By her own admission, Margaret Thatcher missed out on a fair bit of her children’s upbringing. Whether that made her a bad mother is an entirely different question.
But Britons won’t get the slightest hint of an answer from the best sources on the matter – her children, Mark and Carol. Neither is planning to speak at Lady Thatcher’s funeral Wednesday at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Instead, they will be watching the tributes along with the other high-profile names on the guest list, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; South Africa’s last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk; author Frederick Forsyth; Stephen Harper; former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney; and the Queen.
In the past week, Lady Thatcher’s family legacy has been debated almost as much as her political legacy. Writing in The Guardian on Tuesday, the day after Lady Thatcher died, English actor and comedian Russell Brand triggered a minor firestorm by suggesting that she was a distant mother. “For a national matriarch she is oddly unmaternal,” he wrote. “I always felt a bit sorry for her biological children, Mark and Carol, wondering from whom they would get their cuddles. ‘Thatcher as mother’ seemed, to my tiddly mind, anathema.”
The Telegraph’s women’s editor, Emma Barnett, wondered how Mr. Brand could possibly know anything about Lady Thatcher’s parenting skills, or lack thereof, noting that it’s not impossible for a “warrior queen” to be a good mother, too. “Only she, Denis (her husband of 52 years), Carol and Mark have the right and knowledge to comment on her capacity as a mother,” she said.
As far as anyone can remember, Lady Thatcher shed tears in public only two or three times in her 11 years as prime minister.
The last, and most famous, recorded watershed moment came in 1990, when Lady Thatcher left 10 Downing St. for the final time, her eyes red. The first time came three years after her election, when her daredevil son, Mark, who is evidently prone to roguish behaviour, got separated from his convoy in the Paris-Dakar rally. He and two teammates went missing in the Sahara for six days. She was so worried that she lost her steely composure. Later, Mark – now Sir Mark – said: “The biggest story of 1982 was the Falklands War. The second biggest also involved my mother … and me.”
Sir Mark, now 59, was often a source of anxiety for Lady Thatcher, less so his twin sister, Carol, a journalist and onetime TV personality who was said to be much closer to her father, Denis, who died in 2003. But even Carol managed to upset her mother once in a while, notably when she used a book she wrote to reveal the extent of Lady Thatcher’s mental deterioration in her late years. In the days after Lady Thatcher’s death at 87 on Monday, the British papers were gripped with stories about her domestic life as well as her political one: How close was she to her children and was she or was she not a good mother?
Sir Mark did make heartfelt, if bland, public comments about his mother. “We have been quite simply overwhelmed by messages of support, condolence, of every type from far and wide,” he said Wednesday outside Lady Thatcher’s five-storey Victorian house in Belgravia, in central London. “Most importantly I would like to say how enormously proud and equally grateful we are that Her Majesty has agreed to attend the service.”
Sir Mark had a colourful career, most of it spent outside of Britain engaged in motorsport racing and business activities that sometimes landed him in trouble – at one point, he was investigated for loansharking and he allegedly made a commission on an arms deal. After going missing in the Sahara, his next front-page splash came in 2004, when he was arrested in South Africa, where he lived, for his alleged role in financing the attempted “Wonga coup” in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. In excerpts carried by the Mail Online of his new biography, Robin Harris, who was Lady Thatcher’s adviser for 30 years, said that she “felt a deep sense of shame” when her son was arrested.
A year later, Sir Mark received a four-year suspended prison term and a £265,000 fine. (He denied any knowledge of the coup plot, though he did charter a helicopter for his friend, Simon Mann, a British mercenary who was jailed for the coup attempt.)
Sir Mark reportedly owns a luxury property in Barbados and now lives in Spain, with his second wife, Sarah Jane Russell, the daughter of Terry Clemence, a wealthy London property developer. The couple married in 2008 at a registry office in Gibraltar. Neither his parents nor his sister are thought to have attended the secret ceremony.
Sir Mark has two children with his first wife, Texas heiress Diane, who will attend Lady Thatcher’s funeral with their two children, Michael, 24, and Amanda, 19. They were Lady Thatcher’s only grandchildren.
Carol Thatcher lives in Klosters, the posh Swiss mountain resort, and never married. Her ski instructor boyfriend of 20 years, Marco Grass, is expected to join her at the funeral. She left Britain in 2009, after she ended her stint as a correspondent for the BBC’s One Show.
Mr. Harris wrote that Carol upset her mother by revealing in a book she wrote in 2008 that Mrs. Thatcher suffered from “dementia” – Carol’s word: “When [Lady Thatcher] read it, she was shocked at seeing in print facts about her condition which she only half-acknowledged, but above all wounded by the thought that her own daughter could behave in such a fashion.”
What seems certain is that Lady Thatcher did not dote on her children and grandchildren. In a 1998 interview with Saga magazine, she seemed to acknowledge she couldn’t have it both ways. “Look, you can’t have everything. It has been the greatest privilege being prime minister. … Yes, I wish I saw more of my children. … But I can’t regret. And I haven’t lost my children. They have their own lives. I took a different life.”