The nerve of the lady

Peregrine Worsthorne on the courage of the Conservative who destroyed conservatism

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Hers was a true triumph of the will. She had a certain idea of Britain which, for a decade, she forced the British people to adopt and live up to, rather as De Gaulle, by a comparable triumph of his will, forced the French people, for a time, to live up to his certain idea of France. But whereas De Gaulle was a hero built to a familiar, military pattern, the man on a white horse with a commanding eye and a silver tongue, Mrs Thatcher, at any rate as I remember her first, was anything but - a twin-set-and-pearls middle-class matron in early middle age sitting alone at a British Rail dining car table making her way to Blackpool for a party conference in the 1960s.

I was on that train with Pamela Berry, my then boss's dynamic wife and a leading London hostess, and I remember with shame how unwilling we were to join her, so little by way of good company did this rather mousy figure, poring over her papers, seem to promise. But we had no choice since the only seats empty were those at her table, and to the best of my recollection the whole meal passed without her saying a word. Possibly - almost certainly - she had better things to do. But that was not the impression she gave. The impression she gave was that she lacked the social confidence to dare to open her mouth. She must have been a minister at the time, but one who as yet had not caught the media eye. I rather doubt whether, at the time, we even knew her name, or were sufficiently interested afterwards to bother to discover it.

Impossible to believe now, and only worth mentioning to remind readers - and myself - how much she had to contend with in those early days, and how little was going for her. Churchill and Lloyd George, the other British prime ministerial greats of the 20th century, were, right from birth, firework personalities waiting for a match to set them off. Not so Margaret Thatcher. To a unique degree she really did have to pull herself up by her boot straps, unaided not so much by lack of class - Lloyd George also suffered from that disability - but rather by lack of charisma, magnetism, glamour, or even eloquence.

So the fact that this woman who, at first glance, had so little going for her, should, 20 years ago, have become Britain's first woman prime minister and since then have succeeded in putting on a bravura performance, before a world audience, centre stage or near to centre stage - with no sign of retiring in sight - really is an astonishing feat. Even her sternest critics - and from time to time I have been among their number - should happily acknowledge this.

But was it all worthwhile? Will it in the end have made much difference? I suspect not, except in one very important sense. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher's prime ministership "Our Island Story", now drawing to a close, will be seen by posterity to have ended on a high note, in a brief blaze of glory. Nothing much that came after - Messrs Major, Blair etc - will be remembered, and now we are about to disappear into the European Union, but her great act, and actions, will be remembered.

No, it was not our finest hour, or anything like it; nothing to compare with Britain under Winston Churchill. But it was a quite astonishing, unexpected and undeserved bonus. Mrs Thatcher came along when the days of British history were numbered and made sure that the end came with a bang rather than a whimper.

The Britain she inherited had become quite literally ungovernable, a shameful travesty of its former self, held to ransom by a bunch of trade union barons before whom the last four prime ministers, Conservative as much as Labour, had bent their wobbly knees. Harold Macmillan even made a virtue of this cowardice, complacently joking that the National Union of Miners was part of a trinity of institutions - along with the Church of Rome and the Brigade of Guards - which no British prime minister in his senses should ever take on.

Mrs Thatcher, scorning such defeatism, almost at once started preparing her dispositions for a battle to the death. We are now accustomed to the story; take battling Margaret Thatcher for granted; assume that she was born like that. Nothing could be further from the truth. It took a supreme act of will for that grocer's daughter, a bourgeoise incarnate, to turn herself into a latter-day Boadicea. The decision to take on the unions, if need be by force, was taken by her alone, against the advice of colleagues and officials - and even police - who, their wills anaesthetised by a half century of inaction, were all for leaving ill alone. I still marvel at her courage. Right from the start it was clear that what Arthur Scargill had in mind was not so much a strike as an insurrection, if not a civil war - which to a degree it turned out to be. In the event, a cavalry charge by the mounted police, essentially taking their cue from their commander in chief - for that is what Mrs Thatcher had become - determined its outcome. A brutal strike was brutally broken.

What the free men of England had not dared to do for themselves, Margaret Thatcher did for them, earning bitter enmity and desecration from the left, and from the Tory wets, for her pains. In my opinion, breaking the all- powerful stranglehold of the unions, possibly for ever, was the bravest, if not the greatest, peacetime achievement of any prime minister this century, without which - let it not be forgotten - Mr Blair's Britain, short- lived as it is likely to be, would never have been born.

Then came the Falklands war. Again the decision to fight was hers alone, taken in defiance of all conventional military wisdom. Indeed I remember Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery's son, David, telling me his father would never have undertaken it. Visiting Britain shortly thereafter Mr Gorbachev privately expressed the view that any country that could fight and win a successful war 8,000 miles away from home base was one that Russia had good cause to take seriously.

Nor was her courage limited only to deeds of derring-do. Her greatest victory was not so much in the class war or in the Falklands war as in the battle of ideas, and here it was that her intellectual muscle, in taking on and triumphing - at least temporarily - over Keynesianism was most extraordinary of all, evoking most admiration and also, of course, most disagreement. Again it is difficult for the present generation to imagine how deeply entrenched Keynesianism was at the time in the official mindset of politicians and civil servants; how little understanding there was of the changes which needed to be made - particularly to the welfare state - if a free market economy was to have any chance of working well, or even at all.

Remember that paternalism then was as much the prevailing ethos of old Tories, springing from noblesse oblige, as of old Labour, springing from Christian socialism. Neither lot was enthusiastically, committedly for capitalism as a force for good, and their misgivings were as much moral as economic. Even so, like Luther, she nailed her laissez-faire thesis to the door, and dared the might of statist orthodoxy to do its damnedest - a challenge taken up with a vengeance. Like most journalists at the time I was against her, sharing few of her free market convictions, but nevertheless second to none in admiration for the courage with which she held them.

Only she dared to declare, with all the authority of a prime minister, that the Tory-Labour post-war consensus had to be destroyed, root and branch - a form of radicalism which has proved as profoundly destructive of conservatism and of the old Tory party as of socialism and the old Labour party. But in those heady days, I have to confess, any worry about the long- term price which conservatism would pay for her excessive zeal - and is now paying to the point of bankruptcy - was more than made up for by the far greater price, which has proved terminal, socialism was being made to pay then and there. Yes, I did sound a warning or two, dismissing her capitalist enthusiasms as "bourgeois triumphalism", and even expressing the fear that her kind of entrepreneurial meritocracy would constitute a greater threat to the monarchy and to the old order than anything done in the previous half century by the Labour Party, as indeed has proved to be the case. For the evil that men do - and women too - lives after them and, alas, there is no chance of Mr Murdoch's achievements being interred with her bones! And yet, the woman is a marvel for all that. I remember Sir Alfred Sherman, knighted, like me, on her recommendation, saying that he would willingly die for her, if asked. Would any aide offer to do the same for Mr Blair? I doubt it. Therein lies the difference, the marvellous, blessed, glorious difference.

May she never - as long as there is breath in her body - rest in peace.

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