No man was ever worse designed to defer to a wife

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The Independent Online

Denis Thatcher was a certain sort of Englishman, and characters like him used to be a lot more common than they are now. In the 1950s, every smart golf club in the Surrey hills was full of them. Good war, running a family business, comfortably off, no known intellectual interests except rugger, cricket and golf: that was Denis, and many others.

But there was one difference between Denis Thatcher and his fellow golfers. He helped to save the country. Well into his wife's premiership, he was bewildered by her political success and uneasy in his own role as consort. With the sole exception of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, no man was ever worse designed to defer to a wife. Yet Denis not only deferred to her; he gave her vital support.

"When I met the little woman," I almost heard Denis say, "I knew that she was interested in politics, but I didn't take that seriously. After all, she'd never had any money, and I did, a bit. So I'd pay for a decent dressmaker and a hairdresser, the sort of thing girls like. Later on, if she wanted to be chairman of the local Tory women's bridge circle, why not? But if anyone had said to me, 'That little woman of yours is going to be Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' - I'd have scratched the fixture. And I'm glad I didn't."

He was a vital source of support. Behind the wife's genius, there was the husband's strength and certainty. Throughout her premiership, Margaret Thatcher was much more uncertain than either her public image or her self-image would admit. Denis gave her the confidence to persevere.

He rarely influenced her legislative activity. But there was one exception. Denis was devoted torugby. He believed that rugby was run by men who gave up their time out of their love of the game. Football, in his view, was run by vulgarian spivs in astrakhan coats and gold jewellery, who used it as a further scope for self-advertisement and wide-boy finance. So he helped to persuade his wife to regulate the misbehaviour of soccer crowds. This did not work - yet it might well have been in football's best interests.

Denis Thatcher was a living defiance of political correctness. This was not just his political views, or his language, which was always pithy and salty. There were also his eating, drinking and smoking habits. Denis was rarely drunk, but after lunch he would rarely have been capable of driving a car in a legal fashion. He lived to be 88, yet given his alcohol and cigarette consumption, the figure in real terms ought to be 150.

He enjoyed every one of those 150 years, and he played a vital role in ensuring Britain went into the 21st century in better shape than seemed possible three quarters of the way through the 20th. He would have been embarrassed by the compliment, but he was a great Englishman.