I met Margaret Thatcher for the first time when I was India’s envoy at London in 1990. At that time, she was counting on her achievements, including the triumph in the Cold War. I sent her a congratulatory message for having vanquished the communist ideology. But she said she had even bigger enemies to defeat and mentioned Islam. I have always wondered whether the stirrings in the Islamic world were the doing of Britain’s.
Around the same time, I knew that prime minister Thatcher too was losing her job because the men in “grey suits” had tapped on her shoulder and told her to quit. It was apparent that she had too many enemies in the party. Thatcher’s sense of self-righteousness and her penchant for the spotlight had made even her most eminent colleagues feel small and deficient. Many of them would have liked to have pulled her down earlier, but they were pygmies who could not measure up to her, the colossus that she was.
Thatcher was required to poll 15 per cent more than the majority for an outright win, but she lost the election by five votes. The goings-on behind the scene were as murky as in India. Never once did her party men tell her that she was fighting a losing battle. She did finally send her resignation after ascertaining the facts from intelligence sources. I had heard from her Conservative Party colleague, who later became a minister in prime minister John Major’s cabinet, that they wanted her to go in the interest of party unity. However, it was her party men who betrayed her, as one minister confessed to me, for she made them what they were.
A ruthless stripping of subsidies, a dose of privatisation and a head-on collision with the trade unions had succeeded in sloughing off many of the ills that had made Britain economically stagnant, but the price paid was high — unemployment and a divided nation. I wish Thatcher had retired after coming back with a majority of more than 150 seats in the 1987 election. That was her third consecutive victory.
In 1990, she seemed like a person who had stayed too long in power, just as Jawaharlal Nehru did in 1962, after India’s debacle at the hands of China. She should have taken the opinion polls seriously as the Conservatives had lagged behind by a greater margin than any political party ever had in the past. Nobody backs a losing leader, whatever be his or her contribution. How can one forget that Winston Churchill was thrown out despite his victory in the Second World War?
My first political report was on the defeat of the Conservatives in a by-election in mid-Staffordshire within days of my arrival. I had a feeling this might turn into a similar situation in India as the Allahabad by-election, after which the caravan of V.P. Singh started rolling till Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government fell in 1989. However, I wished that the rule of Conservatives did not end during my tenure as High Commissioner, Thatcher lost her prime ministership just before I left London.
I must, however, admit she was fairly warm in dealing with me when I first met her. The ‘Iron Lady’ had forgotten what I had written about her. What I noticed during my stay in London and surprised about was that the diplomatic corps openly discussing the challenge that Thatcher posed to the Queen’s position, considered not only improper but also sacrilegious. There was no love lost between the two. Thatcher was blamed for it as it was common knowledge that she did not appreciate rivals to her popularity, not even the Queen.
I recall a story told and retold is about a party where the Queen and Thatcher wore identical dresses. After that, Thatcher’s private secretary wrote to the Palace, asking to be informed beforehand what the Queen would wear at a particular official function so that Thatcher could avoid being similarly dressed. The Queen’s reply was that she never bothered to even look at what Thatcher wore!
During President R. Venkataraman’s visit to the UK, I had another chance to interact with Thatcher more closely when I sat next to her chair and discussed on different subjects for two hours. She told me that she had refused to visit a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) despite many invitations. “Those people killed Mrs Gandhi,” she said, adding, “What kind of people must they be!” Thatcher compared the violence in Punjab with the Irish Republican Army’s terrorism. “Of course, yours is on a bigger scale,” she remarked. But she was reticent on Kashmir, though she did say that nothing should be done at the expense of India’s unity and integrity.
I remarked that ethical standards were disappearing from politics and that our own experience in India was that politicians enjoyed hitting each other below the belt. Thatcher said that in Britain, it was worse. They would “kick you” and even when you had fallen, they would not stop hitting you. She fondly recalled her intimate relationship with Indira Gandhi. “Even when we differed, our personal equation did not suffer,” she said.
As our conversation progressed, I also happened to see the softer part of the Iron Lady and felt how vulnerable she had become. She began talking about various issues before shifting to her personal problems, pouring her heart out to a person who had met her only a few times before. Her son, she recalled, had to move to America because of the “wild charges” (of using her position to get favours from the government) made against him. She said she missed her grandchildren, but she considered it a price she had to pay to be in politics. She would often admit that she was not a consensus politician, but a “committed politician”. She, indeed, was, but nevertheless the one who made Britain click.
Kuldip Nayar is a former Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and a former Rajya Sabha member.