I was terribly saddened to hear that Baroness Thatcher died yesterday in a suite at The Ritz after suffering a stroke. Apparently the Lady had been living as a guest of owners the Barclay brothers since she was deemed too frail to live in her Chester Square townhouse. There’s a poignancy to this lioness in winter ending her days at The Ritz. As is entirely fitting for Britain’s first (and only) woman Prime Minister and the longest serving PM of the 20th century, the Lady is to be accorded a ceremonial funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral with full military honours.
Even her detractors – and there were many – will agree that Mrs Thatcher was one of the increasingly rare politicians who had the courage of her convictions and entered politics for the greater good rather than personal ambition. She inherited a country in crisis in 1979 and left after a record three terms a Britain that considered itself great once more. Her path to power was beset by chauvinism and snobbery within a party who would never let her forget she was a provincial grocer’s daughter. Far from being an Achilles heel, her upbringing was the making of Margaret Roberts. Running the country on the principals of a shop was entirely appropriate for a nation of shopkeepers.
I have found it terribly reassuring to hear Mrs Ts voice again on the television and radio. Her tone, aided as we now know by elocution to lower the register and soften shrill top notes, was uniquely soft, mellifluous but strong in the defence of her beliefs. Her last performance in the Commons when she was forced out of office was a masterclass in dignity and showmanship. I very clearly recall her speech on the steps of No 10 Downing Street with Sir Dennis at her side when she left for the last time. As she rightly said, Mrs T left Britain in a much stronger position than she found it.
Of course it would be naive to suggest that Mrs T didn’t relish wielding the Launer handbag of power like a ball and chain. She was in many respects a dominatrix who, when they tried to make her go to Brussels, replied ‘No! No! No!’ She fought for British interests in Europe, defended our territories when Argentina invaded the Falklands and defrosted the cold war with Russia. On the home front Mrs T promoted enterprise, common sense and shared responsibility. I’d defy anyone to look back on 80s Britain and say things actually did get an awful lot better.
What none of the tributes, pundits or critics have mentioned so far is Mrs Thatcher’s immense sense of style. Lest we forget Mrs Thatcher was one of the icons of 1980s power dressing. She created a uniform of sharply tailored Aquascutum suits, low-heeled Raine court shoes, Launer handbags and pearls that was instantly recognisable. Immaculately coiffed and invariably unruffled, Mrs T looked like she meant business but retained the femininity that prompted President Mitterand to say ‘she has the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula’. Mrs Ts handbag was as symbolic of her years in power as Churchill’s cigar.
S0me of the most touching memories of Mrs Thatcher have been revealed by her personal assistant and dresser Cynthia ‘Crawfie’ Crawford who was by her side when the IRA detonated a bomb in Brighton’s Grand Hotel and kept vigil with her during the small hours when Britain was at war with Argentina. Crawfie paints a picture of a woman who in private was practical, kind and maternal. Like that other powerful glamazon Marlene Dietrich, there was something of the hausfrau about Mrs Thatcher that was never revealed to the public.
One can only imagine how mortifying it was for Mrs Thatcher to be ousted by her own party rather than being allowed to go to the polls and let the British people decide. She might – just might – have won a fourth term but of course we will never know because she wasn’t given the chance. Her subsequent years in the political wilderness were long and must have weighed heavily on such a dynamic woman. As we now know, signs of dementia began to creep in after Mrs T suffered the first of many strokes. When Sir Dennis died in 2003 she lost the man who had stood by her (and occasionally stood up to her) for all of her adult life.
It was incredibly sad to see Mrs Thatcher become increasingly frail – notably at her 80th birthday dinner attended by The Queen – and gradually fade from public view. I thought it particularly cruel to produce the 2011 Meryl Streep film The Iron Lady – portraying the Lady’s dementia as a price she paid for power – when she was still alive. You sincerely hope she never saw the film that was both intrusive and unbearably bleak. Lady Thatcher’s final years were clearly not bleak or lonely. The picture painted by the inner circle who visited her at The Ritz in her final months is of a woman much loved and cared for.
With the exception of a handful of very sad, sick people who think it acceptable to celebrate the death of an 87-year old woman, the press and public has been largely respectful of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and her position in British history. I would imagine Lady Thatcher was a pragmatist who understood that to be loved or loathed is infinitely preferable to being forgotten. She spent her political life under the shadow of IRA terrorism and was courageous in the extreme to do what she believed however unpopular some of those decisions would prove. Lady Thatcher will never be forgotten because not despite of those people who will never forgive her. It is to be hoped that her many admirers make the funeral next week a fitting send-off for a truly great Briton.