Life Under Thatcher

Working for the Iron Lady

It’s remarkable how candidates in the Tory leadership race have channelled Margaret Thatcher. Especially as they’re barely old enough to have experienced her policies.

Pre-Boris and Trump. Margaret Thatcher, in Washington.

I grew up in the Thatcher era and as a civil servant encountered her in my work in Whitehall. 

In my first Foreign Office job, I drafted letters from the prime minister to members of parliament supporting human rights in the Soviet Union. I had to learn to write in her voice and style. I briefed her interpreter on human rights cases for meetings with President Gorbachev and supported her visit to earthquake-devastated Armenia. 

I raised my glass to Thatcher in countless toasts by admiring Russians and amusingly was once mistaken for her daughter. 

By a strange quirk of fate, I  tendered my resignation the same day she stepped down as prime minister. So I feel compelled to comment on her period in office and the echoes of Thatcherism being played out today.

Conservatives like to evoke the Iron Lady, the Falklands War warrior, who said no to Europe, yes to US free market economics, and declared she could do business with the Soviet Union.

But I wonder, do people recall the condescending tone and indifference to those impoverished by her policies? The one in ten of the working population unemployed in the early 1980s; bloody clashes between police and striking miners; those who lost their homes in the 1989 housing market crash, when mortgage interest rates reached 15%? 

Do they remember waits of 18 months for an operation, decades before a pandemic could be used as an excuse; the phrase there is no such thing as society to justify reducing the social safety net? Or the riots of disaffected youth in disadvantaged parts of Britain’s big cities like Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool, and the angry poll tax protests across the country that eventually brought her down? 

As a teenager, I experienced cuts to state education that chipped away at our schools and universities. I watched my sister fight to retain levels of care for her hospital ward patients with ever-reducing funding. 

We are a nation rightly proud of our public healthcare system, free at the point of use. Yet it has been run down under consecutive Tory governments. 

People asking today why they can’t access an NHS dentist or doctor need to know that it was thanks to Thatcher that they lost ‘free’ dental check-ups, eye tests and prescriptions, and under a Rishi Sunak premiership, they will be fined for missing an appointment in a policy that punishes patients for the government’s failure to recruit and train adequate numbers of doctors. 

The right to join a union or go on strike was curtailed under Thatcher and completely removed in some critical public sector professions. 

Faced with the prospect of rail, mail, fire service and teaching strikes,  Liz Truss is planning on taking Thatcher’s legacy one step further, stating she will ban outright the right to strike.

National energy, transport and telecoms industries were privatised for profit (in a move described as “selling off the family silver”), financial trading was liberalised (according to the mantra greed is good) and London began its stratospheric ascent to become the financial services capital of the world. Only to come crashing down again when the bubble burst at the expense of taxpayers. 

We have been paying the price for that in austerity policies and Thatcherite economics ever since.

I do also recall some of the apparent upsides. A state-educated girl who passed the Foreign Office entrance exams in 1987, I felt like you just had to work hard and doors would open. They did. Into a world of politics and international affairs where you had to be able to learn fast and swim with the tide. 

I worked in an office overlooking 10 Downing Street, from where we regularly heard the shouts of protestors. I also recall the dawning realisation that our political establishment was built on privilege and patriarchy. 

Conservative scandals were similarly in evidence back then — cash for questions in the Houses of Parliament, not unlike the Owen Paterson lobbying affair that helped bring Boris Johnson down, or the current Conservative party donors’ cash for honours disgrace that continues in his resignation honours list. 

There were MPs’ sexual misdemeanours, though perhaps not so many as now, and the resignations of Foreign Minister David Mellor and Thatcher’s friend and ally Cecil Parkinson for having affairs with women who were not their wives.

All the while, I observed how government works and the wheels of Whitehall keep it running.

From the premier’s chief of staff and the Number 10 Press Office to the Foreign Secretary and private secretaries, the style of the prime minister influenced everything. 

In the case of Margaret Thatcher, it was business-like, efficient, no-nonsense.  

The government set the policy and the civil servants did their best to implement it. Impartially, but always taking care to advise in the best interest of the country. Without fear or favour, or political opinion. But, inevitably influenced by the political directives of the premier.

We had to read the Murdoch press first in our daily news clippings, with The Sun being served up top of the pile every morning. 

Whilst the UK was rightly robust in defending the human rights of dissidents and Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union, Margaret Thatcher’s favourable disposition towards General Augusto Pinochet meant that my counterpart on the Chile human rights desk despaired of getting anything like the same response to that country’s abuses. 

On South Africa, Thatcher was predictably resistant to the anti-apartheid movement that protested for years outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, and which eventually saw Nelson Mandela become the country’s President.

Despite such politics, Margaret Thatcher, ironically, would be considered something of a globalist and a Russophile by today’s Brexit standards. 

She campaigned to join the EU to boost Britain’s ailing economy, championed the Single Market to open up trade with Europe, warned against climate change, and promoted relations with Russia at the end of the Cold War. 

Though she increasingly pushed back against further integration towards the end of her tenure, the efforts Thatcher went to integrate the UK into the European Union clearly outweighed her later anxiety.

Leaver Tories who claim her Eurosceptic, laissez-faire legacy would do well to remember such contradictory details.

The Iron Lady

Given Russia’s war in Ukraine, it’s important to mention Margaret Thatcher’s trip to Kyiv in 1990, accompanied by a group of Britain’s leading businessmen to promote bilateral trade with the former Soviet republics. 

The Foreign Office was tasked with organising British Days in Kyiv, a month-long event. In the commercial department of the embassy in Moscow, it was our job to make sure doors were opened and business opportunities facilitated. 

The trip also coincided with the opening of a school in Armenia, built by British workers with government aid after a devastating earthquake had hit part of the country and destroyed much of its infrastructure. 

Since I had been accompanying a colleague on trips to visit the workers during the construction,  I was tasked with supporting that leg of the trip. 

My job was to make sure that comms on the school site were up and running throughout the visit. I was also assigned the task of accompanying the medical team that was carrying blood supplies in the worst-case scenario of an accident befalling the prime minister. 

A new tarmac road had been laid from the airport, and a freshly painted zebra crossing left white footprints as we crossed the road to the school in our early morning recce visit. 

As the prime ministerial convoy approached the town, crowds began to gather in the streets and on the top of ruined buildings, deepening as we drew closer to the school until they eventually surged, surrounded the cars and slowed us to a snail’s pace. 

I remember enthusiastic locals knocking on the vehicle’s sides and peering through the windows, practically escorting each vehicle into the school compound. At the tail end of the convoy, our medical minivan became separated, and by the time we arrived, Thatcher and her delegation were already inside the school. 

I jumped out to find a crowd of men hanging off the satellite comms equipment on the roof of the site port-a-cabin. My instructions to secure the comms ringing in my ears, I shouted in my most stern Russian “Get down from there immediately!”

Thankfully, the group complied and I rushed into the school to catch up with the delegation. But not before I heard someone in the crowd shout “Who is that?” and another onlooker inform everyone “It’s Margaret Thatcher’s daughter!”

By the time I caught up with the premier, the school tour was almost over. We jumped back in our vehicles and Thatcher retreated to a coach that had been specially procured for the occasion. She sat on the front seat, waving royally to the admiring crowds. 

We drove off the main road and went cross country to the scheduled lunch stop — an old state restaurant in the middle of nowhere. I had just enough time to direct the BBC correspondent to the dedicated phone that had been installed for him to file his story, and to tell The Sun correspondent that I was sorry he would have to wait, when we were alerted to a change of plan. 

It was deemed too risky to continue the visit, given the lack of crowd control, and we would be departing straight for the airport. Anyone who didn’t keep up would be left behind. The RAF plane would not wait. 

We dashed back again to our vehicles and set off in the direction of the airport. Or at least I thought we did. As we were again separated from the main convoy, it appeared our driver was not local and did not know the way. 

We crisscrossed train tracks of a local industrial complex until I managed to direct us to the main road where we stopped to ask a man walking along the side of the road if he knew the way. He nodded, jumped aboard, and eagerly shouted Liverpool! Liverpool! with a thumbs up as if communicating the name of the British football club would help. 

When we eventually reached the airport, the security gates were closed and a crowd was blocking the way for vehicles to enter. I got out to talk the security guards into opening the gates and found the Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, shouting “I am the party chairman and former Education Secretary, let me through!”

It amused me greatly, as a recent graduate who had protested against his cuts to universities, but I intervened to explain who he was and the gates were opened. We drove up to the plane just as the vehicle ramp was about to be pulled up and only just made it.

I had one more flight to catch, however. I needed to go back to London for internal interviews the following week, so my colleague had kindly asked Thatcher’s favourite businessman and Executive Chairman of P&O, Sir (now Lord) Jeffrey Sterling if he had room for another passenger on his plane.  

Sterling had come by private jet to Kyiv, so once the RAF plane landed there from Armenia, we transferred to his plane. I say we because the former education secretary I had rescued earlier had also hitched a ride home. 

I sat across from him as he read a copy of The Economist, with his face hidden behind a surreal cartoon caricature of himself on the front cover… He didn’t acknowledge me or my intervention at the airport. Lord Sterling insisted I put my feet up on the chaise-long, gave me copies of women’s magazines to read and instructed the stewardess to bring his guests canapés and drinks. 

Once in the air, I realised I had no idea where we would be landing. “Hatfield executive jet airfield,” came the reply, and my heart sank. I hadn’t planned my return and had no money for a taxi or train ride to London. “Don’t worry” came the reply. “My driver will take you home.”

Thank You and Goodbye

On my return to Moscow a week or so later, I found a signed photograph of Margaret Thatcher on my desk as thanks for supporting her visit. I also learned that I had passed the internal interviews for transfer to the diplomatic fast stream, but the Selection Board, in its wisdom, felt I should continue where I was to gain more experience before trying again for promotion. 

That was the tipping point for me to pen my resignation and pop my letter discretely into the diplomatic mailbag the next morning. 

I felt like a weight had lifted from my shoulders and confided in a few close colleagues. Later that day, I received an excited call from them to tell me Thatcher had resigned and I should come over to the political section as they were opening a bottle of champagne.

I duly obliged, just as the head of section walked in on us and exclaimed in consternation, “I do hope you are not toasting the resignation of our prime minister!” “No, of course not,” came the panicked reply. “We are celebrating Natalie’s resignation from the diplomatic service!” 

Photograph courtesy of Robert Huffstutter. Published under a Creative Commons license.