Maggie and me: By those who love her (and those who didn't)

When Margaret Thatcher swept to victory, our nation was changed forever. Thirty years after that historic election, how do we see her now? Interviews by Rob Sharp

Friday 03 January 2014 02:25

The female Tory politician

When Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister on 4 May 1979, she became the country's most successful female politician of all time. And while she never won any support from the feminist movement, she was a role model for a generation of Conservative women. Ann Widdecombe MP was one of 216 female candidates hoping to win seats in the 1979 election.

"Mrs Thatcher was an inspiration. She was proof that women could rise to the highest possible positions in the land. I never met her in 1979, when I campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat in Burnley, but I did when I was a parliamentary candidate in 1983 [unsuccessfully contesting a seat at Plymouth Devonport].

I remember a time during the 1980s, when CND was a live issue, going to Number 10 on a dark winter's morning as part of a group called Women and Families for Defence. When we arrived, it was scarcely past dawn, but the prime minister looked as though she had just walked out of a beauty salon. She was lively and engaging; she had a formidable way with people. We had expected a five-minute audience but she gave us the best part of an hour.

There are people born in the 1980s who don't remember a time before we had a female PM, and you will never be able to convince them that there is anything strange about it. These individuals are starting to become middle managers, the players of present-day society. I think when Mrs Thatcher was elected there were question marks about her, it was an unusual thing for a woman to do. But it did not take long to be reassured. She achieved things through her immense resolution and conviction."

The Greenham Common protester

In 1979, in what it claimed was a response to the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by the USSR, NATO decided to base ground cruise missiles at the Greenham Common air base in Berkshire. Thatcher was a fervent supporter of nuclear defence. By September 1981 a permanent, women-only peace camp was established at the Greenham gates. Dr Rebecca Johnson spent five years there in the 1980s, later founding the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy in 1995.

"Convoys of cruise missiles were taken on deployment exercises from Greenham about once a month, travelling on public roads, usually at night, escorted by large numbers of British police. In 1987, I was severely beaten after lying in the road at Amesbury roundabout to demonstrate against one such convoy. For the time it took the nuclear weapons to pass I was subjected to appalling violence by a sergeant. I was terrified, I was going to die and lost consciousness. I came to, just as he got off me, and asked for his number. But he pulled away, laughing. I was on the ground so I could only grab his sleeve. A bit like the proverbial 'arrested for damaging a police boot with your head', I was then charged with criminal damage to his uniform.

Thatcher oversaw the militarisation and politicisation of the police force as never before. At Greenham, in Northern Ireland and later in the miners' strike we saw the police used in far more political roles than before. She believed that that if she could outdo the men on toughness, including war-mongering and aggressive posturing, she could retain her position of power in the UK. Though she benefited from feminism, Thatcher was profoundly anti-feminist. She demonstrated that the issue is not biology, but power structure, values and ways of working. If the political system is structured so that a single woman gets to the top via a patriarchal structure where men retain the essential power, she will have to constantly prove that she is tougher than the men, and that she can promote their power and their interests even more aggressively than they can."

The Labour politician

Thatcher's 1979 victory marked the beginning of a lengthy spell in opposition for the Labour Party. Lord Healey had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour government of 1974-79, then Shadow Foreign Secretary. He often clashed with Thatcher in the Commons. He was possibly the one Labour figure she held in awe.

"She was extremely egocentric. I think that was her great weakness. She would not have anybody in the Cabinet who was not what she called 'one of us'. That is why one of her best ministers, Sir Geoffrey Howe, was driven out.

She actually said 'there is no such thing as society', and that attitude characterised the whole of her behaviour as prime minister. She put beating inflation before everything else. It is very important to get inflation down, but not at the cost of destroying industry.

The one thing she got right was introducing compulsory strike ballots, which reduced the power of the trade unions. Privatisation worked all right when she sold off British Telecom, and it worked for British Gas, but it did not work so well for some of the other enterprises.

She was not really a good role model for other women. She did very little to assist other Tory women to get on in politics because she was jealous of anybody else.

We became very friendly late in life, because when you are over 80, all your old enemies become friends, and she felt our generation of politicians was very much better than the present generation. She holds the present generation in such contempt.

We met in Wakehurst Place, which is a beautiful set of gardens run by the National Trust in Sussex, and we actually embraced. My daughter took a photograph which I stupidly did not sell to the News of the World."

The ad man

For the 1979 general election campaign, Thatcher employed Lord Tim Bell, then managing director of advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, to manage her publicity. The company delivered the famous slogan "Labour isn't working". He went on to help her win two subsequent general elections.

"When I first met her, she asked what my favourite poem was and I said Rudyard Kipling's If. She produced a battered copy of the poem from her handbag, and said, 'Me too.' She then asked what my favourite speech was. I said Martin Luther King's 'You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong'. She couldn't believe it – it was her favourite too. Then she said, 'Look, I don't know you, but if you manipulate the public into voting for me it won't work.' It's a lesson all politicians should learn. Lying to the public is a short route to hell.

As a client, Mrs Thatcher was perfect. She believed the experts should get on with what they are good at. I presented a poster to her in 1983 which was picture of a midwife slapping a baby's bottom and the headline said 'Even Labour's better with the Conservatives'. One of her key advisers told me, 'You can't use childbirth in politics.' Thatcher had her back to him and mouthed, 'I think it's brilliant.' We won the campaign anyway, but it would have been better with that."

The hunger-strike spokesman

The hunger strikes which took place in the Maze Prison in 1981 were the culmination of five years of dispute between the British government and the IRA. Imprisoned IRA activist Bobby Sands argued that he and fellow ex-paramilitaries should be declared political prisoners, not regular criminals. Thatcher disagreed. Sands, who with nine others died as a result of the strikes, communicated to the outside world via spokesman Danny Morrison, 56, now secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust.

"In 1982 I was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Ken Livingstone, then at the GLC, invited me and Gerry Adams to come over for peace talks. But then the IRA began bombing London. Just before we were due to fly out, I got a call from a friend who asked me, 'Have you seen Channel 4?' I switched it on. The news reader was saying that Gerry and I were banned from travelling to London. If we were to try, we could serve five years in jail. But at the same time as Thatcher excluded us, she was also condemning the exclusion of Russian dissidents from Moscow. The woman was a total hypocrite. I despised her. I remember when her son got lost in the desert during a car rally two years after the hunger strikes, I thought, 'Now you know how Bobby's mother felt, and you wouldn't move a finger." For her to say those prisoners were not 'political'...they later acknowledged it in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. But it was too late for the ten that died."

The working-class rocker

One of the songs that defined the Thatcher era was The Specials' 'Ghost Town'. Released when unemployment figures soared in 1981, it echoed the social unrest of the moment with its lyrics "Can't go on no more/the people getting angry". Roddy Byers, aka Roddy Radiation, who joined the band in 1978, played guitar on the record.

"None of us were keen on Thatcher, to put it mildly. When we were touring the UK during the early days, things were tough. Some of us had only just come off the dole, and the situation across the country seemed tragic. Most working class people we knew hated her. She was a target. Someone to blame Britain's troubles on.

It got to the stage in Coventry, when the Brighton hotel was bombed in 1984, lots of people said, 'it's a shame they didn't get her', and that was because we hated her so much. It seemed like she didn't give a toss about anyone who wasn't well-to-do.

She won in the Falklands, but I didn't even know where that was. I thought it was near Scotland. I dare say the people there feel British, but it's a long way to go to hang on to it.

We thought we could change the world and that was one of the reasons we did 'Ghost Town'. In retrospect it was one of the strongest things we ever did. I wrote a song when The Specials split up called 'Don't Drive Me' about Thatcher, how she would get her comeuppance one day, and she did, when she lost power. People were a lot more socialist in the 1980s. We all used to say, 'when the revolution comes, we will sort them all out'. That was the climate, but now people aren't so left-wing. They seem more selfish."

The newspaper proprietor

In 1982 Eddy Shah, then the owner of six local newspapers in Cheshire, became the first proprietor to take on the country's powerful print unions and win. He invoked Thatcher's newly-created industrial laws which gave employers greater protection against the unions, forcing his employees to the bargaining table. He later founded the national newspaper 'Today'.

"I was a young man when she was in charge and it was the unelected union officials who were more powerful than the government. Strikes can be a frightening prospect when you're a small company. The strikers sent two large and three small coffins round to our house – we had three children. My wife rang me at the office to tell me and I said, 'Maybe it's time to give up.' She said, 'If you give up, I'm leaving you.' Shortly after that, it resolved itself.

A lot of people disagree with what Thatcher set out to do. New Labour has done things in her name which she herself would never have done. It annoys me when people say she put in place the financial system which led to the current downturn. But you can't blame her for greed – she just allowed us to have a better standard of living. When we had mass unemployment, she took us through that and the result was we came back with a fairer society. Now the bankers are more powerful than the Government. Thatcher would have sent them to jail.

When she spoke, it made the hairs on your neck stand up. She had robustness and passion. Though I'm sure people said that about Hitler."

The Falklands Islander

Victory in the 1982 Falklands War helped Thatcher to win votes in Britain, and secure her second term in office – and it also made her a heroine to the territory's 3,000 residents. Anya Cofre, 42, who runs a lodge for visiting Falklands veterans in Stanley, was briefly held prisoner by Argentine forces.

"I remember the war very clearly. The night of the invasion was the 2 April, and I woke up the next morning to a new way of life. There were Argentinians and weapons and soldiers everywhere. During the war, we lived under the front porch of our house in Stanley and on the final night of the war, the 14 June, we were taken by the Argentinian army and put in the town's main store where lots of others were held hostage. I remember the following night, when we were liberated, we were at the back of the store and there was a knock on the door. It was Jeremy Moore, Commander of the British Land Forces during the war. He explained who he was and there were cheers and cries and we put him on our shoulders. The civilian men were called out to help put fires out. We went home the following morning, went back to our house and pulled down the blackout sheets which had been covering up our windows for weeks.

Thatcher is a hero in the Falklands. We were totally behind her. Probably most of us have met her at some point after the war. She came several times, and the whole community would turn out to see her drive past. We have had royal visits which didn't attract crowds that big. People on their last legs would turn up. I guess we would have been under an Argentinian government if she had not stepped in, and things would have been a lot different had she not intervened.

The building I work in now is a lodge that is dedicated to the veterans of 1982, and the main room is called the Maggie Thatcher lounge. It has a wonderful view across the sea."

The political adviser

More than any prime minister before her, Mrs Thatcher relied on a small circle of advisers, utterly loyal to her personally. John Whittingdale worked as head of the political section of the Conservative research department in 1982-4, as Margaret Thatcher's political secretary from 1988-90, and private secretary from 1990-92. He is now Conservative MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East.

"I became her political secretary at a comparatively young age – 29. It was a daunting experience. She had already been prime minister for eight years and was the leading politician in the western world. I don't think I am ever going to have an experience that will match it.

My job interview with her was quite bizarre. She knew me a bit from the election campaigns of 1983 and 1987, when I was a sort of travelling researcher. I was summoned for a half-hour meeting, during which she spent 20 minutes talking about the problems of the world, and she said, 'So, you're coming to work for me.'

It was an extraordinary experience. I was spending, on average, four to five hours a day with her. There were times when it was 10 or 12 hours, if there was a big conference speech or something of that sort.

She was extremely demanding. On the one hand, she could be extremely sharp if she thought something was going wrong. On the other, she was very defensive of her staff. She would not let anyone else criticise them unfairly. There is no doubt that she inspired huge loyalty in anyone who worked for her.

The manner of her departure was very bad, and has left scars that will take years to heal, but that was not her fault. That was the way in which she was brought down, which has caused great bitterness.

But before that, she restored the pride both of the country and of the Conservative Party. Her period in office changed Britain in ways that will never be reversed, and – Conservatives will always believe – immensely for the better."

The brigadier

28,000 British troops were mobilised during the Falklands conflict. Brigadier Julian Thompson commanded 4,000 men of the Royal Marines' 3 Commando Brigade, which landed on the islands on 20 May 1982.

"I didn't meet Mrs Thatcher until after the war, but even before then it was obvious that she had had a direct bearing on my life. It was she who made the decision to send us south to eject the Argentines from their illegal occupation, and, when she did so, I realised that she was a strong leader who had ability to listen to what she was being told and carry it out effectively.

While I did not take orders directly from her I sensed, like my men, that she was the sort of person who would not give in. I had served for a few years and experienced British prime ministers who had been less than resolute. This was different. With her, there was a sense of 'let's get on and do it'. I felt there was no going back.

After the Falklands were over, we were invited to a lunch in the Guildhall in London. When Thatcher stood up to speak, there was spontaneous applause from the entire hall - this was the marines, the soldiers, the sailors. I was sitting opposite two politicians whose jaws dropped to the floor. I know she had faults, but at that moment we could just look up to her and admire her."

The satirist

In the early 1980s, a new generation of British alternative comics recognised a satirical goldmine in Mrs Thatcher's appearance and personality. One of them, a young BBC producer called John Lloyd, went on to create 'Spitting Image' for ITV, which was first broadcast in 1983.

"In Spitting Image, Mrs Thatcher was the central villain of the whole piece. We had her like Churchill smoking cigars, and at the urinals peeing with the men. We mistreated her terribly.

What was extraordinary about Mrs Thatcher was how she divided the country. You either hated her or adored her. I would get mail from people saying 'You're a communist bastard, I hope you get cancer,' or people saying they were going to kill themselves but were waiting until Sunday so they could see the show. But in many ways we helped to keep the Tories in power. It was the most disliked government of the century. Spitting Image acted as a safety valve. Instead of rioting, people watched the show and got vicarious pleasure from seeing Mrs Thatcher hit over the head with a truncheon.

I had heard she would sometimes catch Spitting Image but that she was of the opinion it was a BBC programme – she once said the main reason she disliked the BBC was Panorama and Spitting Image, and it had some bearing on her determination to curb the BBC's power and force them into independent production.

We called ourselves Her Majesty's loyal opposition. Labour was ineffective. We were trying to give the Tories a bashing, and as a result Thatcher bashed the BBC. Complicated world."

The council-house owner

The introduction in 1980 of 'right-to-buy', which allowed council tenants to purchase their properties, was one of Thatcher's most popular decisions. By 2003 some 1.5 million council homes had been sold through the scheme. Elizabeth, 84, and Jack Jessopp, 83, bought their three-bedroom council house in Bournemouth in 1985.

"I think Mrs Thatcher is the most wonderful lady. She cared about people. The reason I was in a council house originally was because my first husband came from his service in the Second World War with tuberculosis. It was impossible for us to get a house. It was suggested to us that the air in London was dreadful so we should move away, and that's why we came to Bournemouth. We had our first daughter then and we still couldn't get a mortgage. When you had tuberculosis in those days you were like a leper. People shunned you.

We applied to the council and we were allowed to rent a three-bedroom house because of my husband's illness. After he died and I had married my second husband, the news came that Thatcher would allow council tenants to buy the houses that they lived in. I applied and our application was granted. We bought it for £10,000. The house next door to us has just been sold for £190,000. We consider ourselves very fortunate.

As far as I am concerned before Mrs Thatcher I was unaware of politics and politicians. But she was such a force of nature she was visible to everyone in every walk of life. It is strange to be asked about how she changed my life."

The anti-apartheid campaigner

Throughout the 1980s, the international community opposed the South African apartheid regime under PW Botha, who became president in 1984. Despite numerous protests from anti-apartheid lobbyists, in July 1986 Thatcher refused to agree to sanctions against South Africa, saying such measures would leave thousands of black workers unemployed. Labour politician Peter Hain MP, the son of South African parents, was an anti-apartheid campaigner at the time.

"When Nelson Mandela came to address members of the Commons and the Lords at Westminster Hall in 1990 I noticed that Thatcher was a guest. That was so hypocritical. She was late and scurried down the hall to sit at the front. For decades she had denigrated him as a terrorist. When she was in power, the Federation of Conservative Students wore 'Hang Nelson Mandela' badges and heckle his supporters.

She was part of that neo-conservative axis, along with Ronald Reagan, on the wrong side of those campaigning for freedom and justice. She was always going to conferences with Commonwealth nations and being isolated over South Africa. It made Britain look racist. Her statement about saving jobs for black people was a complete excuse, she was an apologist for British companies doing trade with apartheid and entrenching misery and exploitation. Everything she did about South Africa was negative. There was a racist underbelly to the Tory party. Her stance towards apartheid was diabolical."

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