Excerpted from a tribute in Finest Hour, Summer 2013.
Everyone has read of Lady Thatcher’s career. Everyone depending on their politics will have their own vision of her. It is left to say here what she meant to the memory of Winston Churchill, who she revered more than any premier 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 concern. 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 as prime minister, she more than anyone had real appreciation for Churchill, had read his books, had remembered him frequently, even hosting a dinner for his family and surviving members of his wartime coalition. We never regretted our decision.
In 1993 she was in Washington to coincide with an International Churchill Conference hosting 500 people, including 140 students, a dozen luminaries, and ambassadors from all our member countries. Ambassador Sir Robin Renwick 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. “Now Colin,” she was saying in her most powerful tones, “you must do it—you know you must. There is no getting around your duty.” I am told she was likely asking him to use his influence in solving the strife in Bosnia that had erupted the previous year.
She gave an eloquent little speech thanking America for supporting Britain in the 1982 Falklands War. The next evening at the Mayflower Hotel, I was seated next to former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, who wanted to know what Lady Thatcher had said. Unknowing, I repeated her words: that 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 very long pause ensued, bringing to mind 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 had disagreed with her.
At the Embassy I had presented her with a finely bound copy of Churchill’s 1947 short story, The Dream, where he tells the ghost of his father all that has happened since Lord Randolph Churchill died in 1895. At one point, Winston says there are women in the House of Commons. “Not many,” he assures his flabbergasted father. “They have found their level.” Lady Thatcher wrote me that she stayed up all that night reading the story. How she must have roared at that!
We met again at Fulton in 1996, when the Churchill Memorial, now the National Churchill Museum, marked the 50th anniversary of the “Iron Curtain” speech by inviting Lady Thatcher to give the anniversary address. Afterwards, she 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 the guard at the inner sanctum: “I am Sir Winston Churchill’s granddaughter—and he’s with me.” We were allowed in to say hello.
Payback: at dinner that night, our generous hosts inducted two new Fellows of the Churchill Memorial. One was Margaret Thatcher. The other was me.
To my relief, they presented my gong first, which gave me a chance to say thanks and get out of the way: “It is a fine honor, but to receive it at the same time with the greatest prime minister since Winston Churchill is a unique experience.”
I said that looking directly at the Iron Lady….who gave me a smile, and a wink. Right, I thought. Now that’s out of the way, thank God.
It was years before the gratitude owed to her was toted up. No regular visitor to Britain during her time failed to notice the palpable improvement in the lot of Britons. No television viewer 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 issue which some say was her downfall in 1992 manifested her principle that the cost of local government be paid by all, including those who previously paid nothing, while voting for everything.
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.
She fought the good fight and made a huge difference, for a time. Alas her time is past, lost in a collectivist dream. It is strictly my opinion, but this American has no hesitation in paraphrasing Sir Winston’s words on 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.