How to keep Mum
Carol Thatcher's portrait of her father reveals a bumbling little Englander with a surprising streak of clear-sightedness and and an instinct for word damage limitation.
Saturday 13 April 1996
One of the greatest mysteries of the Thatcher years was how the Prime Mininster's husband managed to avoid the kind of sarcastic opprobrium that is routinely heaped onto female political consorts such as Glenys Kinnock, Hillary Clinton or Cherie Blair. Denis Thatcher was, after all, a senior industrialist, a union-bashing and socialist-hating director of a multinational company (Burmah Oil); and, as he himself couldn't help pointing out, he knew more about economics than half the Cabinet. Yet for over a decade the media was happy to portray him as nothing more than a Pooterish, pink-gin-and-golf bore in a silly hat, practising his seven- iron on the lawn at Chequers while his wife dealt with the fate of nations indoors.
No one ever suggested that he was pulling strings, calling shots or weaving tricky webs behind the scene; no one ever felt that the country had fallen into the unelected hands of a malign, right-wing Rasputin with a sinister line in persuasive pillow-talk. On the contrary, he never seemed like anything more than a long-suffering, henpecked old fogey who didn't want much out of life, just a kip in front of the rugby and a sharpener before lunch.
Obviously it helped that Mrs Thatcher rarely gave any sign of being susceptible to special pleading from anyione - let alone some dimwit husband. And Private Eye played its part, contributing enjoyably to the depiction of Denis as a buffoon through the "Dear Bill" letters. But Denis Thatcher himself, as this surprisingly crisp biography by his daughter makes plain, can take most of the credit for keeping himself out of harm's way. Inspired by an old maxim of his father's - "Whales don't get killed unless they spout" - he made the extremely shrewd decision to give no interviews of any sort during his wife's stay in the limelight. When he met the Duchess of York at a dinner and she "whined" about the bad press she always received, he was unsympathetic. "Ma'am," he said. "Has it occurred to you to keep your mouth shut?"
His own vow of silence was followed through with unusual resolve and attention to detail. "Never make speeches longer than four minutes," he wrote, "and prepare them very carefully to ensure that there is no possible quote. This results in the press not ever reporting that you were there at all". Many people would have resented being portrayed as such a twerp, but Denis has the last laugh here. "Remember that it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool," he advised one would-be consort, "than open it and remove all doubt".
In one sense it is odd that the nation seemed, if anything, to pity him - as if it were automatically an indignity for a man to have a wife more powerful than himself. It was always presumed that Denis must "mind"; in fact, of course, he had one of the most interesting and lively retirements anyone could wish for, and knew it ("For 40 years I have been married to one of the greatest women the world has ever produced".) He was helped by having a clear-sighted and realistic dislike of politics in the first place. "So many politicians," he tells his daughter, "are under the misapprehension that the rest of us think all the time about politics; the truth of the matter is, the great British people don't give a damn. The only people who keep it going is the press".
This might seem jaundiced, but Mrs Thatcher was probably lucky to be married to a man with this point of view. Just imagine what she'd have been like if she'd had someone egging her on. And it allowed Denis to be more perceptive, at times, than his wife's entourage of political advisers. In one of the book's great moments of inside knowledge, Denis raises a glass to the euphoria that followed Mrs Thatcher's third election win and says, "In a year, she'll be so unpopular you won't believe it".
It is widely suposed that this book is Carol Thatcher's sneaky revenge against her mother. It is true that Mrs T. hardly cuts a likeable figure, dashing in and out of the house without so much as a How's-your-father. But it is inevitable that a book whose aim is to restore the reputation of Denis should to some extent amplify what it was he had to put up with. As soon as Maggie became leader of the Opposition, for instance, she was assigned a security guard. Denis was the last to know. One night he returned to the house in Flood Street and a found a man he took to be a friend of Mark's. "When Margaret arrived, we started leaving and, bugger me if this chap didn't follow us out. No one told me who the hell he was."
There are numerous moments of forlorn good humour such as this. Denis was in the hotel suite when Cecil Parkinson resigned. "Margaret said to him, 'I'm very unhappy but you've no choice but to get out, otherwise the press will be at you'. He agreed. Then he mentioned that he was due to open the new Blackpool heliport and unveil a commemorative plaque. Margaret said, 'Never mind that. Denis will go and do it'. I did. I pulled the string and it had a brass plaque underneath it, which read, 'Opened by the Rt Hon Cecil Parkinson...' ''
One of the reasons why Private Eye loved Denis Thatcher was because he had, not just the well-bugger-me language of the little Englander, but that he also held exactly the kind of narrow prejudices you find in the car park at Twickers. He would refer to the inhabitants of Brixton as fuzzy-wuzzies, but would be mortifed to think that he'd upset them. He was a lover of South Africa, but strikingly unimpressed by uppity, post- colonial types from elsewhere. "Who do you think is worse," he asked delegates at a Commonwealth Conference, "Sonny bloody Ramphal or Ma sodding Gandhi?". India, he thought, was "high on the buggeration factor"; and he was not impressed by the Falkland Islands on his post-victory tour. "We sure as hell didn't go there for the real estate," he said. "It's miles and miles of bugger-all".
It isn't clear, actually, that Carol Thatcher has done her father too many favours with this book. After an awful start ("It was a U-turn of mega proportions...") she settles into a good, easy stride, and she has used her relationship cleverly. It is hardly an intimate memoir - it doesn't, in fact, feel as if Carol knows her father all that well. But she certainly knows more about his domestic life than any outsider. For some reason, she seems to find her dad's rudeness to waiters a sign of waggish charm - he liked his meat burnt and frequently accused people of giving him food that was still alive. "If I take my hand off this bird, it'll fly away," he told one poor fellow. "Take it away, kill it and cook it."
At times like this he is exactly like the man in the "Dear Bill" letters - a pompous old eccentric who disguises his own battiness in an assumption that he is surrounded by twits. But at other times, she uncovers a streak of something so unsentimental and open that it is rather touching. "The war didn't have a traumatic effect on me," he muses, "but I think I'm an insensitive person". And what's more, by jingo, he's proud of it.
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