Mrs. Thatcher – and it seems more appropriate on her death to forget her title and refer to her by the name she wore during her years of power – was a blend of two very different personalities. She was both a towering world-historical figure, like Bismarck, and an ordinary middle-class English housewife like Mrs. Miniver. She took bold and difficult strategic decisions, such as sinking the Belgrano in the Falklands War, but she also surprised world leaders by plumping up cushions, opening windows and generally seeing personally to their comfort. She was great, but she was not grand.
My first encounter with her was, I thought, a disaster. As a parliamentary correspondent in the 1970s I had a standup row with her over the worth of educational vouchers, which I supported and she opposed. What neither I nor my left-wing colleagues (who were mightily amused by my discomfiture) realized was that Mrs. Thatcher liked people who stood up to her. She relished argument and debate. She may have lacked a sense of humour, but she had wit and a love of rhetorical combat. By the time she became prime minister, she had been worsted many times herself in debate by Labour’s Jim Callaghan. As with all her actions, however, she gritted away until she learned how to win. And she became the mistress of Prime Minister’s Question Time in office.
Meanwhile, our row led her to invite me to join her staff in Downing Street in the mid-1980s. There I found that almost everyone who worked for her loved her. That was not true of all her ministers in other departments, however. And there was a reason. Mrs. Thatcher reversed the usual etiquette of political praise. She kicked up and she kissed down. The ladies who served tea, the doormen, her beloved detectives could do no wrong; her ministers and senior civil servants must have sometimes felt they could do no right. An example of this was when a waitress at Chequers stumbled and poured soup into the lap of the foreign secretary. Mrs. Thatcher jumped up and comforted the waitress!
There was method in this. She felt that the higher up you were, the greater your obligation to give British taxpayers full value for their money. This was a logic she applied to herself. If you want to understand why Mrs. Thatcher was so much more successful than, say, Tony Blair in pushing through her great reforming agenda, the explanation is this: Both had good ideas and both presented them to the British people. But she had administrative stamina. She pushed her program through the committees and corridors of power with tireless effort. As a result, her ideas became reforms rather than merely press releases.
Mrs. Thatcher was also someone signally lacking in prejudice. She recruited those people who seemed to her to be most intellectually capable and adventurous. There were no complaints that her Downing Street was the haunt of “posh” people or establishment grey men. Rather the reverse. She was occasionally attacked for listening to eccentrics and wild cards and, well, non-traditional Conservatives. Harold Macmillan once delivered himself of a mildly anti-Semitic joke on those lines: “My cabinet was full of Old Etonians; her Cabinet is full of old Estonians.” But the result was that she got advice and ideas from outside the regular channels and accordingly she was often better informed and bolder than those overly reliant on the “departmental view.”
Her relationships with foreign statesmen were similar in their creative sympathy across gulfs of ideology. She was very fond of president François Mitterrand (who returned the compliment in a barbed way, describing her as possessing “the mouth of Monroe and the eyes of Caligula”) and obtained his support in the Falklands War. But her two most rewarding relationships were with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev – respectively the leaders of the camps of liberty and socialism – whom she introduced to each other, warmly recommending both, in a step that led directly to the peaceful end of the Cold War.
Mr. Reagan she liked because, as is well known, they shared each other’s conservative philosophy across the board. One acute observer, Percy Cradock, who served as Mrs. Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, described the odd couple as follows: “The bossy intrusive Englishwoman, lecturing and hectoring, hyperactive, obsessively concerned with detail” and “the lazy, sunny Irish ex-actor, his mind operating mainly in the instinctive mode, happy to delegate and over-delegate, hazy about most of his briefs, but with certain stubbornly held principles, a natural warmth, and an extraordinary ability to communicate with his constituents.” Yet as Sir Percy went on to say, these different personalities complemented each other very well. They were not oil and water but oil and vinegar – no prizes for guessing who was which – and the combination worked well.
Mr. Gorbachev she liked because – well, because she liked arguing with him. He apparently enjoyed it too. For it is difficult to avoid the historical conclusion that she converted him.