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She just got on with it

I first met Margaret Thatcher in 1975. She was the upstart Leader of the Opposition, dismissed by Tory grandees as a mere Grantham grocer's daughter. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Apr 13, 2013 23:04 IST
Karan Thapar,Margaret Thatcher,Leader of the Opposition

I first met Margaret Thatcher in 1975. She was the upstart Leader of the Opposition, dismissed by Tory grandees as a mere Grantham grocer's daughter. Dressed in a bright canary yellow dress trimmed with a startling black band she was hard to miss. Her voice was also rasping. The refined faux-upper-class accent was still years away. Consequently, she caught one's attention but did not necessarily win your admiration.

Maggie Thatcher had come to the Cambridge Union as a special speaker. The University mood was dominated by the belief that James Callaghan's Lib - Lab pact could deliver. The winter of discontent was three years ahead. At the time, the avuncular PM was both liked and trusted.

Impressions changed dramatically when Thatcher started to speak. There was something about her delivery that forced you to listen. There was a lot more to her content that made you sit up and think. But, above all, her passion and conviction stole the day. It was years before her economics won widespread support but the feeling she could make it to the top and even dominate British politics had already begun to rouse emotions both in favour and against.

At the time I was a member of the Union's Standing Committee and got to meet Mrs. Thatcher over coffee and sandwiches. Perhaps I was over-awed by her manner, or lost in reverie, but I recall her repeating a polite question I failed to answer. It was a casual inquiry about what I was studying and when I replied "political philosophy" she harrumphed. "Rather you than me" she snorted. "I prefer to get on with things!"

The next time we met she was Prime Minister and had just won her third successive election. The coiffed hair, large pearl earrings and carefully, if artificially, modulated voice were firmly in place. She was, after all, at the crest of her political power. Thatcher's position was unchallenged.

I was part of a team from London Weekend Television at No. 10 to record an interview. Afterwards, she invited us to stay for a beer and then, jug in hand, circulated around the room topping up glasses.

"Tell me, Prime Minister, when do you agree and when do you refuse to give an interview?" The question was asked by a young, red-head, cockney spark. I'm not sure if he anticipated how it would stop her in her tracks but it caught the full focus of her undivided attention.

"That's a fascinating question" she began. "When I'm in trouble, when things are going wrong and people are questioning whether we've got the answers, I give all the interviews I can because I need to convince people that my government is in control and on target."

"Oh" replied the spark, assuming that was it and unaware there was more to come.

"Wait" Mrs. Thatcher continued. "I'm not finished. When things are swimming along, when the government's policies are working and people are re-assured I shut up. Because, then, if I speak there's a good chance I'll put my foot in my mouth and create my own problems!"

That's one lesson our politicians could usefully learn. Stupidly, they do the opposite. But there are others too: the case for conviction and courage, the determination to stay the course, how to popularise policies such as privatisation and her brilliant curbing of the unions by empowering courts to chase their funds.

I agree with David Cameron: Margaret Thatcher didn't just lead Britain, she saved the country.

Views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 13, 2013 23:01 IST