Margaret Thatcher dominated my early journalistic career and the memories have come flooding back this week.
I first met her when she was a Shadow Minister in Ted Heath’s Opposition team at the October 1974 election. It was The Grocer’s last throw, soon he would be defeated by the grocer’s daughter. At that time she had none of the aura that subsequently attached to her. She had been the controversial Education Secretary who had taken away kid’s free milk, but in October 74 Heath had given her the junior job of Shadow Environment Secretary.
The renowned Norman Jackson was the Political Correspondent of the Manchester Evening News. He was well known to Thatcher and he was late. But rather than getting on with the press conference she told the rest of us that we had better all wait for Norman to arrive. This week I reflected on this early patient Thatcher who one day would bully poor old Geoffrey Howe with spectacular consequences.
My next memorable encounter with her was on the night that South Georgia was recaptured from the Argentinians in 1982. We were summoned to the door step at No 10 for the great announcement. When I ventured the opinion to the great lady that this was only South Georgia and the Falklands was still under the heel of the junta, I was told to “rejoice at that news!” It became a famous sound bite.
Three years later I was an hour from being in the Grand Hotel Brighton when the IRA bomb went off. Eric Taylor, chairman of the North West Conservatives was killed and I wandered down to the conference hall fully believing the whole event would be called off. Not a bit of it. There was Mrs Thatcher telling the nation that terrorism would never defeat democracy.
There were other encounters but that gives you a flavour of what it was like for a journalist covering the Great Lady. She was from time to time courageous, arrogant, personally caring but unfeeling about the impact of her policies, particularly on the north of England.
The impact of her policies came thick and fast. It was a momentous time for journalists. In Liverpool Michael Heseltine held the ring between Militant and a government that wanted the city to settle into managed decline. In Manchester and other northern cities, councillors threatened to refuse to fix a rate year after year in the mid eighties in a protest against cuts.
Then there was the Miners’ Strike. Its greatest impact was in the Yorkshire coalfield culminating in the Battle of Orgreave but it also wiped out the remaining pits in Lancashire. The Miners’ Union defeated, next were the printers. The violent picketing outside the Messenger Group of papers in Warrington was a taster of what was to come at Wapping. Eddie Shah was determined to end the union’s restrictive practices. He had Thatcher’s backing as did Rupert Murdoch in London.
In northern local government, the perfectly satisfactory upper tier strategic Greater Manchester and Merseyside County Councils were abolished, and all because of a quarrel between Mrs T and Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council.
The unions defeated, council house sales underway, industries privatised, she should have called it a day after her 1987 victory but on she went with the poll tax and an increasingly aggressive attitude to Europe.
By the autumn of 1990 my task was to sniff out the northern Tory MPs who had had enough. They were afraid in case the plot failed. I remember snatching an interview on a train waiting in Runcorn station with Crosby MP Malcolm Thornton. It took so long to get him to say she must go that I only just got off the train before it departed. Next stop Euston.
But she had her loyal supporters too. None more so than Sir Fergus Montgomery, her parliamentary aide and MP for Altrincham. He died a few weeks before the Prime Minister he was devoted to.
Britain needed a Thatcher type figure in 1979. The unions had too much power and the sale of council houses was a brilliant stroke that united her with blue collar supporters. But she was also responsible for introducing a selfish, get rich quick mentality to Britain.
On Europe having strongly supported the Yes campaign just after she became Opposition leader in 1975, by the end of her Premiership she had sowed the seeds of division in her party on the issue which remains to this day. UKIP is now full of Tories who followed Thatcher.
David Cameron will be sad on a personal basis that she has died but will be breathing a sigh of relief her death wasn’t closer to the General Election. He has never remotely commanded the affection of the Tory grass roots that she did, and many will remember that as Margaret thatcher’s coffin is carried into St Paul’s.