In 1970 I was a teenager living in Finchley and Margaret Thatcher was my MP. Shortly before the 1970 General Election, the local Conservatives were holding a meeting and Margaret Thatcher was speaking. I think it was a Saturday afternoon and I went along with two good friends. We were all opposed to the Conservatives. I can’t remember if I’d planned my question before the meeting or if it occurred to me during her initial talk.
A challenging question
We obviously didn’t look like trouble makers and must have looked vaguely respectable. No-one checked our credentials and of course she was just our MP, but for us she represented an ideology we opposed, particularly the support of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The whole South African situation was a burning issue at the time among the people I mixed with. I had activist friends who disrupted rugby matches when the South African team toured the UK. There was a lot of debate on the best strategy to adopt to help overthrow apartheid; I remember one friend deriding me for boycotting South African oranges. I was told I would be damaging the black population.
In the early 1960s Britain was the major arms supplier to South Africa, but in 1964 the Labour government imposed an arms embargo. In 1970 the embargo was lifted by the newly elected Conservative government under Prime Minister Edward Heath, with the UK supplying South Africa with naval helicopters.
I put up my hand; I can’t remember who decided that I could ask my question, but I went ahead: “You believe in freedom don’t you?”
Thatcher nodded vigorously and so did nearly everyone else in the room.
“Why do you want to sell arms to South Africa which will be used to squash the freedoms of the South African population?”
Thatcher looked horrified and indignant. She was appalled and faltered as she searched for some appropriate words. The rest of the audience looked disgusted too.
An unprepared, but truthful answer
After a few seconds while she thought up a response, she came up with these words:
“Well, what’s important is the British people, and the British people have to come first. Selling arms produces jobs for Britain and Britain comes first.”
Nearly everyone in the room seemed to agree and there were sounds of “hear, hear” combined with looks of disgust aimed at me. After she finished Thatcher looked a lot happier, more relaxed and confident. She had come up with words that appeared to satisfy her supporters and they continued to look at me daggers drawn.
My friends and I didn’t mind at all about the disapprobation. We were triumphant, as we thought Thatcher looked like a hypocrite and showed she lacked an ability to think on her feet. How wrong we were, and how horrified we would have been to know that she would end up as PM.
Probably the only impact my question had was to make the organisers more careful about who they allowed into political meetings.
With the arrogance of youth, we were full of contempt for Thatcher, although it can be said in her favour that she was honest, and that makes her a cut above many contemporary politicians.
She held on fiercely to her ideology (later known as Thatcherism), summarised as “…fierce nationalism, a combative approach to achieving political goals, and a fervent regard for individual interests.” This is perfectly illustrated here: she didn’t pretend to care about the oppressed South Africans; she knew that Britain should come first.
Although my feelings towards Margaret Thatcher did not change, I can see that she possessed very real political talent.
She was able to greet Nelson Mandela in Downing Street as if she had always been his good friend, even though Former head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Patrick Wright claimed in his diaries that “She continued to express her views about a return to pre-1910 South Africa, with a white mini-state partitioned from their neighbouring black states.” In a BBC obituary of the late Queen, it was said that she had been puzzled by Margaret Thatcher’s anti-sanctions policy towards South Africa.
The spirit lives on
Although Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 and died in 2013, it is remarkable how her spirit lives on. It seems that there is no escaping her influence. Just last year, Liz Truss modelled her appearance on Margaret Thatcher, trying to appeal to Conservative members.
Unlike someone I know, I did not keep a bottle of champagne in the fridge ready to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death, but I have continued to be amazed how ready people are to overlook her faults because of their admiration for her economic reforms.