The Human Thatcher

LONDON – It is difficult to separate some of my personal memories of Margaret Thatcher – mundane but revealing – from the sweeping judgments of history. I had worked for her as the Conservative Party’s research director, and as a minister for about 15 years, before going to Hong Kong as Britain’s last Governor there. Because she had negotiated Hong Kong’s handover to China, she was a frequent and welcome visitor during my tenure. 

Thatcher was always hugely supportive of the preservation of Hong Kong’s rule of law, civil liberties, and democratic aspirations. She sympathized with, and appeared to like, pro-democracy campaigners. I also remember that, while our official residence was full of excellent, hardworking staff (to whom she was always kind and courteous), she was the only visitor – and there were many – who made her own bed! The job was done with all the care and precision of a grand hotel: boxed corners and neatly turned-down cover.

Invariably, when she traveled on business to Beijing, she would insist on first shopping for a present for the former Chinese leader, Zhao Ziyang, with whom she had negotiated Hong Kong’s handover. Since the Tiananmen killings, which he had tried to avert through compromise, he had been under house arrest. By asking whichever senior officials she saw to pass on her gift and her best wishes to Zhao, the Chinese leadership would understand that the outside world was still thinking of him and wanted to ensure his survival. It was typically practical and kind.

As a national leader, Thatcher’s principal achievements were to reverse Britain’s decline, which had gained momentum in the 1970’s, before her first term as Prime Minister in 1979. Little of the extensive coverage of her death has focused on what Britain was like in those years. The economy was on its knees, and the abuse of trade-union power had made Britain almost ungovernable.