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

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

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'