Many who served in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet did not live to see her funeral - but this was a fitting tribute to all she achieved

Lord Fowler, a member of Cabinet from 1981-90, reflects on absent colleagues

Share

On a fine morning in September 1997, I went to another funeral where crowds lined the streets. It was for Princess Diana. The context was of course different. She was a young woman robbed of her life far too early. The funeral of Margaret Thatcher was a fitting and moving end for the grand old woman of British politics.

At St Paul’s yesterday the words were less dramatic and the music was that of Elgar and Holst. But the feeling of most of us there was just as intense. We had come, quite simply, to pay our respects to a great woman.

From inside we heard the half-muffled bell signalling the arrival of the cortege; from outside the sound of the military band and shouted orders. Then the coffin draped in the Union Jack slowly made its way down the centre of the cathedral on the shoulders of servicemen symbolising those who fought in the Falklands.

From yesterday’s service we will remember one person in particular. Amanda Thatcher spoke her words with confidence and a maturity beyond her years. Margaret Thatcher once said to me that “it is the family that comes first”. She would have been so proud of her granddaughter.

Sitting, as I was, in the midst of a reunion of Thatcher cabinet ministers, my thoughts went back to the beginning. It scarcely seems possible that it was 34 years ago that the members of Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet trooped up to the drawing room at Number 10, smiled at the photographer, and then retraced our steps down to the cabinet room to grapple with the serious business of government.

In the intervening years, 14 of the that original 24 have died. Whatever Margaret Thatcher achieved, she could not have done it without their help. For me their ghosts were very much present at St Paul’s.

The most substantial ghost in every way was Willie Whitelaw. He skilfully hid his political shrewdness behind a mask of affability but, make no mistake, his contribution in handling the party and the Prime Minister in those years was indispensable. For me he was a particular ally in pushing through our policy on Aids, against the scepticism of Downing Street and Conservative Central Office.

Outside Westminster on visits, he had a stock response of “jolly good , jolly good” when meeting the public. Just occasionally it brought him to grief, as when on a prison visit an inmate told him that he was serving a life sentence.

Then there was Keith Joseph whose decision not to contest the party leadership in 1975 opened the way for the Thatcher victory. He not only served her with total loyalty (to the point of putting up with frontal attacks on him by the Prime Minister), he also provided much of the intellectual force for the new government.

There were others also. The Lord Chancellor Quintin Hailsham was erratic and capable of flying off the handle without warning but he was also brilliant and a scrupulously honest politician who could be relied on to keep others honest as well.

Most of the survivors of the 1979 cabinet are now in the Lords – with one extraordinary omission, John Nott, the Defence Secretary who stood steadfastly by her throughout the Falklands victory.

As for myself, I was lucky to be there at all in that 1979 cabinet. I had a slightly equivocal position. I had been put in charge of the Transport Department. The drawback, said Margaret, was that there was only authority to pay 22 cabinet ministers. I was number 23 and initially paid at the rate of a Chief Whip. It was a position which concerned her more than me.

But I was lucky in another way. I had not voted for Margaret Thatcher in the 1975 leadership election. MPs like myself and my university friends Ken Clarke and Leon Brittan doubted whether the party had made the right choice. I was anything but convinced that she was the person to take us back into government.

In fact, like Churchill, she was exactly the right person at the right time. The 1970s were years of decline culminating in the winter of discontent in 1979. I recognise the pain caused in the 1980s when we sought to modernise. Some of the pain was inevitable; some we might have managed better.

I hope the Thatcher critics will acknowledge the shambles and at times the disgrace of the 1970s . Over-powerful unions and weak management; industry incapable of producing the goods the public wanted; public services run on a take it or leave it basis; health service strikes which jeopardised the lives of patients; and a general economic decline that affected young and old alike.

There should be no mistake. The legacy that Margaret Thatcher inherited in May 1979 was dismal. She deserves the utmost credit for leading the recovery. Of course she made mistakes, but that was nothing compared to what she achieved. For me, yesterday’s service at St Paul’s was a celebration of that achievement.

Lord Fowler was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet from 1979 -1990

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Financial Director / FD / Senior Finance Manager

Up to 70k DOE: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Financial Director ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company has been manufacturing high quali...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is the fairest onl...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Production Planner is require...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

No more big characters or Tory clowns like Boris Johnson. London desperately needs a boring mayor

Rachel Holdsworth
Cilla Black lived her life in front of the lens, whether on television or her earlier pop career  

Cilla Black death: A sad farewell to the singer who gave us a 'lorra, lorra laughs'

Gerard Gilbert
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen