Margaret Thatcher: Working for the Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher had the capacity to cut to the heart of the matter. Picture: Hamish Campbell
Margaret Thatcher had the capacity to cut to the heart of the matter. Picture: Hamish Campbell
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Margaret Thatcher was not just the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century. Indeed, it has been claimed on her behalf she won the “Hot War” with General Galtieri, the “Civil War” with Arthur Scargill and the Cold War with Mikhail Gorbachev.

However much historians may debate the extent of her role in each conflict, none can doubt that her contributions were massive.

Also of great importance was the fact that she provided a pioneering role model for women throughout the world. That is not to say that she espoused women’s issues in general. She did not, especially where she considered their aim to be socialistic in purpose. But her rise to the Premiership was a signal to other aspiring women that by deploying ability, ambition and sheer hard work, they could reach the very top positions.

I had the privilege to serve as one of her ministers and I always thought of her first and foremost as an extremely powerful leader. However, not everyone in her party looked upon her that way and she was keenly aware of the reality. She wrote in her book The Downing Street Years: “There are also certain kinds of men who simply cannot abide working for a woman. They are quite prepared to make every allowance for ‘the weaker sex’; but if a woman asks no special privileges and expects to be judged solely by what she is and does, this is found gravely and unforgivably disorienting.”

At the beginning of the Falklands War some of the military commanders were said to be uneasy that a woman was in charge. But none of them had any such reservations once they came into contact with her. They saw her as very much as a modern version of Boadicea, the warrior leader who wiped out an entire Roman army legion in battle, an event which shook the Roman empire to its core.

I was never in any doubt that Mrs Thatcher was a great leader, totally lacking in pomposity but extremely ambitious to see that the causes in which she believed were advanced. She was very much a conviction politician. The qualities which I admired most were her exceptional ability, enormous courage and her great decisiveness.

Her outstanding grasp of world affairs was clearly demonstrated in the book she wrote called Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World. In that book she made three statements which I believe summed up her courageous views.

First she wrote: “Don’t allow tyrants and aggressors to get away with it. And when you fight – fight to win.” Secondly: “The rule of law must prevail over the rule of the mob.” And thirdly: “We trade globally and we must think globally.”

She had the capacity to cut through detail to the heart of the issue concerned. On the question of decisiveness she will probably be rated more highly than any other peacetime prime minister in the 20th century.

She was determined to reverse the economic decline of Britain and her clear message was that in order to succeed, Britain had to become more competitive, even if that involved painful decisions.

She was totally dedicated and when she gave a commitment she would honour it, whether that was convenient or not. One such occasion, I recall, involved her promise to meet any MP who had a factory closed in their constituency. A Sheltered Workshop which came under the Scottish Transport Group had been closed in the then Scottish Labour MP Dennis Canavan’s seat and I was summoned to be in attendance for the meeting, which took place over a cup of tea poured from a silver teapot.

What caught my attention particularly about this encounter was that Mr Canavan treated Mrs Thatcher with much respect and she afforded him unfailing courtesy – but on matters of policy not surprisingly there was no meeting of minds.

She was a person of great strength and resolution. I remember her looking at me with astonishment when I said to her at a meeting with parliamentary private secretaries: “If all things are equal, the Ministry of Defence should buy British.” She eyed me in a steely way but made no response. However, a short time later, Ferranti of Edinburgh received the contract for the Inertial Navigational System for the Harrier aircraft, a contract rather than a US aircraft company which had also put in a bid.

As I saw it, she was right nine times out of ten, but if I had to choose an example of her not being right, I would mention the case of televising the proceedings of the House of Commons. She had allowed a free vote, but was totally opposed to such a change herself.

I supported the move, and I remember seeing the prime minister having a fierce exchange with a more senior minister than myself who had also voted for the change, but I did not feel any need to enter into a similar argument with her!

Mrs Thatcher became probably the most powerful woman in the world, and what brought an end to her leadership more than any other single factor was the policy of the flat-rate Community Charge to replace the old property-based rates. It was a tax which she, and her Cabinet for that matter, had decided did not need corrective measures.

I remember being asked to 10 Downing Street for lunch with other ministers and I went prepared to answer questions on anything to do with Scottish issues, but the only subject Mrs Thatcher would talk about was the Community Charge – it was the day that Conservative MP Michael Mates had an amendment down to be debated to introduce a form of banding to the charge. She had decided to tough it out, but it was my impression, from the way in which her mind was exclusively focussed on this issue, that she sensed danger.

When a challenge to her leadership emerged in the shape of Michael Heseltine, I sensed there was a feeling among some of those Conservatives with marginal constituencies that they might have a better chance of re-election with a different leader.

After the first round, she emerged four votes ahead. If she had stood for a second time I would have voted for her again, and I believed at the time she would have been elected, but with a deeply divided party. Some in the Cabinet believed she would not have won. As it turned out, she did not let her name go forward for the second round.

Margaret Thatcher became not only the longest serving prime minister of the 20th century and the first woman prime minister to preside at 10 Downing Street, but also the first who had won three successive general elections.

Her leadership came to an end after a vote from within her own party – however, by that time her place in history was ­already beyond doubt. During this traumatic saga, a strange event took place. I was answering questions at the Dispatch Box when the Labour MP John Maxton, perhaps in an attempt to stir things up further, wrongly accused me of being a supporter of Michael Heseltine. I replied by saying that Margaret Thatcher was a victory-winning General like “Monty”, and at that very moment, she herself came into the Chamber and sat down beside me on the Front Bench.

I remember vividly being invited to No 10 earlier with Michael Forsyth after he had successfully piloted an Education Bill through Committee.

She impressed on us that the freedoms enshrined in the British Parliament had been developed over many centuries and that in no circumstances were we to transfer sovereignty to a collection of unelected officials in Brussels.

After she ceased being Prime Minister, she gave many lectures around the world and acted as a somewhat Cassandra-like figure, especially on the subject of Europe. She believed that a Single European Currency would fail, that Britain should not give up the Pound and that the concept of a European Super State was highly objectionable.

Margaret Thatcher was an inspirational and combative leader She summed up what she stood for at the end of her book on Statecraft showing all her continuing zeal and cutting edge. She wrote “The demand that power be limited and accountable, the determination that force shall not override justice, the conviction that individual human beings have an absolute moral worth which government must respect – such things are uniquely embedded in the political culture of the English speaking people...They are our enduring legacy to the world.”

• James Douglas-Hamilton served under Margaret Thatcher as parliamentary under-­secretary of state for Scotland