The sad news of the death of Margaret Thatcher at the age of 87, after a long period of ill health, though not unexpected, will nevertheless divide the nation. A polarising Prime Minister in life, she will remain controversial even in death. This is a pity, for she had many qualities that ought to have commanded universal admiration.
Margaret Roberts, as everyone knows, was the daughter of a prosperous shopkeeper from Grantham, Lincolnshire; it is generally supposed that her father, Alderman Roberts, was the chief formative influence on her life. From him she must have learned what was her foremost quality, one that has often been overlooked: her dedication, one might almost say addiction, to hard work. A woman of enormous energy, she almost never relaxed: she never strolled, she walked briskly, even trotted, and she spoke with a voice that was low and intense. Work was everything for Mrs Thatcher, it filled her day, it filled her mind. A Conservative peer, now long dead, once told me of being invited with his wife for a quiet and informal dinner at No 10; it was, he said, the most exhausting night of his life: he, his wife, and Denis listened to the Prime Minister speak without let or hindrance on a wide variety of topics almost without interruption. She had no small talk, she had no small thoughts. Politics was everything for her; unlike her great friend Ronald Reagan, there was no afternoon snooze, no daytime television.
It was this sheer dedication to the task in hand that must have won her the chance to get into Parliament in the first place, which was, in those days, difficult for a woman. Similarly, this dedication would have assured her path up the ministerial ladder, but one notes that in becoming Education Secretary, she was corralled into a job that was seen as suitable for a woman. Her dedication to hard work would have won her admiration but few friends. This is a pity, for it was the hard work of people like Alderman Roberts and his daughter that made Britain the workshop of the world; Margaret Thatcher, I am sure, truly believed, and with some justification, that people of her type had made Britain great.
This dedication to hard work and self-reliance (after all, she had had no powerful friends or gilded background to assure her rise) that led, one assumes, to her natural affinity with all things American. She adored Reagan, that most American of Presidents. And they admired her. But, it has to be said, even when America did not back her, she did not back down. She had a strong faith in her own rightness, and sent the Task Force to the Falklands without the explicit support of the Americans. That took courage, but courage was a moral virtue she certainly had.
What of her religious faith? The Roberts family were Methodists, but by the time she was Prime Minister she was Anglican. She did make several forays into theology, such as an address to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, none of which were particularly well received, or, if truth be told, well judged. But it cannot be denied that she was a strongly believing Christian woman, though like many such she did not talk of it openly. In that she was very English too. There were rumours that she did not care for Roman Catholics, though one priest who did meet her in Downing Street, the fully cassocked Fr Jean-Marie Charles-Roux, described her to me as simple and charming and very kind. Despite the fact that Edward Heath’s decades-long sulk must have been provoking, she never spoke ill of him, nor did she ever speak ill of any of the European politicians who vehemently disliked her, chief among which was the figure of Giulio Andreotti. That to my mind shows a Christian forbearance.
Andreotti may have disliked Mrs Thatcher for her opposition to federalism, but Italians on the whole greatly admired her. In a country where looking good is almost a religion, they admired someone who was in their eyes an exponent of “il look inglese”. Aquascutum, on the back of Thatcherism, made quite an impression on the Italian market. Giovanni Spadolini, briefly Prime Minister in the early 1980s, had an election poster that simply showed him shaking hands with “la donna di ferro”. An association with Thatcher was a vote winner. They liked her; it was a pity that the British could not do the same; instead we had to endure attacks on Mrs Thatcher’s clothes and appearance from people like Lady Warnock, who showed a meanness of mind to which Mrs Thatcher herself never replied in kind.
But was she a great Prime Minister? Time will tell. Did she reverse Britain’s inexorable decline? Did she leave a country better off after her 11 and a half years of leadership? Probably not. But history will judge. What we can say now, though, is that a woman of the most extraordinary calibre has passed from the scene. May she rest in peace.