March 12, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 12

By Richard M. Langworth

Everyone has read of Margaret Thatcher’s career. Everyone depending on their politics will have their own vision of Britain’s first woman head of government. It is left to say here what she meant to us, and to the memory of Churchill, whom she revered, I believe, more than any prime minister who held office between them.

Margaret Thatcher was named an honorary member of the International Churchill Society shortly after she resigned as prime minister in November 1990, not without some debate. She had always been controversial. Some of our directors thought politicians are best taken aboard in pairs, one from each side, like Noah’s Ark. We invited her exclusively—because it seemed to us that she, more than any prime minister, had real appreciation for Churchill, had read his books, and had remembered him frequently, even hosting a dinner for his family and surviving members of his wartime coalition. We never regretted our decision.

In November 1993 she was in Washington to coincide with a Churchill Conference hosting 500 people, including 140 students, a dozen luminaries, and ambassadors from all our member countries. There were moving experiences: a reenactment at the Navy Chapel of Divine Services held by Roosevelt and Churchill on HMS Prince of Wales in 1941; Alan Keyes singing all six stanzas of The Battle Hymn of the Republic on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to mark the 130th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address; and Martin Gilbert’s lecture at the Holocaust Museum, along with Cyril Mazansky’s account of the fate of his own family.

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During our meetings Ambassador Sir Robin Renwick (now Lord Renwick of Clifton) kindly hosted a reception for her and us at the British Embassy, inviting our honorary members Colin Powell and Caspar Weinberger. Here I first caught sight of the famous leader, though my wife, a much better talker, spent far more time chatting with her.

I did overhear a conversation between Lady Thatcher and General Powell, which at the time I thought singular.

“Colin,” she was saying in her most powerful tones, “you must do it—you know you must. There is no getting around it.” I am told she was probably asking America to help stop the strife in Bosnia that had erupted the previous year. Like Churchill, she was always concerned for the lives of small peoples. General Powell replied: “Yes ma’am.”

She gave an eloquent little speech thanking America for supporting Britain in the 1982 Falklands War. The next evening at our conference, I was seated next to former Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, who wanted to know what Lady Thatcher had said. Unknowing, I repeated her words: “Many voices in America were opposed to helping Britain, but Cap Weinberger was not one of those voices.” Mrs. Kirkpatrick said quietly: “I was one of those voices.”

Realizing I had not done my homework, but opting for Napoleon’s “l’audace, toujours l’audace,” I screwed up my courage and replied: “But you were wrong, weren’t you?”

A long pause ensued. I thought of Churchill’s remark: “It certainly seemed longer than the two minutes which one observes in the commemorations of Armistice Day.”

Finally, Mrs. Kirkpatrick kindly said: “Yes, on reflection, I probably was.” I think this showed the power of personality that Margaret Thatcher exerted, even on those who disagreed with her.

At the Embassy I had presented her with our last numbered copy of Churchill’s plaintive, rather sad but revealing short story, The Dream, where he tells the ghost of Lord Randolph Churchill everything that has happened since his father died in 1895. She stayed up late that night reading it through. Her note of thanks arrived the next day:

“I want you to know how very honoured I feel to receive The Dream….It completes my collection of his work and is bound more beautifully than any of the others. I read it in the early hours of this morning and am totally fascinated by the imagination of the story and how much it reveals of Winston the man and the son.”

There is a line in The Dream where Churchill tells his father that there are women now in the House of Commons. “Not many,” Winston assures the flabbergasted Lord Randolph. “They have found their level.” How Lady Thatcher must have roared at that!

We met again at Fulton in 1996, when the Churchill Memorial, now the National Churchill Museum, marked the “Iron Curtain” speech’s 50th anniversary by inviting Lady Thatcher to give the keynote address. Together with the Museum, we jointly sponsored a symposium on the subject, recorded in James Muller’s book, Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech Fifty Years Later.

Later Lady Thatcher was surrounded by Fulton people, and by security. Celia Sandys asked, “Have you been ushered into The Presence?” “No,” I said. “Follow me,” she replied, approaching a guard at the inner sanctum: “I am Sir Winston Churchill’s granddaughter—and he’s with me.”

Payback: at dinner that night, our kind hosts inducted two Fellows of the Churchill Memorial. One was Lady Thatcher. The other was me.

To my relief, they presented my gong first, giving me a chance to say thanks and get out of the way: “It is a great honor, but to receive it at the same time with the greatest prime minister since Churchill is a unique experience.”

I said that looking directly at the great lady…who gave me a smile, and a wink. Right, I thought. Now that’s out of the way, thank God.

Around that time she chose to place her Premier Papers alongside Winston Churchill’s at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. Between them they had occupied Downing Street for one-fifth of the 20th century. The Archives Centre, as David Freeman wrote, was now the equivalent of two U.S. presidential libraries. Then Lady Thatcher helped Churchill College to raise the money to build a new wing to house them.

In 2009 in London, The Churchill Centre presented Baroness Thatcher with its Churchill Award for Statesmanship—only the second time it has been presented. The main address was by David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister. “She was in good form,” said the historian Andrew Roberts, who was seated next to her, “and commented to me afterwards about what a fine speaker David Cameron is.”

It was years before the gratitude owed to her was totted up. I was a regular visitor to Britain in her time and could not fail to notice the palpable improvement in the wellbeing of the country. No one who saw her in action could miss her devastating effectiveness in debate. No one who admires principle and courage could help but admire her devotion to them, win or lose. The poll tax which some say was her downfall in 1992 manifested her principle that the cost of local government should be paid by all, including those who previously paid nothing, while voting for everything.

Even the Labour Party can thank her, for forcing it back from the fringe to reality. Reflecting on that change in 1994, Lady Thatcher praised Tony Blair as “probably the most formidable Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell. I see a lot of socialism behind their front bench, but not in Mr. Blair. I think he genuinely has moved.”

Say what you will of Tony Blair, but Margaret Thatcher was certainly the most formidable Conservative leader since Winston Churchill. Internationally, she was always out in front. Her reaction to tyrants, from Leopoldo Galtieri to Saddam Hussein, was consistent. She was the first to say “we can do business” with Gorbachev. Her support of the Anglo-American alliance was more than talk: it was an article of faith. Her relationship with President Reagan was a model we may never see again. Yet when she disagreed, as over Grenada or Strategic Defense, there was no doubt where she stood.

“The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on. Nor all thy Piety nor Wit shall cancel half a line.” She fought the good fight and made a huge difference, for a time. Alas her time is gone, lost in a collectivist dream. The individualism and enterprise which built great nations and great democracies, which provided the greatest good for the greatest number, has too often been replaced by a kind of vague internationalism and a desire to do good, absent the realization that liberty takes work to maintain, and is nurtured only through constant care.

It is strictly my opinion, but this American has no hesitation in paraphrasing Sir Winston’s encomium for Franklin Roosevelt: She was the greatest British friend we have known since Churchill, and one of the greatest champions of freedom who ever brought help and comfort from the old world to the new.

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