Mrs Thatcher loved to promote a steely image, indeed she relied upon it, but much of it was a mirage. Her kindness, courtesy and sheer humanity is legendary to those who choose look beyond the tough talking exterior and attempt to understand the lady behind the legend. On the anniversary of her election to power I am delighted that this side to Mrs Thatcher, a side that often gets ignored, is being remembered. Charities such as ‘ChildLine’ have issued statements saying they “owe Margaret Thatcher a great deal.” They go on to say that soon after Childline launched “she held a reception for us in Number 10, and made sure that every relevant politician was there – secretaries of state and ministers responsible for child protection, as well as philanthropists who could help us in our work. One of our speakers, a survivor of child abuse, broke down while explaining the impact of the abuse upon her life. I finished her speech for her and later found her being comforted by Mrs Thatcher in her private study. Mrs T was saying: ‘You can stay here as long as you like, no one will disturb you – it’s far better to express your feelings than try to bottle them up.’ This was not the Iron Lady. She was empathetic and compassionate. On a subsequent visit to ChildLine, she quietly pulled a personal cheque made out to the charity from her famous handbag. No other politician or visiting celebrity has ever done so.”
I also have a personal memories of my own that clearly show her sheer kindness and grace. At the Bruges dinner last October myself and a friend travelled to London’s Grosvenor House Hotel to mark 20 years since her infamous Bruges speech. As she stepped out of her government jag, visibly frail, one could have forgiven her for wanting to get to her table, have her dinner and then go as quickly as possible… but not Lady Thatcher. We were one of the lucky few who greeted her as she arrived and spoke to her before she entered the ballroom for the dinner. As we assembled for personal photographs with an icon of the age, my friend (who was taking the photo) became flustered by the fact such a momentous figure was stood mere feet away from him. He was so overawed at this encounter he pushed the off button on the camera rather than ‘capture’. Getting even more flustered now, believing her to be understandibly in a rush, he apologised and said it had failed to take. She tapped him on the arm, in a very maternal way, and said “Don’t worry dear. Try again”. Her sheer calmness, patience and kindness amazed everyone and we managed to get the photos we will treasure for a lifetime.
Once he’d calmed himself down (with the help of a double gin and tonic!), still in awe of this exceptional womans patience, we all followed her in to the main ballroom. The assembled guests when they caught a glimpse of her completely erupted in to raptuous applause. There were cheers and tears as the figure of the fragile Iron Lady being supported by her ever loyal bodyguards came clearer in to view. As we were stood just behind her we could quite easily catch her conversation; the organiser of the event suggested she should take the nearest door which was just to our left so she could get to the top table quicker. She refused and for a brief moment a flicker of the passion and power that characterised the ‘legend’ of the Iron Lady came back, however fleetingly. She was determined to greet those that had patiently waited to see her and noone was going to stop her. They were her people and without a thought for herself or her own health she and her entourage made their way straight through the adoring crowds, most of whom were visibly moved at the gesture.
So why did she present this hardline image? Well the truth is Margaret Thatcher didn’t have the luxury of being ‘kind’ in politics. From her first speech in politics to her last she was always aware that there were many who did not want her there. Even when she should have been amongst friends she had learnt to watch her back. She had to present a tough image to show she was capable of dealing with the formidable circumstances that faced her and face of any potential threats. Perhaps the most suprising source of ‘praise’ came from Ken Livingston who said: “After years of waffle and drift from Callaghan and Wilson, I respected Thatcher for her firm beliefs and determination with which she pursued them, even though I disagreed with her. The post-war consensus had run out of ideas and Britain needed root-and-branch reform”. With her Iron image she was able to deliver that reform but the Iron image wasn’t the real Margaret Thatcher. The kindness and compassion that is at the core of the Iron Lady did not come across in public because had it done so she would have been ejected from Downing Street far sooner.
Britain needed reform. It was going to happen anyway and she had the balls to deliver it. But behind closed doors she was a different woman. As a Fleet Street photographer observed “When she gave her leaving speech, she was as solid as a rock, without a quiver in her voice. As the car started to pull away, she leant forward to have one last little look at 10 Downing Street and saw the girls in the press office weeping at the window. That was the moment I photographed her, with her face covered in tears. You couldn’t help but admire her.”” The women in the press office weeped for a woman that quite simply they adored and for good reason. They saw for 11 and a half years the Prime Minister ‘off stage’ which showed her full of caring, courtesy and compassion qualities that were never allowed to be displayed publicly.
The stories documented here are ones of many and reflect the real Mrs Thatcher. No soundbites or teleprompters. No prepared speeches or cue cards. No images to project. What these stories show are not Margaret Thatcher the Icon, but Margaret Thatcher the woman, the mother, the grandmother. People often wonder why I am so devoted to Mrs Thatcher and her legacy and my answer is always the same: until you meet her you can never really know why. You can never understand just how special she can make people feel with just a kind word or a show of courtesy reminiscent of a bygone age. 30 years on I salute this most exceptional woman and thank her for everythig she has done for this nation and this world. Maybe one day the left can look beyond the passions of the time (a time which most can’t even remember) and see the true greatness of her work and the lady behind the legend.