Thatcher drove me into politics, to fight for the opposition

On subjects from schools to the Falklands, I disagreed with the Iron Lady.

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I came across Lady Thatcher only twice, but that was enough to get me to take up politics in opposition to her. 

The first time was soon after she became leader of the opposition, in 1975.  I was an RAF Commander-in-Chief, and had become a member of the Council of the British Institute of Management.  

Our Chairman, a Conservative MEP for Cambridge, had invited her to be the speaker at our annual dinner at a hotel on Park Lane.  When my wife and I got there, the room was crowded with TV cameras.  All went normally until, half way through the main course, our chairman knocked on the table and announced that our speaker needed to return to Parliament to take part in a vote, so she would give us her talk immediately.  She did so and then left, after saying goodbye to our chairman and to her husband.  We resumed our somewhat cold meals. 

I heard later that there was no need for that, as it would have been normal procedure to make a pair with a government-supporting MP.  However, apparently she wanted to get her talk onto the nine o’clock TV news.  I and others were somewhat taken aback by her rudeness.  

The second occasion was six years later, in 1981.  I had left the RAF, joined a firm of consultants, and been sent to Kuwait on project management work. There I had got to know our Ambassador well.  He was making preparations for a visit by our Prime Minister (as she had by then become), and he had sent back to her a long ‘brief’ on Kuwait and its interests for us, with a note at the end asking her to let him know if she had any particular needs when out there..  She replied that she would like to have an English hairdresser to attend her twice each day. Unfortunately, our Ambassador was a bachelor, and did not know any, but my wife booked one for her. 

He had arranged that, during her visit, she would have a meeting with British business men in Kuwait, of whom I was one, for an hour and a half for an exchange of views.  She arrived 15 minutes late, quite normal there, and gave us an hour’s talk on labour mobility. The Ambassador then asked if there were any questions. Having been very well trained at three service staff colleges, I got up at once to ask mine. I said that we in the audience were probably the most mobile in our country, having come out by air (not bicycle) and now earning the dollars very much needed by our country just then. However, ever since the last war, governments of every political back ground had made mobility difficult.

If we needed to sell our house and to purchase another one, we were taxed on them.  If we changed firms, we lost out on our pensions, and if we moved our children round the country, their education was seriously upset.  I said that she could greatly improve on that. If there were a government fund into which we paid our pension contributions, our pensions would not be effected, but those funds would be available to the government.  The funds should, however, be inflation-proofed.  Also, if there were a core syllabus for all schools, our children would not be so badly handicapped by changes of school.

She replied by saying that my ideas for pensions was a load of socialist rubbish; and that she had been minister for education and there was nothing wrong with the schools.   

As a senior manager, I knew that that was no way to dismiss what were meant to be helpful suggestions.  Anyhow, that change to the schools’ syllabus was made only a few years later on.

As soon as I got back to the UK in 1982, I joined the newly formed Social Democrats and sought a constituency in which to oppose her. It was clear to me that we could well do without a Prime Minister like her. 

At the same time, the Argentine invaded the Falklands.  To reduce the UK’s spending on Defence, the Prime Minister had insisted that the Falklands ’Guard Ship’ be decommissioned.  Not unnaturally, the Argentine government assumed that it meant that we were no longer interested in guarding the islands; which they then invaded. 

To go back to 1967, I had been appointed as the Ministry of Supply Project Director for the last two years of the development of the Harrier aircraft.  As a part of my briefing, I was told that I was to assume that the aircraft would not be required to go to sea with the Navy.  However, whilst I had been in Singapore (1964 to 1966), I had come into contact with the Royal Navy Captain of the aircraft carrier which had carried out the sea trials of the Kestrel aircraft, the predecessor of the Harrier. (We both sailed Fireball dinghies).  He told me how very successful those trials had been.  It was clear to me that it would be very foolish to do anything that might prejudice the ability of that aircraft to be used at sea.   I therefore discussed the matter with John Fozard, the aircraft’s designer.  We agreed that no magnesium components should be included in the aircraft’s structure (magnesium reacts unfavourably with sea water), except for the wheels, which could relatively easily be replaced. 

I then helped to get the aircraft into service on time and within budget. I also used a sum which my predecessor as project director had earmarked to improve both its reliability and maintainability so as to optimise both those factors, especially if the aircraft was to operate well away from good support facilities.  Those changes seemed to have been particularly helpful during the aircraft’s life, both to maximise its availability for use and to minimise its maintenance costs.  They also helped to make it particularly suitable for selling to the U S Marine Corps. 

The Thatcher government was very fortunate that the Harrier was available to offset the ill-judged cancellation of the Falklands guard ship.

Air Marshal Sir Reginal E W Harland is a former senior Royal Air Force commander.

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