The Thatcher I knew wasn't always polite, but she was very far from Hitler...or Churchill

Mrs T wouldn't remember the handful of times we met, when I was a reporter for The Northern Echo, but I remember them all well

Share

I will not be in London today for Mrs Thatcher’s state-funeral-in-all-but-name. I won’t be inside St. Paul’s Cathedral – I haven’t been invited – and I won’t be outside with my back turned as the gun carriage pulls her coffin up Ludgate Hill. My encounters with her were brief and sharp –and to her, doubtless, unmemorable – but I saw no reason to hate her as one might with good reason abominate Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot.

The grocer’s daughter made much of her small-town, down home values, but Grantham was not a small town to which she returned frequently either during her working life or after it. In a message she sent to the town’s museum, she said: "From this town I have learned so much, and I am proud to be one of its citizens." Proud? If so, it was a pride she rarely demonstrated. The name of the school at which she was head girl was Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School. When she took her seat in the House of Lords, it was as the Baroness of Kesteven, not Grantham.

Her constituency was in North London – one of the better-heeled parts – her country retreat was in Kent, and her post-PM decades were spent in Chelsea. There are people who arrange to die where they spent their childhood years. I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard that she’d died at the Ritz, Piccadilly, not in Kesteven, wherever that is. Oh yes, I know where it is; it’s north of Milton Keynes.

The small-town grocer’s daughter from somewhere up north was, much more than most of her kind in the upper reaches of the political class, a metropolitan  big shot inhabiting a universe that stretches selectively from Highgate, Hampstead and Islington in the north to Westminster and Belgravia in the south and Hammersmith and Putney in the west. Its people holiday in Tuscany – sometimes at villas loaned by crooked Italian prime ministers – and New England.

When these people have something to say, they say it first to the BBC, or ITN, or the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. They used to say it also to the Sun, but perhaps not these days. They tend not contact first The Kesteven and Grantham Bugle or, foolishly, The Northern Echo.

The House of Commons press lobby, however, offered a weekly opportunity to regional newspaper reporters to, as it were, get a look in. It was there as The Northern Echo’s political correspondent that I first met Mrs T who, like all opposition leaders and PMs took questions every Thursday from journalists at off-the-record meetings, sometimes in a small Commons’ attic, sometimes at No 10. This was in the days before those troublesome gates were put across Downing Street.

I can’t remember if Mrs T was then opposition leader or PM, but it didn’t matter; her response to my questions would have been much the same. I asked her what she thought of a speech to be made by John Nott – a senior Tory politician, who had thoughtfully given hacks advance copies.

What speech is that, she asked. The speech in which he said the terms on which Britain had entered the Common Market – as the Belgian Empire was then known – were seriously damaging to the country’s trade. He doesn’t say that, she said, glowering. He does, I said. No, no, he doesn’t, she said. I read out a sentence from Nott’s speech. Well, that’s not how I interpret it, she said, still glowering. Next question!

Mrs T was on the money when it came to the Soviet threat, but very slow to understand – until it was too late for her to do anything about it – what the Common Market was all about. She liberated the Falkland Islands, helped to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union and got some of our money back from Brussels, but she shoved the Single European Act through Parliament. She appeared to be under the impression then that the European project was just about the free movement of Polish plumbers and Italian white goods.

I met her again a few years later, when I was deputy editor of The Northern Echo. I took a call from a big shot at the Conservative Party’s HQ in London. He asked for the editor. He’s on holiday, I said. Who are you? The deputy editor, I said. Right, he said, I’m phoning to ask if you’d like to attend a dinner in Newcastle tomorrow evening. Your host will be a VIP. I asked for the name of this VIP. He said he couldn’t tell me. Why not, I asked. Security, he said. I pointed out that The Northern Echo was a morning paper, which meant I normally had to be there at night. I couldn’t take the risk of going to a dinner in Newcastle to find the VIP wasn’t my idea of a VIP. Was it Mrs Thatcher? Couldn’t possibly tell you, old boy! I said I’d be there. This VIP, said the big shot, wanted to hear the opinions of opinion-formers in the North East. I wasn’t sure that I was an opinion-former – I didn’t have a certificate for it – but I very much doubted that hearing my opinions or those of colleagues in the region was what she wanted to do.

I was right. There were ten or 12 of us, journalists from NE newspapers, TV and radio stations. She greeted us warmly as we walked into the dining room. Haven’t I seen you before, she asked me. Yes, I worked at the Commons. Oh yes, that’s right. What brought you up here, David? Do have a drink!

My place at the table was directly opposite hers. The dinner was good – beef, lamb, something like that, and fine claret. The talk was small until we reached the coffee and chocs stage. The government, she said, was having a problem getting its message across in the North East. How did we think it could do better. A little time was wasted as some of my colleagues tried to explain to her that the government’s policies were wrecking what was left of the region’s industry. She showed no sign of being interested in the opinions of my fellow opinion-formers.

I piped up. “I don’t think, Prime Minister, that it’s our role to give you public relations advice.”

I got the glower, up close and personal.

“Well, I don’t know whose side you’re on, which party you support, but …”

“I’m not,” I interrupted, “on anyone’s side. I don’t support any party.” It was true; I didn’t.

I could have been speaking Mandarin Chinese. It was clear that I what I said was incomprehensible to her.

Much of what has been said about her this past week by her friends and foes alike has been claptrap. She was not a self-made woman. Marrying a millionaire was hardly an obstruction in the pursuit of her career goals. She was not uncaring and arrogant; she was kind and polite, unlike some on the Left – and in the middle – who claim in public to be champions of the people but who in private view them with contempt. She was not a witch. Yes, she knew her own mind, but was not greatly interested in the minds of others.

I still, after all these years, don’t support a political party, but looking back, and looking at what’s on offer these days, I give her one-and-a-half cheers.

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Essex

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable business is looking to rec...

Ashdown Group: Data Migration Specialist / Architect - SQL Server / SSIS

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Ashdown Group: Product Manager / Marketing Manager - Bedfordshire - Global

£38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful global business that has been op...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
9.4 million people watched the first of the three-way debates at the last election. The audience for the one on Thursday is likely to be far lower.  

David Cameron needs to learn some new tricks – and fast

Steve Richards
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor