A Political Life: In many ways, Margaret Thatcher made me the person I am today

Aside from my own conversion to socialism, it was Section 28 that turned me against Thatcher permanently. Plus, recalling parliament sets an unnecessary precedent


I’m grateful to Mrs Thatcher; she turned me into a socialist. Not particularly because of that “there’s no such thing as society” nonsense. Nor because of her rather mad interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who in the Lady Margaret Version of the Bible was famous only because he was rich. True, her closeness to General Pinochet didn’t help. After all, friends of mine were beaten, tortured and killed by his regime while Britain turned a blind eye. And while I was attending Free Nelson Mandela concerts, she was condemning him as a terrorist and refusing to consider sanctions. But that’s not it.

I should explain. I was a hideous child. Precocious, irritatingly serious, very sure of myself and unutterably self-righteous. So when Mrs Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, while I was at a boarding school in Stirling, I wrote to her, just after my 13th birthday, and told her I thought Willie Whitelaw should have won, but nonetheless, would she mind sending me an autograph. (You see what I mean about irritating?) She did. And when it arrived, the headmaster was so furious with me for sending an unauthorised letter (all mail at this charming gulag had to be vetted before being sent) that I got six of the best from his very painful slipper, again.

It all changed when I went to theological college. First stop, a month-long placement in Walker in Newcastle. This was 1984. Across the UK, unemployment was at its highest level, 11.9 per cent, and in Walker, every second man had no job. The housing estates were begging for investment. The inner city felt resented and ignored. I ate every evening with a different member of the congregation, and although many were scraping along on benefits, they were generous to a fault. Every Sunday, the church held a second collection, for the miners, and once a fortnight a minibus with tins of food, children’s toys and other gifts went down to the twinned church in the County Durham minefield.

We were all in it together. Hence the socialism.

And finally, a few years later, I worked out I was gay, and that’s when I really lost it with Thatcher. Again, not because I think she was homophobic. People who knew her tell me she was not. No, my problem was that when her party wanted red meat she gave them Section 28, a ludicrous amendment to the Local Government Act, that prohibited teachers from “promoting” homosexuality or “pretend family relationships”. This was cynicism writ large. It meant another generation of youngsters growing up hating themselves. And she sponsored it.

Mrs Thatcher was very lucky. Ted Heath was a curmudgeon; Sir Keith Joseph self-combusted and didn’t stand for the leadership; Callaghan lost the 1979 no-confidence motion by one vote; Labour splintered; Galtieri made a fatal mistake; Scargill refused to ballot. And she chose her enemies with more care than her friends.

A few unnecessary precedents set

I wasn’t at the seven-and-a-half-hour session in the Commons on Wednesday. I had been out on Monday morning in Ferndale, putting leaflets through people’s doors saying “your MP will be in your street on Wednesday afternoon, so if you’d like him to call, put this in your window”. It wasn’t till we finished delivering the leaflets that I discovered that Mrs Thatcher had died. So, even without the stream of constituents demanding that I stay away (the Rhondda still feels very bruised by Thatcherism as thousands mortgaged their homes to pay off debts during the miners’ strike), I had no choice. But Wednesday was over the top. Of course we should doff our cap at the passing of a major political figure, especially the first woman PM, but there was no need to summon Parliament. We could easily have paid tributes on Monday.  It sets a precedent, too. Henceforth, every former PM will have to get a similar send-off and the monarch will have to attend their funeral.

Royal protocol can get in the way

But we have changed as a nation. I remember the extraordinary outpouring of grief when John Smith died. I was working at the party headquarters at the time and came up with the idea of putting large screens up in cathedrals so that people could take part in the service. Thousands did. So when Princess Diana (inset) died, I got out my old notes and organised it all again, plus an extra large one in Hyde Park. I’d also persuaded a friend to print thousands of copies of the order of service, only to be told that the Lord Chamberlain would not grant permission for their use unless I could personally guarantee the presence at each site of a member of the Royal Family. I pointed out that the family might be in Westminster Abbey. He was not amused.

There are times to speak ill of the dead

Funerals are tricky things. A bishop once gave me a tip: “Always keep a eulogy short; otherwise it invites people to disagree.” I learnt that lesson conducting a service in Buckinghamshire. As so often, it was for a man I had never met, but since nobody in the family had volunteered to speak, I had garnered a few facts about the deceased and held forth. I think it was the words “loving husband and father” that were the problem, as suddenly I heard a sort of constipated groan from the second row as the widow lurched up and started mouthing obscenities. “You have no bloody idea. No bloody idea at all,” she started, before going into a list of the deceased’s many failings. A daughter tried to calm her down, but there was no stopping her. And then she turned round and stared hard at a woman several rows back. “I don’t know what you’re smiling at. I know you two were at it for 20 years.”

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'