refused. "Such thoughts as I have," he said, "are best expressed in mortuary not in anniversary form." He meant that he wanted to pass an overall historical judgment. That would not be right for an anniversary piece such as this one, so let me end with just a couple of thoughts.
With a perfect predictability, the BBC chose to call their main programme to mark her 80th birthday The Shadow of Thatcher. It strikes me that "shadow" is precisely the wrong word. What Margaret Thatcher did was to shine a fierce, bright light upon her country - an experience that was both painful and necessary for all involved.
As this year's party conference season ends, it is obvious that her light still plays upon British politics. Unfortunately for the Conservative Party, the person who best understands how to handle this is Tony Blair.
The other point is that the birthday girl is now unassailable. Many will continue to criticise her, some to hate her. She will always be intensely controversial. But what history will not deliver to her is the patronising put-down that the men who spread that "hoarding" story hoped for. She made it, and they didn't. She changed things, and they didn't.
She has risen above the moment and entered myth, so much so that it almost comes as a surprise that she is still flesh and blood. No offence intended to her august guest next Thursday, but Margaret Thatcher is the greatest living Englishwoman.