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Sunday 21 April 2013

Hers was truly a life less ordinary

Thatcher's death gives Ruth Dudley Edwards cause to reflect on how this radical saw off appeasers and transformed her country says Ruth Dudley Edwards

Writing, reading, watching, listening, talking and thinking, I've been immersed in the last act of Margaret Thatcher's extraordinary life ever since Monday, April 8, when her death kicked off an extraordinary national conversation about her significance in the history of the United Kingdom.

Apart from those who hate her so much that civilised discussion is impossible, the main thing people say is: "I'd forgotten how terrible things were before she became prime minister." And then we reminisce about the Seventies, trade-union bullies, sclerotic state bodies and the seeming inevitability of economic disaster. And even unpolitical women remember how incredible were the hurdles of miso-gyny and snobbery that the grocer's daughter vaulted.

I heard of her in 1969, when my then husband, Patrick Cosgrave, an Anglophile from a Finglas council estate, moved from being London editor of RTE to a major job in the Conservative Research Department. Of the members of the shadow cabinet he worked with, he was most impressed by Margaret Thatcher, whom he found formidable, clear-minded and charismatic.

As political editor of The Spectator, from 1971, he became a vicious critic of Prime Minister Ted Heath, and, in 1975, his paper was the only national publication that backed her when she said she'd stand for the leadership. The choice, wrote Patrick, in an article republished last week, was between a man wedded to failed collectivism and a woman of conviction and courage who stood for the family and the individual against the state, monopolies, cartels, unions and bureaucracy that were strangling the economy.

Patrick and I were separated by then and I had just finished a strange but instructive four-year period working for the marketing department of the Data Communications Division of the British Post Office. My job essentially was to tell customers that we couldn't supply them for about a year with the equipment they needed to link computers to the telephone network, that we would charge them the earth for it but that they had no option because we had a monopoly.

With this distinguished pedigree I was a natural to be fast-tracked into the Department of Industry, where I served under the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan trying to make Labour's Industrial Strategy work. I sat at meetings where representatives of management, trade unions and government talked cosily about how to get industry working better and usually agreed that the answer was more subsidies from an almost bankrupt state. I had many colleagues who, like me, knew we were wasting our time – not least because so many unions were heavily infiltrated by communists and run by wreckers who opposed most government attempts to control spiralling wages and inflation, and, of course, any moves to curb union power.

A 1977 poll revealed that 54 per cent of British people thought Jack Jones, the head of the Transport and General Workers' Union, was more powerful than Prime Minister Callaghan, who had Jones made a Companion of Honour, an elite order restricted to people with outstanding achievements in the arts, literature, music, science, politics, industry or religion. Jones deserves much of the credit for what became known as the "winter of discontent", when bodies lay unburied, rats frolicked in uncollected rubbish and almost 30 million days were lost through strikes. I was not surprised when it emerged years later that he was selling Labour Party secrets to the Soviet Union.

I'm ashamed that – knowing what I knew – I didn't vote for Mrs Thatcher in 1979, but my loathing of capital punishment led me to vote Liberal instead. Still, when I saw her on the steps of Downing Street, the day that coincidentally I changed career, I was delighted.

When I socialised next with senior ex-colleagues, they were in shock at having been instructed to read Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and think about how to free the market. It took a while, but the ablest and bravest of them became enthused by a prime minister who had a clear vision, mastered the briefs, debated robustly, won the debates fair and square, was a kind boss (unless you were a defeatist minister) and always took the public flak for difficult decisions.

As one of her cabinet secretaries put it, "she made us positive about the revitalisation of the British economy". By the time she left office after 11 years, the UK economy was an inspiration to much of the world. She had also been a major and constructive player on the world stage, the Falklands victory over a malign dictatorship had made the UK respected again, she had revolutionised the status of women and had wrought a transformation even in the Labour Party.

Though she was usually right, she got some issues wrong. After 11 years in Downing Street, her creeping imperiousness made enemies of some colleagues and the poll tax was a political disaster. Yet she was overthrown mainly because – on Europe – she rightly resisted the euro, believing that – following German unification, which she had opposed – Germany would dominate and the poorer countries would be destroyed because the euro would "devastate their inefficient economies".

Thatcher never courted popularity, and she shrugged philosophically about being loathed. After two decades of demonisation, her death has caused open-minded people to reflect on how this radical saw off the appeasers and transformed her country for the better. The crass and ill-informed protestors and their "death parties" helped to bring tens of thousands of people like me on to the streets to show solidarity with her by watching her funeral procession on a cold day. I found myself fighting back tears as I watched the cortege from behind a barrier in Fleet Street.

Further down the route, shouts of 100 or so protestors inspired the thousands within earshot to start clapping her. I went afterwards to El Vino's wine bar, where three friends and I toasted her in champagne. "She's won the argument in the past 10 days," said one of us.

And, indeed, she has.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards