I was shocked to learn at lunchtime of the death of Baroness Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Ironically, I had just completed a tour of the Palace of Westminster with two friends from Los Angeles, where we had seen both the striking statue of Lady Thatcher in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons and the spot in Westminster Hall where previous Monarchs and Prime Ministers laid in State. We wondered when the next such occasion might be, not knowing that it would be sooner than any of us could contemplate.
Inevitably Lady Thatcher’s passing has dominated the news since it was announced, with both mainstream and social media becoming overwhelmed by obituaries, tributes and tirades.
What is certainly clear from the wide range of comments is that she remains as divisive in death as she was in life. Perhaps it is the peculiar nature of my eclectic collection of friends that I have comments on my Facebook news feed varying from those who want the Lady beatified immediately to those who would clearly welcome the open burning of her corpse on Parliament Square.
For my part, I am sad that a politician of distinction has gone from our lives, though relieved that her suffering and that of her family and friends is over. I had the privilege of meeting Lady Thatcher on a number of occasions over almost 25 years, the last being in June 2011. It is sad to say that, in recent years, she had become increasingly unwell, that is to say both physically and mentally frail. One can only imagine the sense of frustration and pain that she and those close to her felt in seeing a once great leader losing herself in old age.
I am sure that my use of the terms ‘politician of distinction’ and ‘great leader’ will produce mixed reactions from some of my friends and Twitter followers as I know that many people do not see her in that light. It is certainly true that, with the benefit of hindsight, I would find it difficult to endorse all of her policies, but there is little doubt in my mind that Britain would not still be one of the great economic and political powers globally had it not been for her passion and leadership in the 1980s.
But she achieved much more than that and I can only echo Meryl Streep’s tribute to Lady Thatcher earlier today:
Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics.
It is hard to imagine a part of our current history that has not been affected by measures she put forward in the UK at the end of the 20th Century. Her hard-nosed fiscal measures took a toll on the poor, and her hands-off approach to financial regulation led to great wealth for others. There is an argument that her steadfast, almost emotional loyalty to the pound sterling has helped the UK weather the storms of European monetary uncertainty.
But to me she was a figure of awe for her personal strength and grit. To have come up, legitimately, through the ranks of the British political system, class bound and gender phobic as it was, in the time that she did and the way that she did, was a formidable achievement.
To have won it, not because she inherited position as the daughter of a great man, or the widow of an important man, but by dint of her own striving.
To have withstood the special hatred and ridicule, unprecedented in my opinion, levelled in our time at a public figure who was not a mass murderer; and to have managed to keep her convictions attached to fervent ideals and ideas – wrongheaded or misguided as we might see them now – without corruption, I see that as evidence of some kind of greatness, worthy for the argument of history to settle.
To have given women and girls around the world reason to supplant fantasies of being princesses with a different dream: the real-life option of leading their nation; this was groundbreaking and admirable.
And it was not only women and girls that she inspired to become involved in politics. It was me too.
I grew up with Margaret Thatcher. I was seven when she entered Downing Street (and I do remember the Winter of Discontent) and in my first term of University when she left. I joined the Conservative Party shortly after my fifteenth birthday in 1987, principally due to the iniquities of the spending decisions being made by Rochdale’s ‘loony left’ Labour Council, but also because I found her message about freedom to be spellbinding. Now, on reflection, I know that freedom needs to be tempered by fairness and opportunity, but it remains a philosophy which has changed the world I believe for the better.
So to those friends who are jumping for joy at Margaret Thatcher’s demise, especially to those who have no memory of what Britain was like before she became Prime Minister or indeed of her period in office, I say ‘stop‘, just for a moment, and reflect, both on the discourtesy of rejoicing in someone’s death, but also think of the totality of her life, not just the bits you disagree with. I hope, after that, you will find it in your heart to express some sorrow at the passing of a unique and determined woman.