My memories of Thatcher: a decisive leader but also kind, tolerant and cautious

Peter Lilley

FOR those who worked with, loved and admired Margaret Thatcher, her death is immensely sad. But the one compensation is that our memories of her are incredibly vivid. She was so energetic, decisive and determined that she imprints herself on the memory.

And not just on the memories of those who worked with her. Apparently, psychologists used to diagnose degrees of memory loss by asking patients to recall their own name, that of the current Prime Minister, the previous Prime Minister and so on. The further down the list people could remember, the less severe their dementia. But since Thatcher became Prime Minister that test ceased to work; there are people who cannot remember their own names but still recall hers. She made a stronger impression on them than they made on themselves!

I first worked for her as a humble speechwriter, long before I entered Parliament, then as an MP, a junior Treasury minister and finally in her Cabinet. My most personal memories conflict with many of the caricatures of her that have grown up over the years.

First, her kindness. The less important you were, the kinder she was to you, though she rightly gave her ministers a hard time. I recall her tearing a strip off the chancellor for some action she disapproved of then, noticing me (a mere speechwriter at that time) and deducing from my black tie I had come from a funeral, she was full of solicitude.

Second, she listened to people’s arguments. She loved to argue but used argument to test the strengths of any proposal. That often gave the impression that she wasn’t listening. A group of backbench MPs – her strongest supporters – invited her to dinner to discuss our policy proposals. Briefed by her officials, she tore into them, we counter-argued, she riposted and so on. After she left, those not used to her approach groaned – “It’s true she doesn’t listen. However strong our arguments she kept contradicting them”. But, as I explained, we had the best arguments; she now knew that, she would go back and tear into those who had originally briefed her so badly. And sure enough she duly adopted our proposals.

She would cook up supper muttering, "If I was an ambassador, I'd have my own cook".

Third, she was amazingly tolerant of criticism of her own government. Often speechwriting sessions would go on late into the night in her flat above 10 Downing Street. (Incidentally she would cook us supper muttering: “If I was an ambassador, I would have a cook. But as I’m only Prime Minister I will have to cook for you myself!”) Dissatisfied with our turgid prose, she would haul out a shoe box full of letters from Sir Alfred Sherman, who wrote to her weekly with excoriating criticisms of her policies. Reading out his vivid critiques, she would demand why we could not come up with anything equally devastating. To this, someone would have to delicately reply that our job was to defend her government, not attack it.

Fourth, she was very cautious. Contrary to modern legend, she did not recklessly take on all comers. She deferred a confrontation with Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, until Nigel Lawson had built up coal reserves and made victory possible. Her practice of subjecting all proposals to ruthless criticism was part of her caution. Her trade union reforms were implemented step by step. When she felt she had bitten off enough for a parliament, she politely rejected ministers’ proposals for further reform, however much they appealed to her.

But once convinced that a policy was right in principle, workable in practice, and elaborated in detail (of which she had a masterly grasp without losing her focus on the key issues), she would push it through with unswerving tenacity.

We can only recognise what a debt this nation owes her if we recall the appalling situation when she came to power. Britain seemed in terminal decline. Inflation at 25 per cent per annum threatened to turn into hyperinflation. Trade unions beyond the control even of a Labour government. Tax rates of 83 per cent and 98 per cent on earned and investment income. Fewer small businesses and a larger, stagnant and over-manned nationalised sector than most of our competitors. As a result, the UK was the slowest growing country in Europe and the Bank of England forecast declining GDP. The consensus view even on the right was that creeping socialism was inevitable and the most we could do was manage decline.

Convinced that if something is not desirable, it is not inevitable, Thatcher set out to tackle those problems. And a decade later, Britain had the best industrial relations in Europe, inflation back in single figures, the most competitive tax rates, more new business start-ups than ever before, and the fastest growth of any major European country.

Above all, she was a patriot who believed in setting her compatriots free because she trusted them to use their freedom more responsibly than their bureaucratic masters in Whitehall or Brussels.

Peter Lilley is Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, and was a Cabinet Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s third government.