If journalism is, as G.K. Chesterton so brilliantly said, saying “Lord Jones dead” to people who didn’t know Lord Jones was alive, then the outpouring of commentary about Margaret Thatcher amounts to saying “Iron Lady dead” to people who have forgotten what the Iron Lady truly meant.
I have my own memories of Maggie, having been such an infatuated Thatcherite for much of my adult life.
I watched from a few feet away—and silently cheered madly—as she ate Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney alive during an impromptu press conference on the tarmac at Mirabel Airport when the two clashed over South African sanctions.
“No, prime minister, you are wrong,” she said with that air of a great-winged bird of prey descending on a farmyard duck.
I saw her do the same thing to him at a Commonwealth conference in Vancouver with such skill that even he, a politician then at the top of his game, responded not with ego but with admiration and, ultimately, enduring friendship.
The reality of that friendship was audible in the sadness of Mulroney’s voice several years later when I was invited to a dinner at his home and conversation turned to a visit he’d had with Lady Thatcher. She was just beginning her descent into her private hell of dementia, and Mulroney was clearly moved by the decline he’d witnessed.
The friendship between them was a curious one. There was the unlikelihood of a notoriously thin-skinned politico such as Brian Mulroney finding affection for someone who’d given him a couple of scorching public scoldings. More importantly, there was the way her sudden and terrifying political demise foreshadowed the decimation of Mulroney’s own Canadian Conservatives in 1993.
After bobbing, weaving, back-pedaling, and floundering for most of their first term from 1984 to 1988, the Mulroneyites got some second-term steel in their spines by modeling Thatcher’s insistence on unapologetically pursuing her policy convictions.
Then came the infamous Euro conference in Paris that Mrs. Thatcher had to bolt in order to race back to England in a vain bid to staunch a Conservative party rebellion and save her own leadership. I remember watching the eyes of the Canadian delegates there and, indeed, of Prime Minister Mulroney himself. A two-word summary of their unspoken realization would be: “Oh, mitt!”
Or maybe it wasn’t so much “mitt” as something that sounds very much like it.
It wasn’t so much that they had backed the wrong horse. It was more the belated recognition that if you follow the best horse in the world and it steadfastly refuses to turn, eventually you’ll both go off the same cliff.
It would be grotesque, though, to fall into the trap laid by Thatcher’s enemies, who have sought to re-cast her meaning entirely as the menace of blind faith. She was anything but unseeing. Her political faith was not a function of ideological habit but of genuine character.
Tens of thousands—millions?—of words will be spent over the next week parsing the exact nature of that character, but its meaning is nowhere clearer than in a long ago interview she did with Barbara Frum on CBC’s The Journal.
She has an extraordinarily prescient moment when she refers to developments in Britain of “pocket televisions” that were “unimaginable 50 years ago”. (I wonder if Steve Jobs was watching?) But watch especially at around the six-minute mark when the British prime minister is explaining to the Canadian interviewer where jobs come from, and Frum attempts to interrupt and contradict her. “No, no, no, one moment,” Thatcher says without waggling her finger but letting her tone do just that. “(Jobs come) from men and women of inventive genius, not from the pontifications of either politicians or commentators.”
Lord Jones dead. Long live Maggie Thatcher. And all she meant to the world.
This post also appeared on The Cardus Daily (www.cardus.ca)