A Political Life: In many ways, Margaret Thatcher made me the person I am today

Aside from my own conversion to socialism, it was Section 28 that turned me against Thatcher permanently. Plus, recalling parliament sets an unnecessary precedent

Chris Bryant
Friday 12 April 2013 18:24
Margaret Thatcher arriving at 10 Downing Street in London after winning the general election in 1979
Margaret Thatcher arriving at 10 Downing Street in London after winning the general election in 1979

I’m grateful to Mrs Thatcher; she turned me into a socialist. Not particularly because of that “there’s no such thing as society” nonsense. Nor because of her rather mad interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who in the Lady Margaret Version of the Bible was famous only because he was rich. True, her closeness to General Pinochet didn’t help. After all, friends of mine were beaten, tortured and killed by his regime while Britain turned a blind eye. And while I was attending Free Nelson Mandela concerts, she was condemning him as a terrorist and refusing to consider sanctions. But that’s not it.

I should explain. I was a hideous child. Precocious, irritatingly serious, very sure of myself and unutterably self-righteous. So when Mrs Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, while I was at a boarding school in Stirling, I wrote to her, just after my 13th birthday, and told her I thought Willie Whitelaw should have won, but nonetheless, would she mind sending me an autograph. (You see what I mean about irritating?) She did. And when it arrived, the headmaster was so furious with me for sending an unauthorised letter (all mail at this charming gulag had to be vetted before being sent) that I got six of the best from his very painful slipper, again.

It all changed when I went to theological college. First stop, a month-long placement in Walker in Newcastle. This was 1984. Across the UK, unemployment was at its highest level, 11.9 per cent, and in Walker, every second man had no job. The housing estates were begging for investment. The inner city felt resented and ignored. I ate every evening with a different member of the congregation, and although many were scraping along on benefits, they were generous to a fault. Every Sunday, the church held a second collection, for the miners, and once a fortnight a minibus with tins of food, children’s toys and other gifts went down to the twinned church in the County Durham minefield.

We were all in it together. Hence the socialism.

And finally, a few years later, I worked out I was gay, and that’s when I really lost it with Thatcher. Again, not because I think she was homophobic. People who knew her tell me she was not. No, my problem was that when her party wanted red meat she gave them Section 28, a ludicrous amendment to the Local Government Act, that prohibited teachers from “promoting” homosexuality or “pretend family relationships”. This was cynicism writ large. It meant another generation of youngsters growing up hating themselves. And she sponsored it.

Mrs Thatcher was very lucky. Ted Heath was a curmudgeon; Sir Keith Joseph self-combusted and didn’t stand for the leadership; Callaghan lost the 1979 no-confidence motion by one vote; Labour splintered; Galtieri made a fatal mistake; Scargill refused to ballot. And she chose her enemies with more care than her friends.

A few unnecessary precedents set

I wasn’t at the seven-and-a-half-hour session in the Commons on Wednesday. I had been out on Monday morning in Ferndale, putting leaflets through people’s doors saying “your MP will be in your street on Wednesday afternoon, so if you’d like him to call, put this in your window”. It wasn’t till we finished delivering the leaflets that I discovered that Mrs Thatcher had died. So, even without the stream of constituents demanding that I stay away (the Rhondda still feels very bruised by Thatcherism as thousands mortgaged their homes to pay off debts during the miners’ strike), I had no choice. But Wednesday was over the top. Of course we should doff our cap at the passing of a major political figure, especially the first woman PM, but there was no need to summon Parliament. We could easily have paid tributes on Monday. It sets a precedent, too. Henceforth, every former PM will have to get a similar send-off and the monarch will have to attend their funeral.

Royal protocol can get in the way

But we have changed as a nation. I remember the extraordinary outpouring of grief when John Smith died. I was working at the party headquarters at the time and came up with the idea of putting large screens up in cathedrals so that people could take part in the service. Thousands did. So when Princess Diana (inset) died, I got out my old notes and organised it all again, plus an extra large one in Hyde Park. I’d also persuaded a friend to print thousands of copies of the order of service, only to be told that the Lord Chamberlain would not grant permission for their use unless I could personally guarantee the presence at each site of a member of the Royal Family. I pointed out that the family might be in Westminster Abbey. He was not amused.

There are times to speak ill of the dead

Funerals are tricky things. A bishop once gave me a tip: “Always keep a eulogy short; otherwise it invites people to disagree.” I learnt that lesson conducting a service in Buckinghamshire. As so often, it was for a man I had never met, but since nobody in the family had volunteered to speak, I had garnered a few facts about the deceased and held forth. I think it was the words “loving husband and father” that were the problem, as suddenly I heard a sort of constipated groan from the second row as the widow lurched up and started mouthing obscenities. “You have no bloody idea. No bloody idea at all,” she started, before going into a list of the deceased’s many failings. A daughter tried to calm her down, but there was no stopping her. And then she turned round and stared hard at a woman several rows back. “I don’t know what you’re smiling at. I know you two were at it for 20 years.”

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