Softer side of the Iron Lady

Image of David Tang

At her 70th birthday dinner at Claridge’s, Lady Thatcher placed John Profumo, with whom she remained firm friends in his years of exile, next to the Queen. It was a poignant gesture on an occasion when someone else might well have chosen not to distract from the celebration of an important anniversary. Instead Lady Thatcher had lent her day to a friend whose unequivocal restitution deserved more attention.

This generosity of spirit was no more conspicuous than at a dinner at which Lady Thatcher was placed near Lady Black. They were talking just like old friends, as they were, when perhaps there might have been a tinge of awkwardness as things were not going well for Lord Black. But that was typical of the loyalty and care for which the Iron Lady was perhaps less well known.

There must have been many other times when this remarkable prime minister, in her political armour of steel and tenacity, yielded to a tender dimension that appeared at odds with her public persona. Who knows whether or not she was conscious of popular underestimation – the point is that she didn’t seem to have time to mind. All she wanted to do was to get on with what she believed was the right thing to do by following her convictions – and perish the image. Substance – making a difference – was all she desired and this determination turned her into one of the greatest statesmen of our age.

In her private moments, Lady Thatcher was also more loving and kind than most would let themselves believe. When her son Mark got lost in the desert, the prime minister became anxious and, uncharacteristically, left her red box to seek help from all her friends. Michael Havers, her attorney general, was tracked down at dinner to proffer advice. She became a loving mother just like any other. When she was with her daughter Carol, she clearly enjoyed the maternal bonding. They would joke and laugh together just like any happy and relaxed family. It was easy to forget that this was the same woman who stood up to very tough men like Arthur Scargill (and all those picket lines and flames and riots), and General Leopoldo Galtieri with his sovereign claims and guns and battleships at high seas. This was a different age, one in which private and public life were kept respectfully distinct. In many ways this is an important key to understanding Lady Thatcher.

Well after she left 10 Downing Street, she regularly championed charitable causes. Her kindness in lending her magic allure to charity dinners never diminished. She gave many diverse causes a leg up: cancer-fighting charities, war veterans, institutions helping to cure skin diseases, education; you name it, she became involved. She never trumpeted these activities, she simply got on with helping with characteristic, quiet command. And when it came to helping the causes she championed, she did far more than simply putting in the odd appearance. Everywhere she went, and every infirmity she supported, she would take the trouble of understanding the issues and listening, contrary to popular belief, to many divergent views. And she was as popular as, or even more so than, certain royalty that has become the usual anchor at fundraisers. People seemed to be much more fascinated by her. Many quite simply adored her presence.

Her love for Dennis was endearing. At the opening of a gold mine in the heat of Zimbabwe (before Mugabe went mad), she made sure that there was a cold gin and tonic at hand for her devoted consort. In Hong Kong, she would make sure that he had a decent round of golf to enjoy himself while she was working. So she missed him desperately when he disappeared from her life and, while much might not appear to have touched her soul in the violence of politics, her memory of a tender loving husband touched her very deeply and revealed her profoundly loving heart.

The passage of Lady Thatcher’s life has meandered through quite a few remarkable moments in history; some of the consequences of her time in power will be judged to be good and some not so good but, whatever the flaws, they were interwoven with a determination to do good. The Iron Lady was not so much, in the parlance of our modern age of music, heavy metal as soft metal.

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