I met Margaret Thatcher sometime in early 1970 and she made an enormous impression on me at that single meeting. At the time I was employed by the Royal Institute of Chemistry (now the Royal Society of Chemistry) at their offices in Russell Square (London). She was Conservative spokesperson on education. The Institute had an issue to do with the recognition of its qualifications and I was engaged in lobbying on the matter. We had lunch at a restaurant in Charlotte Street. It was arranged by a Conservative member of parliament, who was a chemist and a member of the Institute; Sir Beresford Craddock. Mrs Thatcher was also a chemist (as well as a barrister), though she was not a member of the Institute. The crucial thing was that (as noted) she was Party spokesperson and, just might become Secretary of State for Education, should the Conservatives be successful at the coming election (they were and she did in June of that same year).
In those days my political sentiments were somewhat to left of where they are now. In fact, I had been a parliamentary candidate for the Labour party in an election a few years before (1965) and Sir Beresford knew this. Unfortunately, he mentioned this very early on in the discussion and we never really got to speak of anything else, as Mrs Thatcher put me to defending various aspects of contemporary Labour policy. I like to think it was a spirited exchange but I can’t say that it advanced the causes of the Royal Institute of Chemistry very much. On the other hand, I came away with the impression of a very forceful personality and determined controversialist and this was a little bit before these facts became evident to a much wider audience. It certainly illuminated my understanding of political events in Britain over the following decade, although by the beginning of 1972 I was already in New Zealand.
I can’t say that I anticipated that she would become Britain’s first female prime minister. Indeed, she deliberately dismissed the notion herself in 1973. In answer to a television interview question she said, “I don’t think there will be woman prime minister in my life-time”. On the other hand, her biographer John Campbell is clear about her political ambitions from an early age and it is a fact that only two years on from this remark, she unseated the then Conservative leader, Edward Heath (to his enormous and continuing resentment). Two years later, again (1979) she became Prime Minister and dominated British and, to a considerable extent, world politics, for a dozen years. Then we all knew Margaret Thatcher; the ‘Iron Lady’. It was a title, given to her by the Soviet press in response to a strongly anti-communist speech, shortly after she became Conservative leader (in fact, in 1976). It was a title in which she herself rejoiced, which tells you volumes about her attitude to politics. Politicians need to have the courage of their convictions (and, of course, the convictions to go with that courage, which she certainly had.). It wasn’t simply a matter of seeing which way the wind was blowing. As the British task force sailed to retake the Falklands Islands, the Argentinian dictator, General Gautieri is supposed to have said (to US envoy, General Haig), “That women wouldn’t dare!”. He was so wrong!
On the other hand, this was also ultimately her undoing. As the 2010 film showed (and the Campbell biography extensively describes), Mrs Thatcher harboured a continuing resentment of the patronising, sexist treatment she received at the hands of the Grandees of the Conservative Party, when she was seeking constituency selection and she paid them back, in spades, during her years in power. Eventually, they got the numbers to bring her down but not until she had become the longest serving British Prime Minister of the Twentieth Century.
None of this should detract from Margaret Thatcher’s enormous accomplishments during her years in power. She took on vested interest and protectionism at home, and communism and aggression abroad, and she was widely vilified for her pains. But (with Reagan and Gorbachev) she ended the Soviet ‘evil empire’ and liberated half the world from ideological and social slavery. She also put the British economy on a better path by recognising the essential political tension between ‘entitlements’ and ‘responsibilities’ before it was fashionable to do so. Indeed, the Iron Lady’s contribution to the relative strength of the contemporary British economy has even been recognised by the present British Labour Leader, Ed Miliband. And so it should be. Together with her contribution to the downfall of communism, this is the enduring legacy of the Iron Lady.