Remembering Margaret Thatcher

04.09.13

The Margaret Thatcher I Knew

Jamie Dettmer recalls long lunches with the Iron Lady at the Savoy Hotel—the whisky, the flirting, and the strong-arm tactics.

She overstayed the scheduled lunch in a plush private room at London’s grand Savoy Hotel by nearly two hours and ignored an aide’s discreet gesturing to his watch. She wasn’t going to be dragged away from two of the things she most enjoyed: all-male company combined with a robust philosophical discussion about politics. And, of course, there was also the whisky, the best the Savoy could provide.

Margaret Thatcher was in her element, holding forth on the great questions of the day with The Sunday Telegraph’s political team and the newspaper’s then-editor Peregrine Worsthorne. The Sunday Telegraph was one of her favorite newspapers—not that it always toed the Thatcher line and could be critical of her disdain of traditions. Perry worried that full-blown Thatcherism would undermine Britain’s social cohesion. But she enjoyed the paper’s mischievousness.

I remember her pronouncing on a series of foreign and domestic issues that lunch: the Cold War and why the individual instinct for freedom would doom Soviet communism; Britain’s dependency culture and her irritation with her countrymen’s failure to become as entrepreneurial as can-do Americans; and, one of her bugbears, the country’s trade unions, which had not been sufficiently brought to heel, despite her recent brutal victory seeing off a long-running strike by the coal miners.

She turned dark when pondering Northern Ireland, putting me in mind of Churchill’s 1922 comment about how the whole map of Europe had been changed “but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”

I was in my late 20s, The Sunday Telegraph’s youngest political writer, and it was all a little intimidating. She wore blue that day, one of her favorite colors, and was at the height of her powers, and I felt, as on other encounters with her in the House of Commons or on the campaign trail, like I could be brought to heel too if I stepped too far out of line.

When railroading didn’t work for her and she was dealing with men, she would quite simply flirt.

But looking around the table at my colleagues—Donald Macintyre, Bruce “the Brute” Anderson, and a handful of others, all older than me—I realized that they, too, were on their best behavior and minding their P’s and Q’s. It was hard not to respect her, not to feel that she was an extraordinary force of political nature, not to be, well, intimidated by her.

The confidence of her convictions and her certainty were breathtaking. There was never the hint of doubt. A British politician she sacked because in her words “he turned indiscretion into a political principle,” Norman St. John Stevas, wrote in his book The Two Cities that Thatcher could see “everything in black and white [but] the universe I inhabit is made up of many shades of grey.”

And when railroading didn’t work for her and she was dealing with men, she would quite simply flirt. I recall mentioning that in the past to others: her using her femininity to cajole, to persuade. Those who hadn’t met her would recoil with surprise or say that I clearly had some nanny fixation—I didn’t and don’t. Other men who dealt with her a lot would confirm her skill at maneuvering them into feeling they had to be chivalrous. 

For all of her strength and bravado and her reputation as the Iron Lady, she could be very down-to-earth and had a common touch—in a rather grand way. That would come through in her solicitousness, her instant recall about one’s family, friends, and ill health. She would ask after my father when she learned he had been a commando in the Second World War and had lost his arm.

Yes, all these skills—flirtatiousness, solicitude—would be of use for her in fighting her political battles and when she couldn’t win by banging people over the head with her metaphorical handbag, she would deploy other arts of persuasion to try to get her way. But her solicitude was genuine, although she quite clearly didn’t approve of self-pity and wouldn’t let it get in the way when she felt she was in the right politically. There was no sympathy spared for the families of the coal miners during the failed strike, even if one tried to get her to show some.

And, of course, she was bossy and infuriating.

On a campaign plane once I remember her being boorish with the press when at the end of a long day we started flirting with the air hostesses. “Leave the girls alone,” she commanded. “They have work to do.”