Appreciation of Margaret Thatcher by Sir John Coles, Private Secretary for Foreign and Defence Affairs, 1981-84
Introductory note (2014)
I worked in No. 10 Downing Street between 1981 and 1984 as the Prime Minister’s private secretary for foreign and defence affairs. When that appointment ended in June 1984 one of my first acts was to write this appreciation. It is not a memoir of my time at No. 10. I kept no diary while I was there, believing as I do that any Minister ought to be able to be confident that a private secretary really is private and is not keeping a record for later public use. But I wanted to describe as objectively as I could the personality of Margaret Thatcher at that time. I knew that when her political career came to an end there would be the usual plethora of biographies and analyses of her time in office. These have their own value but I doubt if anyone is so well placed to describe her personality and behaviour as someone who, in the unique role of private secretary, was in daily contact with her for a lengthy period, who frequently spent several successive hours, whole days, whole weekends and even longer periods in well-nigh permanent contact with her. A further reason which induced me to put my impressions on paper was that in my period at Downing Street I was often dismayed by the inaccuracy of contemporary descriptions of her personality, by journalists, by politicians, by my own acquaintances. I had no intention of publishing this before her death. But now that the archives of the period have been released I hope that this contribution may be useful to historians. What follows is what was written in 1984, bar a few insubstantial amendments.
Appreciation of Margaret Thatcher (June 1984)
I begin with physical attributes. When I began working for Margaret Thatcher she was 54 years old. She was well-preserved and worked hard at her appearance. Slightly dumpy, smaller than the popular imagination would have it, she always took great trouble with her clothes, her hair and her make-up. These things influenced the Prime Ministerial schedule. Several days in each week began with a hair appointment. Lengthy sessions with her dressmaker were frequent, especially before extended foreign travel. The result was often spectacular.
I was reminded of the fact when I first met her. She visited Egypt in 1976 as Leader of the Opposition. She arrived uncharacteristically late at a dinner given by the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs. I with other guests had assembled in an ante-room awaiting her arrival. Eventually the doors were flung open and in she walked—blond hair gleaming, wearing a gold brocade dress from neck to ankle. An Egyptian friend whispered in my ear: “She has left her crown behind”.
She always researched the likely background to her appearance. If the event was a TV interview or a major speech she wished to know precisely what the physical arrangements were and, in particular, what the background colours would be. She chose her clothes accordingly. But other factors entered the calculation. When she was to host a large banquet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in 1983 she decided to appear in a brilliant scarlet dress, not of course as a sycophantic gesture to communist China but because she had been told that for the Chinese red signified happiness and that it would be an appropriate colour to wear at a celebratory occasion.
Her physical features were not particularly good, apart from her face which had great mobility; it was capable of an almost spitting fierceness, a beatific calm, flirtatiousness and the deepest concentration. You learned to watch the mood.
When I first joined her staff she displayed extraordinary energy, unlike any I have seen in man or woman before or since. Her working day began whenever she woke up. And since she was not a good sleeper this was early. She might listen to the BBC World Service news at 5.00 a.m. She often then listened to Farming Today on the BBC. And from around 7.00 a.m. she would listen continually to the radio, working meanwhile on her boxes and taking telephone calls from political acquaintances who knew this was the best time of day to talk to her. A hair appointment might follow at 8.00 and at 9.00 the formal day began. More often than not the list of engagements would run through until 6 or 7.00 p.m. Evenings were often taken up with dinners or other engagements. When there was a gap work would begin on boxes and could continue till midnight or beyond. If there was a major speech in the offing it was not uncommon to work till 2.00 or 3.00 a.m. Most of the weekend was also spent working. In August she would take, typically, a ten day holiday, often in Switzerland, and that was the only proper break in the whole year.
Why such application? It was the habit of a lifetime. She had been brought up to regard hard work as a virtue. Then, she always aimed high. A draft speech could always be improved by going through it again, changing a few words, clarifying the logic, finding a better quotation. Preparation for parliamentary appearances, especially Prime Minister’s Questions, could always be perfected by absorbing more information on the off-chance it might be useful. Ministerial meetings would be more likely to reach the right result if she was better prepared than her colleagues.
Then, she had few diversions on which to fall back. She had no interest in outdoor activities beyond a short walk. Her cultural interests were few—some liking for music and opera but little knowledge of, and no burning enthusiasm for, either; little feeling for art; little interest in literature except where this would illustrate a political point. Her main form of relaxation was political or economic discussion; she was often at her happiest with a whisky and soda in her hand and surrounded by half-a dozen politicians, businessmen, bankers or economists engaged in a lively argument.
During the period 1983/1984 a decline in her energy became apparent. I date it from her successful re-election in June 1983. Some of us noticed that it was not quite the same Margaret Thatcher who returned to No. 10. For a time this could be attributed to an eye complaint which gave her much trouble that summer. But when that was behind her, she was still not the person of old. It became much rarer for her to work after midnight, much rarer for her to keep dinner party guests back for discussion into the small hours. Speeches which in the earlier period would have kept her staff up until 2.00 a.m. were dispatched with much less time and energy. Why? Partly, I think, because the exertions of 1979 -1982 had begun to take their toll on a woman who was not young. The three-month Falklands campaign, from April to June 1982, with all the terrible responsibilities and anxieties it brought, would have been enough seriously to affect the performance of any Prime Minister. Small wonder that it left its mark on her. Possibly, also, the very fact of being re-elected was not without its influence. For many Prime Ministers it is a sufficient ambition, having been elected once, to lead your party to triumph a second time. I recall my surprise when she said to me, just two or three days after the Conservative victory of June 1983, “I have not long to go”. For someone who had just won a majority of 140 seats this was a remarkable statement. When I queried it she said, “My party won’t want me to lead them into the next election—and I don’t blame them”. A graphic example of her detachment from conventional political wisdom and her sense of future political developments.
But let it be said, if there was a decline in energy over the period—and there certainly was—the less energetic Margaret Thatcher of post-June 1983 was still prodigious in her energy. She still had great capacity for work, great resilience and a notable ability to recover quickly from bouts of tiredness or depression.
Turning to character, everything about it was complex. The dominant characteristic was determination. Time and again, when she was resolved on a particular course, she prevented Cabinet or the party wavering by refusing to waver herself. She would not be moved by appeals for compromise or a more sophisticated approach. And this toughness was usually reflected in her public performance. Not for her the “on the one hand … on the other” approach. It was of course this resoluteness which earned her the title “Iron Lady”. But that label is far too simple. It is conventionally assumed that she knew from the beginning of a discussion what she was determined to do and imposed her will on her colleagues. I have seen her use that technique but it was comparatively rare. Much more often her approach to a new problem was hesitant and cautious. It is a mistake to assume that in her case determination meant dogmatism. It meant only that having reached a conclusion, often painstakingly, and having rigorously examined the arguments, she then insisted on the application of the conclusion.
If the political realities made it impossible to pursue a particular course, she was the first to say so. But by realities I mean realities, not the whimpering of a Chief Whip who doubts whether he has got the votes or of a party chairman who murmurs about constituency feeling. An example. In the European Community negotiations on budget contributions she showed an uncompromising determination to get a fair deal for Britain. There came a point in March 1984 when we had few negotiating cards left and it seemed desirable that the Prime Minister should deploy the one weapon that she had so far declined to use - we should simply announce that until the problem was solved we would withhold the payments which we were legally obliged to make to the European exchequer. The Prime Minister was determined to do this and had made it plain to a Ministerial meeting that this was the next step. At 10.00 p.m. I left her intent on doing so the next day. At 9.00 the following morning she told me without batting an eyelid that we could not withhold payments because “the Conservative party is the party of legality, of law and order.” During the night, it emerged, the most compelling evidence had been produced that there was a clear majority in the party against withholding.
That term “Iron Lady” also carried the connotation of ruthlessness, of a person without ordinary human emotions. There was a widespread conviction in Britain that she was incapable of caring for those who suffered, the unemployed, the sick, or the destitute. “Surely”, letters to her would say, “You as a mother can do better”. And yet those closest to her were well aware that she was far from lacking humanity. For example, she became extremely attached to her staff and closest advisers, was always loath to let them leave when the time came, was kindness and generosity themselves if ever she heard that they had some personal or family problem, and she showed them quite outstanding loyalty.
She was certainly capable of a mother’s emotions. She showed the greatest concern for her son Mark when, in February 1982, he was lost in the Sahara, and later when the charge was made that she had improperly advanced her son’s business interests when on an official visit to Oman.
But the above points fail to convince many who say that of course she could be kind to staff and family but what about the unemployed? She believed that kindness to the unemployed was best shown by an economic policy which reduces their number and creates real and lasting jobs in the future. But when individual cases of hardship came to her attention she would often show real distress and spend what seemed to her staff an inordinate amount of time on them. Time and again she would reject the explanatory draft letters provided by Whitehall and insist that the case be re-examined and more humanity shown. That is a remarkable quality in the busiest person in the land; ticking the draft is so much easier.
Those who called for more public displays of human emotion from this Prime Minister would do well to remember that she is a woman among men, and that there have been many ready and waiting to criticise the choice of a woman to lead the Conservative party just as soon as she could be shown to be given to unreasonable feminine behaviour. There has been far too little consideration of the phenomenon of a female prime minister. With the exception of one reasonably perceptive newspaper article by Enoch Powell there has been little serious comment on the peculiar strains that that situation has placed on Margaret Thatcher. The men of the Cabinet can between them call on years of male political experience based on government, parliament and the party, often backed, at least in the Conservative case, by the shared experience of a few public schools, university, the services and the major Pall Mall clubs. They draw on a reserve of accepted thought and behaviour, of male humour, argument and sign-language from which a woman is excluded. That Margaret Thatcher quickly made herself dominant and retained that pre-eminence is commonly recognised. Less commonly observed is the emotional cost to her of that process and the steps to which she had to resort to defy the conventions.
She probably felt that the language of compromise itself had a male quality, the civilised talk of clubland. She instinctively distrusted such an approach, partly because it eroded fundamental principles, partly because it smacked of the consensus politics which had been tried and failed and partly because it was a poor recipe for action.
To assert her will this very feminine woman had to—or at least chose to—adopt a strident tone with nearly all of her colleagues. At times her style was abusive, rude and unpleasant. Not for her the logical chain of argument if she saw the chain leading in the wrong direction. She was more inclined to charge the offender with being ‘soft’, ‘wet’ or ‘backsliding’. And she would push the exchanges to the point of extreme embarrassment to other listeners. A Cabinet Minister who threatened openly to resign was most unlikely to hear the plea for reconsideration that he doubtless hoped his threat would produce. The response on one occasion was typical: “That’s up to you. But you would be extremely unwise to do so.” She could display a quite unfeminine toughness and crudeness in such encounters. But in general I insist on the femininity. She was a loving mother, with a mother’s emotions. And she was devoted to her much older husband, even if their marriage, like most marriages at that age, lacked sparkle. She was easily moved by another’s misfortunes. If upset or offended by a particular line of argument the resentment could bubble on for days. Not for her the political clash followed by the reconciliation over a drink in the club. She didn’t have a club; she distrusted appeals to the team spirit.
Indeed, her whole approach to government belied the idea of the team. Collective responsibility was not one of her guiding principles, though it might be appealed to when it suited her to do so. She firmly believed that Cabinet had to be managed, that you had to work out in advance, with one or two close colleagues, what decisions you wanted and then ensure that those were the decisions you got.
“Is he one of us?” This question, often cited by the media, was frequently in her mind. The Cabinet was divided into those who were and those who were not. To be garlanded, it was necessary to be generally right-wing, especially on economic policy, and consistently supportive. Genuine argument was not excluded but the argument should be conducted in private. Open challenges in Cabinet, especially if frequent, disqualified from membership of the inner circle.
Once again there was a marked difference between the pre- and post-June 1983 period. After the Conservative victory in that month she reconstructed the Cabinet so that those closest to her in political thinking were in a clear majority. That done, she was able to be more relaxed. Sure in the end she could get her way she found it less necessary to clash with the “wets” and indeed went out of her way in some cases skilfully to humour them.
The workings of Margaret Thatcher’s mind are a fascinating study. She was trained both as a lawyer and as a chemist and often spoke with pride of both kinds of training. But I saw very little evidence that these disciplines influenced her manner of thought. She did not proceed, as the scientist does, by carefully amassing evidence and forming a conclusion only when the evidence clearly justifies it. Nor like the lawyer did she seek to build up a case by logical argument. I would be less than honest if I claimed fully to understand her intellectual processes. There were occasions when she moved with astonishing rapidity to a clear conclusion, apparently without needing any intervening steps. In these cases she had the fastest mind in Cabinet by a long way. Whether she was guided by instinct or whether her agile mind simply concertinaed the chain of thought until it almost failed to exist, I never knew.
Examples. In 1984 she had just left London on an official visit to Portugal when we were informed, in mid-air, that a member of the Libyan People’s Bureau in St. James’s Square had fired upon and killed a policewoman. The Home Secretary [Leon Brittan] took charge in London and that evening held a long, inconclusive telephone conversation with the Prime Minister about the action to be taken. The basic issue was: should our aim be to get all the members of the Libyan Bureau out of Britain and our own embassy staff out of Tripoli with minimum delay? Or should we rather do everything possible to identify the murderer and bring him to justice? There were complex considerations which need not be mentioned here. The advice from London was anything but clear and the Prime Minister’s natural caution made her reluctant to impose a view from Lisbon when she was out of touch with the mood and atmosphere in London. The Home Secretary was asked to telegraph his advice overnight, agreed with other ministers involved, and set out all the arguments. I arranged to see the Prime Minister at 7.00 a.m. the next morning to consider his telegram. Having read it I urged her not to be in a hurry; there was no need for a decision till mid-morning; it was a difficult issue and she should take all the time she needed. But as soon as she had read the telegram her mind was made up. We should aim for the most rapid possible departure of the Libyans and our own people. I have no doubt that the decision was right. But most people would have wished to reflect for an hour or two.
Or take the example of the American intervention in Grenada in October 1983. This incident disturbed Margaret Thatcher. I shall come later to the reasons but for the moment it is the speed of her decision-making which I want to emphasise. One evening about 7.15 a message arrived from the U.S. President stating that he was considering whether it would be wise to intervene militarily in Grenada, that he had taken no decision and that he would welcome the Prime Minister’s advice. There was no suggestion of haste or urgency. After a brief discussion with the Defence Secretary and one or two others the Prime Minister asked me to draft a reply counselling caution and listing the reasons why intervention might well be unwise. It was arranged that she would consider this draft on return from an official engagement later in the evening. At about 10.00 p.m. another message arrived from Reagan, baldly stating that he had decided to intervene. I telephoned the Prime Minister and asked her to return immediately to No. 10. She did so and discussed the situation with the Foreign and Defence Secretaries [Sir Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine] . At the outset of this discussion her mind was in a sense already made up. She would not support the U.S. move and we should make this plain in a message to Reagan. There was almost no consideration of a possible alternative course, namely, now that it was clear that that the Americans were going to intervene whatever we did, suppression of our doubts and public support for our foremost ally at a difficult time.
Why was it so obvious to her what we should do? The answer to this question provides another key to her thought processes and indeed her whole character. Whatever problem she dealt with she liked to discover within it a fundamental principle. Once seen this became the guide for action and the defence against all critics and compromisers. She once told me of her reaction to the British invasion of Suez in 1956. She was being driven in London and saw a newspaper placard bearing the banner headline “Eden goes into Egypt”. She stopped the car and exclaimed “He has no right to”. She had the fundamental conviction that it was wrong to transgress the boundaries of another nation.
In April 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands. At once she saw the fundamental principle at stake. It had no right to. It must be stopped. Aggression must not be allowed to succeed in the South Atlantic. If it did there would be consequences for freedom elsewhere. Berlin was much on her mind. These principles seem obvious once stated. They were not so obvious to the country at large in the first days after the Argentine invasion. It is to her everlasting credit that she saw them at once, publicly proclaimed them in the clearest terms and provided the nation with the clear moral justification for what was to follow.
I was with her throughout that campaign and it deserves a book in itself, a much better book than has so far appeared. It was her finest hour. She set out to assert and defend a fundamental principle in which she passionately believed. And the clarity of vision, the decisiveness and the courage with which she led Britain at that time form the most enduring of memories. Nor should anyone believe that this was a ruthless Iron lady at work. She is no war-monger. I know from personal observation how keenly she felt the British deaths, how quickly her mind went to the parents who had lost loved ones, how often she insisted on writing to them personally. Without her I doubt that the Task Force would ever have sailed, or even if it had that it would have fought. I am sure that if Argentine aggression had succeeded the consequences for Britain would have been profound. The moral shock, the humiliation, for a nation which has still not come to terms with imperial withdrawal, would have been unbearable. The national decline would have been irretrievable. Instead, and thanks largely to her, the country was fired with a new sense of vigour and achievement, a feeling that Britain had not lost its former capacity for action in defence of freedom.
So in October 1983 Margaret Thatcher instinctively felt that she could not support the American invasion of Grenada, for the same principle which she had asserted over the Falklands appeared now to be being violated again. And yet months after the event she was never certain that her attitude to the Grenada affair had been right. Her difficulty was that her desire to find the fundamental principle and be guided by it was frustrated. She thought she had found it but later realised that there were more than one and they did not all point in the same direction. In Grenada a Marxist regime had been imposed against the will of the people and that regime had later been hijacked by extremists who had murdered the former leader [Maurice Bishop]. Cuban and Soviet influence were obvious. The threat to freedom not just in Grenada but in the whole Caribbean was manifest. Was not there also a fundamental principle that the people of a country are entitled freely to choose their government? If that freedom is subverted by tyrants, with external support, is there not a point where Western democracies should intervene to protect freedom? By the time I left No. 10 Margaret Thatcher had still been unable to resolve these contradictions. She remained worried about them and had just initiated a new study to try to resolve them.
Attachment to fundamental principles had been, in the Falklands campaign, a source of tremendous strength. But is it a sufficient guide for a British Prime Minister? Should he or she not consult British interests more narrowly and be guided by those? To ask Margaret Thatcher to be so guided is to ask her to be someone else.
She had many other attributes, foremost among them a remarkable memory. It was almost infallible. She packed a great deal of information into her mind and could often recall detailed facts and figures months later. This quality put a considerable responsibility on her staff. It was essential to ensure that the information she was given was accurate. For once embedded in her memory it was liable to be reproduced at any time and it was difficult, if one later discovered a fact was erroneous, to erase it.
In communication she was often rather incoherent. This was partly due to the speed of her mind but also, I suspect, to an inadequate literary grounding. Time and again one saw baffled expressions on the faces of listeners as they attempted to make sense of a succession of sentences which tailed off into the air and seemed to bear little relation to each other. Her staff became adept at noting and interpreting throwaway lines or half-formulated phrases, which were often to be regarded as decisions or instructions. But you had to know her to be able to do it!
Paradoxically, she was rather good at impromptu speeches, made off the cuff after dinner or at some political gathering. Armed with no more than a few scribbled headings she would deliver an animated, thoughtful, even witty speech, especially to a responsive audience.
Paradoxically again, she found major set speeches an enormous trial, as did her staff. She was almost incapable of writing such a speech herself. She preferred to work with a draft provided by someone else and perhaps a counter-draft as well. One text would succeed another until she was broadly satisfied with the content. Then would begin a lengthy process of fine tuning, eliminating superfluous and repetitive words and phrases, seeking a better word for the one in the text etc. Every speech had to reassert basic principles. Every speech had to have a stirring peroration. Her aim was oratory. She did not like the carefully balanced phrases and sophisticated arguments served up by the Whitehall machine. She searched rigorously for punchy sentences, plain words, headline-catching phrases. There had to be clap lines. I do not think she ever made a great speech, at least by Churchillian standards. She did not have the style or the feel for words and there were limits to what her staff could do. But nor did she make a bad speech. She was always worth listening to. And audience after audience was fired by her conviction, clarity, enthusiasm, and the fact that she used language which, unlike much political jargon, could actually be understood. She sensed people’s emotions and spoke to them. The sophisticates may not have liked this. They accused her of playing to the mob, of populism (her speech to the Conservative party conference in Perth in May 1982, largely about the Falklands, was attacked on these lines). They found it hard to absorb this new phenomenon, this radical, unconventional woman who defied the world which men had shaped for centuries and set her own style and tone.
For she was radical and unconventional, a very distinct brand of conservative. Her radicalism consisted in going to the roots of a problem and seeking fundamental solutions. The application of the solutions might be carefully timed to meet political imperatives. But the patched up compromise had no appeal for her.
Inflation was the root of many evils, so inflation had to be tackled at root. If trade union power got in the way, then that power must be curbed. If the European Community’s finances were absurd and illogical the battle to reform them must continue until the basic injustices and defects were removed. Time and again the skilled euro-compromise was vehemently rejected. All this represented more than the stubbornness which it was often portrayed as being. It demonstrated clarity of vision, a belief in radical change and great courage and persistence.
Unconventional too. She distrusted conventions deeply. She distrusted institutions whether they were the BBC, the great Whitehall departments, the cabals of Tory politics, the trade unions, even the Church. For she believed that institutions ossified thought, made people too comfortable, too lax, unenterprising, that they protected privilege and removed incentive. Hence her passionate belief in the small entrepreneur, the person with an idea who had to take risks, especially financial risks, to develop it, and then had to husband profits and consider further investment.
But if she distrusted institutions she had great respect for many of the people in those institutions. She often showed contempt for the Foreign Office. But she admired rather a long list of people in that institution and would ask for them by name to brief her. It was people she wanted, not the British Council but Sir Charles Troughton, the then head of the Council, who had once persuaded her to listen for an hour while he explained what he wanted the Council to do. Ever afterwards he was given a fair hearing. The Chiefs of Staff as an institution did not impress her but a chief who proved himself, as did Sir Terence Lewin during the Falklands campaign, was deeply revered. The large British firms did not of themselves impress. Indeed she had little time for the some of the self-styled captains of industry and major City figures. But some had proved themselves as individuals and were then looked to for advice and ideas.
She personalised government and was much criticised for doing so. It was quite common for her to say that she wanted advice from a particular person in a particular department and her staff spent a lot of time smoothing the feathers of Ministers and permanent under-secretaries who thought that it was their role to channel advice. Their reactions disturbed her not one bit. The media often alleged that if civil servants were to do well during her regime they had to share her political views, had to be ‘sound’. I saw absolutely no evidence of this and do not believe it. Certainly, she preferred people whom she knew and trusted to be in the key civil service posts. But I see nothing wrong with that. She never showed the slightest interest in my own political views (or to my knowledge those of any other public servant).
She distrusted the ‘machine’ as distinct from the people who made it up. She did not believe that interdepartmental argument, bargaining and compromise necessarily produced the best results. It was to challenge the sacrosanctity of this system that she made use of other advisers. On a given issue she might receive in addition to official advice the views of the Centre for Policy Studies (a Conservative party body), her own policy unit in No.10 and private individuals whom she chose to consult. Nor was she beyond asking a cabinet minister who had nothing to do with the subject to give his views, or indeed the doorkeeper if she thought he had something to contribute (she was probably the least pompous of all British Prime Ministers). This was her way of challenging the received wisdom, testing the official advice. Much has been made of her resort to outside advisers. Numerous press articles have attempted to describe the “network of influence and power” within and outside No. 10. All were wide of the mark. None of them correctly located where the real influence lay. The role of the various specialist advisers was much more limited than the media, with its fascination with personalities, liked to imagine.
Margaret Thatcher fought shy of the machine for another, more fundamental reason. She was passionately attracted by ideas. And she liked to see them in their original form, uncluttered by bureaucratic processing. She seized on what to her was a new idea with all the avidity and enthusiasm of a parched traveller, emerging thirsty from the desert to be presented with a goblet of ice-cold water. Before she went to Washington in September 1983 to receive the Winston Churchill Award, we spent a weekend at Chequers preparing the speech which she was to make on that occasion. [Saturday 17 September 1983] She had invited among others Mr. George Urban who had just completed a lengthy article for Encounter, mainly about East/West relations and the nature of communist society. The Prime Minister had typically read every word of the hundred or so pages and had marked one sentence with three lines. I do not have the text before me but the idea was that Europe as the home of freedom and the mainspring of artistic, scientific and technical creativity had a moral responsibility to bring these benefits to the peoples of Eastern Europe. That concept greatly excited her and she worked the idea into the speech.
I recall too another speech-writing occasion when Lord Dacre, Professor Michael Howard and others had been invited to a working dinner to discuss the possible contents of a speech which she was to make on defence and arms control. The conversation went on for some four hours. After the guests had gone she said to me “There were only two things in that” and then described to me the only two thoughts of the great men which she had found interesting. [?20 October 1982 - working dinner in preparation for speech to the North Atlantic Assembly; see 5/1/5/176 f112 for Michael Howard's follow up note]
The constant search for new intellectual stimulus was an attractive characteristic. Most people have lost this quality, if they ever had it, by early middle age. At 56 she showed no sign of a deteriorating intelligence or a declining thirst for knowledge.
So what in sum inspired this very unusual woman? What motivated her?
First, she was influenced by her upbringing, and especially by her father. There she learned the virtues of hard work, enterprise, sensible financial management and middle-class morality. She learned by her own efforts that Britain was a sufficiently mobile society for a determined person of ability to make his or her way to the top. She came to learn, I do not know when, that if you worked 18 hours a day instead of 8 you put yourself in a position of great advantage. This required sacrifice, in her case, I believe, great sacrifice. She always had a stricken conscience that if she had spent more time with her children, their lives would have been easier (not necessarily true). Then I make the very personal observation –which is as likely to be wrong as right—that had the emotional side of her character been fully satisfied, she would never have developed the prodigious energy and determination that are two of her strongest qualities.
She was ambitious but she did not have overweening personal ambition. For her, politics was about more than keeping the Conservative party or herself in power. She wished to do things for Britain. She was a patriot who was inspired by British history and who believed firmly that the British people had special qualities which needed only to be released for the national decline to be arrested. When she came to power her knowledge of the world was slight, her ignorance of foreign countries and personalities very marked. Over the years she corrected this so that, in June 1984, when I left her service she was one of the senior statespersons on the world stage and one of its most impressive. But, if anything, her faith in Britain was strengthened by the experience.
She had a deep reverence for monarchy, one of the few exceptions to her distaste for institutions. She took seriously her weekly audience with the Queen and took great pains with advice to the Palace on royal and other matters.
But her belief in Britain was founded most firmly on a passionate attachment to the freedom of our society and the justice of its legal system.
To understand her attachment to freedom in all its depth you had to visit a Communist country with her. Whether China, the Soviet Union or Hungary (and I accompanied her to all three), she could not suppress in private, and barely in public, her hatred of a society from which freedom was absent and which denied and was afraid of liberty. One of the events which I shall remember most clearly was her visit to the Berlin Wall in October, 1982. Her passion for freedom was forcefully expressed in one of the more remarkable of her speeches, which attracted an enthusiastic reaction from the Germans who had crowded the streets to see her.
She believed in freedom both because of its innate goodness but also because she had faith in the capacity of a free people, restricted only by the needs of justice, to solve problems by their own efforts. It was the unnecessary restrictions on freedom and enterprise, whether socialist controls and planning, the excessive power of trade unions, the jealously guarded privileges of the professions, the inwardness and protective instincts of the civil service, the fossilisation of the Tories of the shires—which had to be removed. Whether she is right or not remains to be seen. She has already achieved much. In a large part of Britain the earlier sense of helplessness in the face of inexorable decline has been removed (but in the large areas of unemployment it may have been increased). Inflation is nearly under control, itself a remarkable boost to confidence in the future. The power of the unions has been reduced and the excesses of annual wage rounds largely removed. There is undoubtedly much greater respect for Britain abroad after the Falklands episode and with the emergence onto the world stage of a major player in the shape of Margaret Thatcher.
But the fundamental question cannot be answered in June 1984: will her economic policies produce sustained growth, an eventual reduction in employment and a Britain competitive in world markets? In short, is the national decline irreversible or can these policies reverse it? There is no certainty but I answer the question now as I have done many times in response to friends who have invited me to share their criticisms and doubts. I do not know whether these policies can reverse our country’s decline; I think there is a chance that they will; I am absolutely sure that when Margaret Thatcher departs from the scene, consensus politics will return; and I am equally sure that consensus politics in the future as in the past, will not provide the answer to our problems, will not halt our decline. I also very much doubt whether I shall see again in my lifetime a politician of such courage, vision, determination, patriotism and, yes and, humanity. With all her faults she is the best hope for our country.