She stood alone by the wall, stylishly dressed in her signature conservative blue suit, blouse with a bow, and her trademark handbag hung over her stiffly bent arm. But her face was deadpan, devoid of a smile as her eyes swept the mood and movements of political leaders, delegates, and media representatives circling for their moment to talk to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
It was 13 October 1987, the tenth biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting about to open in Vancouver and hosted by the Brian Mulroney government. This was a meet-and-greet wine and cheese hour for the press No interviews. Just pleasantries.
I sensed she really didn’t want to be there. But the opportunity to greet British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was irresistible. We talked. She smiled. But her sense of awareness never left. After all this was, almost to the day, the third anniversary of the IRA bomb at a Brighton hotel that came within seconds of killing her but which killed five others. “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail,” she declared at the Conservative Party Conference the next day.
She had learned through in-your-face experience never to let down her guard. Elected as Britain’s only female prime minister in 1979, she had taken a rough, lonely road of conservative idealisms that would become the legendary Thatcherisms: popular capitalism, smaller government, deregulation, privatization of public industries, cutting the power of the trade unions, forming strong alliances abroad, changing the British socialist mindset to one of self-reliance and independence, and speaking her mind, however brittle. She knew well the political landmines of policies that could – and did – cause upheaval, unrest and street riots but her unflagging will – the Russians dubbed her the Iron Lady – defined both the nature and the tenure of the lady.
She was a staunch and stubborn fighter. In 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, Britain took them back in a 10-week war. At home in1984 she stared down the miners in a bitter strike that went on for a year and ended with the miners defeated and a cost to the economy of $3 billion (£1.5 billion).
Elected to a third term just four months before the Vancouver event, she was now facing upheavals in her Tory party about Britain’s future in the European Community (EU) which she opposed. “In my lifetime, all the problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world” she once said of her less than glowing views on Europe.
At the Commonwealth Conference, she would speak on another inflammatory topic – apartheid. She resisted sanctions against South Africa imposed by the Commonwealth and the EU and instead attempted to preserve trade with the country.
In the (still then) U.S.S.R., she was among the first Western leaders to respond positively to reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring in 1988 “We’re not in a Cold War now.”
With the United States, Thatcher had a strong alliance with President Reagan. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, she put pressure on President George Bush to intervene and drive the Iraqis out. Apparently he was a bit apprehensive and she reportedly told him, “George, this is no time to go wobbly.”
But her own time in politics was going wobbly. Party members had turned against her and she was forced to resign in November 1990, leaving 10 Downing Street in tears and feeling betrayed.
Thatcher died last week and Wednesday her ceremonial funeral with full military honours will be held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.
The lady who stood by the wall had defined an era, leaving an indelible mark on history.