Margaret Thatcher: on the verge and after the bacon
12 Apr 2013|

Then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister of the Netherlands Ruud Lubbers at the press conference in 1983Margaret Thatcher sent me to cover a war, she showed me how leaders do diplomatic knife fights at the summit and she gave me a front row seat as she bruised and bent Britain in the effort to remake it. She was brilliant and she was a bulldozer.

Mrs Thatcher was like a few other big leaders I’ve covered—think Mahathir or Lew Kuan Yew or Paul Keating. They always produce a story—whether by friction, force or lightning—a  reporter can ask no more.

For such leaders, it’s not just the politics or the power. It’s the personality: their ambition, intellect and impatience mean they can’t help themselves—the tongue can’t be still and the hand can’t be at rest.

The Soviet Union did Mrs T. a huge favour by attacking her as the Iron Lady. Beyond that useful insult, Francoise Mitterand got closer to the complexity with his judgement that she had the ‘the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe’. And there you have it—the war of the sexes and the war of politics all in one great line.

Part of the Thatcher effect was an ability to capture a big issue in a single phrase. As she fought the European Union to cut British budget payments, the London tabloids loved the idea that this was Mrs T. in handbag mode, insisting loudly: ‘I want my money back’.

As she did battle with Britain itself, the phrase that became a mantra was TINA, standing for, ‘There is no alternative’. In politics, of course, there are always choices; the war I reported from Buenos Aires was the ultimate war of choice. Still, the leader who could, with a straight face, say ‘The lady’s not for turning’ had created a powerful weapon.

She clashed repeatedly with Australia in the Commonwealth over sanctions on South Africa. CHOGMs got much duller when Thatcher departed. Sandy Holloway gives a fine version of those fights between Thatcher and Bob Hawke:

It was the big issue which dominated these forums for years, and one of the few on which the makeup of the Commonwealth gave it a role of real significance. Hawke and Thatcher were the leading champions for two very different viewpoints about the role of sanctions and pressure in achieving change. It was a diplomatic rolling maul of an intensity and duration which I have not seen before or since, and I confess to sometimes wondering whether it was one which they each enjoyed: very tough, very blunt, very strongly felt on both sides, but never nasty. It may also be one of the clearest cases of Mrs Thatcher being on the wrong side of history.

The diplomatic knife fight that glitters in memory was one that Thatcher won. At the Kuala Lumpur summit in 1989, Bob Hawke was trying to get his predecessor, Malcolm Fraser, elected as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. Margaret Thatcher cut that bid down with one warning—‘If Malcolm gets in, he’ll want to do things’. It was a great attack line from a leader whose whole purpose was to do things.

Let me finish with two, true Thatcher anecdotes. The first was from some Australian diplomats who went to 10 Downing Street for talks late one afternoon. As the meeting was warming up, the Prime Minister called a break, saying she had a short errand to run. Back 25 minutes later, she explained that the butcher had not been providing the right bacon for Denis’s breakfast, and there are some things a wife must explain to a butcher in person.

The second takes place on the morning of the 1983 British election. My family and I were living in East Finchley, in the PM’s electorate, and awoke to find her across the street visiting the local Party hierarchy. As she left, Mrs T. paused in deep thought on the grass verge, no doubt pondering what became one of biggest electoral victories in a century and the firm basis for Thatcherism.

After the declaration of the poll for her seat that night at the Town Hall, the Prime Minister paused before rushing off to Tory HQ to savour the triumph. She grabbed the Mayor, brushing aside congratulations, and admonished him: ‘I was in Abbots Gardens this morning. The verges are a disgrace’.

And the next day, several energetic chaps from the council were around quite early to mow the verges and trim the edges. If there’s a Thatcher moral in this, perhaps it’s that the vision has to be built, one detail at a time. And Margaret Thatcher was a demon for the detail as much as warrior for the vision.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.