Denis Thatcher, businessman: born London 10 May 1915; MBE 1944; Bt 1991; married 1942 Margaret Kempson (died 1996; marriage dissolved 1946), 1951 Margaret Roberts (created 1992 Baroness Thatcher; one son, one daughter); died London 26 June 2003.
Had it not been for his second marriage, Denis Thatcher's death would have passed relatively unnoticed. This would have been a pity, for through his long marriage with the former Margaret Hilda Roberts he emerged as a most remarkable person. Without his steadfast devotion - and a willingness, almost unique among men of his class and generation, to provide his wife with her total freedom as well as adoration - she would never have been able to carry the colossal burden of office as long as she did.
Yet throughout the years of his marriage - even during the decade in which his wife was Prime Minister - he remained his own man, he never lost his natural dignity though he never stood on it, never taking any undue advantage of the privileges to which he was entitled.
The image of him as a drunken buffoon, as portrayed in Private Eye's long-running series "Dear Bill", provided him with an extremely useful smoke-screen, hiding the very real influence he exercised over his wife. As W. F. Deedes - the Bill of the column - once remarked, "But for the 'Dear Bill' letters . . . I can think of many occasions when he would have been credited with unpopular steps taken by Margaret": the most obvious being her stern unbending support of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which he referred to as "God's Own Country". (His disrespect for Commonwealth leaders was legendary. "Who do you think is worse?" he once remarked. "Sonny bloody Ramphal or Ma sodding Gandhi?")
But even he couldn't persuade her to retire after she had been in office for 10 years, or to stand down after the first ballot in November 1990 which led to the Thatchers' departure from 10 Downing Street - he was seen crying, a rare event, after she had lost. A month later, he was rewarded, exceptionally, with a baronetcy.
John Wells, author of the "Dear Bill" column, summed Thatcher up superbly as
the living archetype of a great many Englishmen and that is why he is so popular. I thought he was an endangered species.
Moreover, as his daughter, Carol Thatcher, remarked, many of the expressions in the column bore an uncanny resemblance to Thatcher's own style. Unfortunately the highly successful play based on the letters, Anyone for Denis? (1982), was pure ridicule, untouched by the affection displayed in the column. Eventually, in public anyway, Thatcher started to live up, or down, to the image but the Real Denis could be seen in some of the many remarks, full of common sense, attributed to him (a favourite came after Cecil Parkinson's troubles: "It would be easier if some members of the Tory party could keep their flies buttoned up").
Denis Thatcher's grandfather had emigrated to New Zealand, where he invented an arsenic-based preservative which found multiple uses over the next 50 years, first on farms as a sheep dip and then, after his grandfather had returned to England in 1898 to found the Atlas Preservative Company, on ships and storage vessels. Denis's father, Jack, was a quiet man, a passionate freemason, not a great businessman; Denis remained close to him and inherited his passion for rugger, a game at which he did not star. Jack had married an extraordinary lady who had been his father's secretary in later life when he suffered from paranoid delusions. As a result Denis's early life was lived under the shadow of two forceful women, his mother and his grandmother Thatcher.
He was born in Lewisham, south-east London, in 1915. At his public school, Mill Hill, he suffered largely because he was appallingly shy - a characteristic which he retained throughout his life and which certainly is not reflected in any of the work written about him. Denis was always a serious, responsible lad, dutiful enough to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather rather than stay at school. He started work at the family business in Deptford, a none too salubrious town on the Thames east of London, where he found work on the shop floor more interesting than any classroom learning. His only sign of independence was his four-year participation in one of the summer camps run by the Duke of York in the years before he ascended the throne as King George VI. The young Denis was soon promoted to being works manager and as early as 1936, when he was only 20, he was left in charge when his father took a trip to New Zealand.
Thatcher's firm made a vital contribution to the Second World War effort by producing degreasing equipment for heat exchangers on ships. But his own war was similar to that of many hundreds of thousands of other soldiers, unglamorous, useful, often hard, rarely if ever dangerous and, occasionally, fun. Where he was unusual was his honest admission of the contribution it had made to his life. He liked
the discipline. I liked my fellow officers and I liked the troops. I owe such success as I've had to the Army. They taught me to think and they taught me the elements of leadership . . . The war didn't have a traumatic effect on me, but I think I'm an insensitive person.
He had been commissioned in October 1938 when the Munich agreement provided a warning that war was inevitable. His first years were spent in a searchlight battalion, and after a spell as a sapper went into anti-aircraft defence. Soon after his father's early death at the age of 57 in June 1943 Thatcher was sent to Sicily and, after a period on mainland Italy, he was off for a comfortable time in southern France. His efforts were appreciated - he was twice mentioned in dispatches and was appointed a military MBE.
His time in the Army broadened his social acquaintanceship, which included an improbable lifelong friend in Jimmy Kennedy, at the time Thatcher's divisional entertainment officer and later a well-known songwriter, and it was Kennedy who took Thatcher to an officers' tea dance at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London where he met the woman who became his first wife. Thatcher had always been attracted by strong-minded blondes, oddly often called Margaret.
His first marriage, like many another in wartime, was a short-lived episode in the lives of two young people - Denis was only 25 and his wife even younger. Margot Kempson was a horsy country girl, a devastatingly attractive blonde, a more sympathetic, more beautiful version of her successor. Early in 1942 they were married. As so often with wartime marriages they did not live together, their married life confined to snatched weekends and irregular leaves. Within a couple of years after the war she had left him for her second husband, Sir Howard Hickman Bt.
In the words of an old friend, Kim Coombs, after demobilisation Thatcher was "a sort of gallant dashing major". But three years later the breakdown of his marriage "shattered him totally and he seemed rudderless". The event was so traumatic that he never referred to it, his children were unaware of it until it leaked out in 1976, shortly after his second wife had been elected leader of the Tory party. Never again would he commit himself so deeply: "Sometimes he would open up his mind, but never his heart," remarked Bill Deedes of relaxed dinners on a golfing holiday.
Thatcher consoled himself with work. In 1946 he had become joint general manager of the family firm and a year later managing director, throwing himself whole-heartedly, not only into the rebuilding of the firm after the wartime dislocation but also into the Paint Trades Federation. He embarked, too, on the lengthy export trips to Africa which were to mark the rest of his working life. At the same time he was creating a new role as a rugby referee - good enough for important club matches but never quite international standard. It was a hobby which inevitably involved some steady, if not heavy, drinking.
Fate came in the form of the glamorous young Margaret Roberts, the Conservative candidate for his local constituency, then a safe Labour seat. He himself had no ambition to a political career; in fact he had earlier been approached to stand but was fully aware that he was too shy to enjoy canvassing. Their courtship was summed up in impeccable Denis style: "She stood for Dartford twice and the second time she cried on my shoulder I married her." They were both traumatised, he by the failure of his marriage, she by the first check - albeit one only to be expected - she had ever suffered during a previously unbroken rise.
He had first been attracted by her legs, she by the comforting presence of an older man - he was 34, she 24 - and by his continuing fascination with the world of business and finance: he was even a regular reader of the then small-circulation Economist. He knew from the start that she was "a remarkable young woman" and remained firm in his pride and confidence in her for the next half-century, hating to see her attacked.
It is impossible to penetrate fully the secrets of a marriage, especially one so long-lasting and mutually satisfactory as that of the Thatchers but one must suspect that the flame of true passion did not burn on either side. His feelings had been cauterised by the failure of his first marriage and so throughout his second could keep his distance from his wife's life; he adored, supported, but always from a slight distance - a trait helped because he retained his own life.
They were married at Wesley's Chapel in City Road (opposite the first offices of The Independent) on 13 December 1951, he describing their honeymoon in Madeira as "quite pleasant". His bachelor life was upset when his new wife moved into his flat, and it was found that he kept the gin in the bottomless space normally used as an oven.
From the start they both went their own ways, never seeking precedence over each other, at the time a genuinely unusual attitude on the part of an otherwise deeply conservative businessman - a conservatism which included wanting his meat well-done if not practically burnt. Not surprisingly he hated garlic, and onions - and the smell of cooking.
He was more typical in his attitude towards the twins born six weeks prematurely on 15 August 1953. At his first sight of them he said simply, "My God, they look like rabbits, put them back." A New Husband he may have been, a New Father he emphatically wasn't, uninterested in his children when they were young although far more understanding with his daughter Carol - and far stricter with Mark's foibles - than was their mother. His feelings towards his wayward son emerged in public when Mark was rescued after getting lost in the Sahara: "Will you for the first time in your life," his father hissed through gritted teeth, "listen to somebody who might do you some good." But the Thatcher family life was never exactly orthodox. Family holidays were almost unknown.
His life took on a new dimension when his wife was selected for the safe seat of Finchley in time for the 1959 general election. He even gave up refereeing for the campaign, which was, as his wife said, "quite something, considering he wouldn't do it for our wedding anniversary". But otherwise the election meant only that she had changed one type of work - the law - for another: politics. Of course they shared each other's political stance; though he was as firmly against capital punishment as she was in favour, partly because it was so barbaric, partly because he felt that the fear of making a mistake led juries to acquit too many murderers.
All the time his business career was flourishing. Atlas's preservative paints were being used all over the world. After the death of the chairman in 1951 Thatcher took on the chairmanship as well as the managing directorship, loving his regular journeys round Africa and getting into the news when one of Atlas's products was used to break up the oil slick resulting from the grounding of the tanker Torrey Canyon in 1967. But his compulsive overwork imposed an enormous strain. In 1964, after he was warned by a doctor that the strain was undermining his health, he took a three-month sabbatical, starting with a journey by liner to South Africa.
The strain was not only physical but also psychological, and one has the feeling that he had only just taken on board how overwhelmingly important her political life was for his wife. During the time off he became convinced him that he ought to sell Atlas to provide some capital for his mother and aunt Doris who were both shareholders, and because the capital gains tax introduced by the new Labour government created a considerable problem for family firms like Atlas. Without telling his wife - for they had an implicit understanding that neither discussed the other's professional life - he sold Atlas to the Castrol Oil company for just over £500,000, of which he received only a small percentage.
His inherent self-deprecation ensured that he was convinced that after the takeover he would be out of a job, though in fact he was immediately given a seat on the main board. The feeling was even stronger a few months later when Castrol was taken over in its turn by Burmah, the oldest British oil company. But again he was retained as a senior divisional director in charge of planning. There he remained for eight years until 1974 when the company suffered one of the most ignominious crashes ever seen in British business, though he was in no way responsible for the gross over-expansion which brought it down.
In any case such ambitions would not have been in his nature, and indeed he had been able to warn his wife of the financial devices which resulted in the bankruptcy of Rolls-Royce in 1971 - though he never proffered such advice again, the strain having been too considerable. After the collapse of Burmah he was nearly 60 and retired to join a number of company boards - far fewer than he could have done if he had exploited his position - and stayed on some of them for 10 years or more.
Having his own life, business as well as social, helped him remain relatively detached from the madhouse that surrounded him once his wife had been elected Leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, and even more intensively after she reached 10 Downing Street four years later. When she stood for the leadership he had doubts that she would win, but as he said at the time, "Of course, I told her I'd support her all the way - that's what marriage is all about." But, as his daughter put it, "As a voracious reader of political biographies, he knew that rank outsiders often came from the back in leadership battles."
After her election he was fully aware that he had, as he said, to learn to "unshy" himself "pretty damn quick". But he remained an innocent, even unaware that the family would invariably be accompanied by Special Branch policemen. But from the start he spoke his mind, insisting that the new Leader of the Opposition abandon the over-charged political diary bequeathed by her predecessor. It was soon clear. But he remained so naïve that he wrote a letter to the Welsh Secretary on Downing Street paper protesting about planning delays which affected a firm of which he was a consultant, proclaiming that "after all" he lived there.
His wife's staff soon realised, as Gordon Reece put it, that "he laid down his own rules, nobody else". One iron rule he never broke was not to give interviews, quoting a phrase from his boyhood, "Whales don't get killed until they spout." He also remained detached - leaving for a business trip round South Africa in the middle of the Falklands crisis.
Once she was installed in No 10 he had in effect lost a wife, although she, crucially, had retained a husband, for their loyalty to each other never wavered: he was the only person who could, and often did, take charge, calm her down, often with the offer of a drink, to stop the enemy of the moment (the BBC, the Foreign Office or whoever) from getting her down, to stop her working even beyond her amazing limits. He remained relaxed about his own position, first realising his importance when a major-general saluted him on the Thatchers' first visit to Northern Ireland after her election as PM.
By then he had found that he could in a way loosen up, find the relaxation of the youth he never really had, what with the war and the responsibilities imposed by the family firm. Retirement seems to have given him the sense of humour that he had previously lacked. He had given up refereeing in 1963 and took to golf, which remained a passion for decades. He was also a happy drinker, always partial to a gin or two or three. He had always been fond of gin, which he drank either with tonic or, in the pre-war fashion, "mixed" - with both red and white vermouths. When in Marseilles in 1944 he had tried some home-made bathtub gin: "We sampled it straight out of the bath and a mouthful of the stuff nearly blew our heads off." Even after it had been watered down, "it was still terrible stuff and tasted like hell, but it was gin". Important, too was his refusal to allow ice into his drinks, claiming that it watered them down.
Nevertheless occasionally he showed the strain of his position. At a dinner where he was thanked for being the "spare man" in a party otherwise composed of married couples he muttered, "You don't know how lucky you are." But he once also said, "A vicarious political life is absolutely fascinating, because you're not carrying the bloody can."
Nicholas FaithReuse content