Tuesday, 27 March 2012

My heroine, the Iron Lady.

By Simon Stilwell.

I love the Iron Lady. I do. I really do. She is my Heroine. She was, and remains, an inspiration and I cannot think of a single global figure who had such an influence on my life.

I know she’s not everybody’s cup of tea. She stole the free school milk; brilliant as far as I was concerned. I hated the nasty little bottles and the chore of being the milk monitor and having to drink warm curdling semi fluid. She closed the mines, and stood up to Scargill, which infuriated the Northern working population but meant Dad, a policeman, spent weeks guarding the picket lines and could buy the Volvo estate he craved with the unlimited overtime.

She took on the unions. She defeated the Argies. She stood up for her values and that never makes you popular with all.

I like strong women, principled women with well-thought views, enquiring women who seek out a broad view and see a rounded picture. Women who stand for what they think is right. I think there should be more women on company boards. I think pay inequality is a disgrace and I think the gender differential needs sorting.

I like strong women like my mother. She is tiny but Thatcheresque. Some of my earliest memories of her are on school PTA committees battling for things; more lollipop ladies, more school equipment, a swimming pool, after-school clubs, the defence of a teacher, the right to attend the best school available, not just that which was closest, basically anything that she felt strongly about. She was a reformer and an activist and no doubt a total pain in the arse for any headmaster who wanted an easy life.

She pushed me into rugby and judo for which I am eternally grateful. She made sacrifices and I learnt pretty quickly to make sure I got picked, or did well, so her sacrifices had a return. She took on the touchline bullies and saw them off with shaming looks and longer louder cheers.

So in 1979, when I was 11 and Maggie became Prime Minister, it seemed perfectly obvious to me that a woman should be running the country because I thought they were the invincible of the species.

I do remember election night. Not so much waiting for the results but the aftermath – in particular our next door neighbour’s concerns about a female PM and what might happen to the country. It was the beginning of the end, they said. Actually it was the beginning of a great era.

I loved music and would spend all of my pocket money on singles, new releases – the more obscure, the better. Unfortunately the great bands of the early eighties did not share my enthusiasm for Thatcher. Most of them were equally moody teenagers complaining about spiralling unemployment and the North-South divide, rising interest rates and the general demise of the country.  The Iron Lady was getting it from all angles but especially from Top of the Pops. In any case, it was very hard to dance to Ghost Town by the Specials having spent all night plucking up the courage to ask a girl a dance.

The riots of 1981 in Brixton and Toxteth were massive social events. It was society breaking under a new regime. It seemed totally alien to me but the images were pretty horrific. It became tangible when we were on holiday in France. At the same campsite was a group of teenagers from Newcastle and Liverpool who were racing motorbikes on a European tour. They were the first teenagers I encountered who spoke with true venom and hatred of my idol and why she was ruining the country. Me, the na├»ve Tory boy, wasn’t going to stand for any of it until one of them pinned me to a wall and threatened to stab me. He’d done it before he said, and I took him at his word. I learned a good lesson that night.

But my confidence in Thatcher surged again in 1982, a time of mid-puberty with testosterone flowing faster than the Severn Bore. The Argentineans invaded the Falklands. Big Mistake, huge mistake. I still get a heightened pulse when seeing the anniversary pictures 30 years later. I inhaled the news then. I loved the fact we went off to war, miles away, to protect British people. That was just what you did under Thatcher. No matter who you were, or where you were, she was there for you. I thought they were golden weeks of flag waving at ports as ships departed, soldiers heading off to fight with big moustaches and crap equipment, long range bombing, mid air refuelling, flash masks, news bulletins, tactical mastery, horrific casualties, sinking the Belgrano, Goose Green, Tumbledown, H Jones, trench foot, ‘tabbing’, ‘yomping’, VCs, the approach to Stanley and Victory. I think if I had been allowed on Mastermind in the summer of 1982 I would have had the Falkland War as my specialist subject and won my own emphatic victory. As a war leader she was up there with Churchill.

With hindsight it seems mad that the nation’s view of Thatcher changed on the outcome of the war, rather than the fiscal and economic reform she undertook. But who cared then? It was all big hair and blue suits and a job well done.

I have no doubt her attitude and determination to protect our country and citizens played a big part in me joining the Army later in life.

Thatcher dominated the early eighties, and my life, in other ways too. She had inflation under control, interest rates at respectable levels and unemployment was falling. To salute this efficient management ‘Maggie’ was our key call in rugby, and very effective it was too. Which other political leader has had a penalty move named after them by teenage boys? Mind you, if the Germans played rugby I bet they would have a Merkel right now. The ‘Maggie’ penalty move always utilised any space on the right wing and when it was called we all knew where to go, an entire pack of forwards charging like soldiers toward Mount Tumbledown screaming ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie’!. The opposition didn’t stand a chance. If you called a ‘Cameron’, a ‘Clegg’ or a ‘Milliband’ today your team would be trundling fruitlessly up the centre. Hopeless.

I confess my affections for the lady PM waned in my late teens and early student years but I was distracted and I was also living in world very different from my home town. Until I was 16 I had only been to the Isle of Wight and France. I was suddenly thrust into a world of gap year travellers, political activists, socialists, anarchists, atheists and, if it’s a word, apathists. There was too much else to do and unfortunately Thatcher fell out of focus for me and the country. By 1990 she was gone from power.

My passion was rekindled when, in 2007, I got to meet her. It was an invitation out of the blue and the most exciting night of my life. We had a very private conversation about Segolene Royal, another female right wing leader at the time standing against Sarkozy in the French elections. Thatcher was sharp, entertaining, withering with her look and altogether fabulous.  I could tell she thought Royal wasn’t a patch on her and she didn’t rate her chances.

I met her again one year later and again we had a good five minute chat – this time on the more mundane matters of the UK and Gordon Brown and how gutless he had been in not calling an election in late 2007. Later that night I was delighted to hear we looked so comfortable chatting to each other that another guest thought I was her assistant. I was in awe, a dream come true a second time. She was magnificent even when, as she was leaving, she said she was off to cook supper for her husband who of course had been dead since 2003. The publicised mental demise was true but I didn’t care. I’d seen enough to know who she was.

It was with all this history and personal experience in mind that I watched the Iron Lady at the cinema. It was a deserved Oscar winning portrayal but it didn’t do justice to one of Britain’s greatest leaders.

Thatcher touched my life twice more. Once was on the morning after my recent wedding when my wife appeared dressed in nothing more than a latex Maggie mask - quite a combination. Her friends had realised where my affections lay and thoughtfully presented her with the mask as a wedding present. And finally yesterday I saw a picture of Maggie in one of the broadsheets. She was sitting in the park looking serene and I thought, sadly, it won’t be long before the inevitable.

I am proud to be one of Thatcher’s children. The changes she made, example she set and the spirit she imbued have gone a long way to make me the person I am today. Long live the Iron Lady.


  1. Oh, dear Simon. What can I say? I love strong women too. Your mum sounds a lot like mine. I went to a girls' school with a formidable female principal and many wonderful, strong female teachers and it never occurred to me there was such a thing as inequality until I went to university and saw all the cushy part time 'jobs' being handed over to men less bright than the women in my class. I was disgusted.

    As for Maggie, my heart has always been torn between loving her for being so strong and hating her for her policies.

    I probably couldn't disagree with you more, but I love what you've written and how you've written it, and it gave me laughs and goosebumps in equal measure and made me really, really glad I can call you a friend. Even though you're a Tory. It's hard for me to admit it that I love a Tory, but I do :-)

    And I'm glad that Maggie mask made such an impression. x

  2. Even if you don't like her you can't help but admire her - Simon, you almost turned me into a fan :) Very passionate and persuasive - can see why Mrs S thinks you're alright
    Kudos to the Maggie mask as well - maybe she'll get it out for your first anniversary...

  3. A marvellous insight into your formative years Simon! I can just see Ann, your mother, getting stuck in to sort things out! And now I understand better your admiration for Thatcher- even though I don't share your enthusiasm for her policies en bloc,( though some were timely), I do totally respect the strength of her convictions and her willingness to pursue her beliefs in the face of immense public outrage and condemnation.
    That required more fortitude than any of our politicians - at least in Australia-seem capable of today-the desire to govern by focus groups, populist sound bites, and media management-in an effort to retain power or score political points, and in complete disregard fo national long term good-seem to have comprehensively sounded the death knell of any form of 'statesmanship'- and I use that term in the sense of both male and female incumbents.
    But to more important matters! The thought that your wife (and my daughter) could bring herself to don a Maggie mask (nude ot otherwise), defies imagination and flies in the face of her previous strong political beliefs! I have to believe it was a moment of insanity due to love, or alternatively, the best giggle she has ever enjoyed!!

    I am glad you like strong women -I think you have found yourself a great one.