The Lady Thatcher I Knew

For historian Andrew Roberts, one of the saddest days of his life was when former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was ousted by her own party. He salutes a departed hero—and recalls more private moments with her in her last years.

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Margaret Thatcher was once asked what she thought she had changed about British politics. “Everything,” she replied. It was true. If anyone since Winston Churchill can truly be said to have saved Britain, it was her. On becoming the first female prime minister in British history in May 1979, she set about changing the direction that Britain was going, which at the time was full speed ahead toward Third World status. By the time she left Downing Street 11½ years later—after the longest spell as premier of anyone since 1827—there was little about Britain that she had not changed immeasurably for the better.

She did this largely through the exercise of her own indomitable will, which was immediately evident to anyone who knew her in any capacity. Her complete disdain for small talk could be quite daunting; her idea of an opening remark was a searching question along the lines of “What do you think of further NATO enlargement?” But so long as you kept your head and answered to the best of your abilities she was happy to debate without ever pulling rank, and soon left you in no doubt that you were in the presence of one of the greatest statesmen of the post-war era.

After she appointed me to take her own place as a trustee of the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust, which administers her papers at Churchill College, Cambridge, I came into fairly close and regular contact with Lady Thatcher, and she used to come to lunch and dinner occasionally at my home, only a couple of hundred yards from where she lived in Belgravia in London, where she could relax among friends and True Believers. Despite the Alzheimer’s that clouded her latter years, she was capable of flashes of astonishing recall. At a dinner at my house to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her victory in the Falklands War, she ignored her doctors’ orders not to give any more speeches, rose to her feet, and delivered a flawless 10-minute account of the crisis, with perfect recollection, despite having suffered a series of minor strokes earlier that same year. Nor was she jingoistic, concluding: “It was very sad that we had to do it, but we really had no choice.”

Nor did her natural sense of the dramatic gesture dim; at Ronald Reagan’s funeral she stretched out her hand and laid it on the Stars and Stripes–covered coffin, creating a powerful image of the Cold War victors bidding a final farewell. For alongside her friend and ideological soul mate Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher altered the failing policy of détente with communism into the confrontational one that eventually brought the Berlin Wall down at the end of her premiership. It was easily the single greatest victory over human tyranny since the death of Adolf Hitler.

Margaret Thatcher was the most brutally honest premier since Churchill, and was elected three times successively, largely on the back of it. She was not allowed to face the electorate a fourth time because she was brought down by a cabal of enemies from within her own party. Just as my parents knew where they were when they heard that JFK had been assassinated on November 22, 1963, so I can recall precisely the events 27 years to the day later, when Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign. On that never-to-be-forgiven day, as I listened to the radio in my flat in London, I suddenly started to cry uncontrollably, something that is profoundly foreign to my British, somewhat buttoned-up nature. I immediately took the subway to Westminster, buying a bunch of flowers on the way to Number 10 Downing Street, and made my way through a large crowd of coarse, drunken, celebrating left-wingers. “Must be a bad day for you?” shouted one of them, mockingly. “Yes,” I shouted back, “but it must have been a bad 11½ years for you.”