Attila the Hen

Margaret Thatcher: Vol 1, 1925-79

John Campbell <em>Jonathan Cape, 512pp, £25</em>

ISBN 02240409

Working with Margaret Thatcher was never dull. She takes you by surprise as much by her innocence as by her convictions. She is a very ordinary person as well as having been a very extraordinary prime minister.

Readers of the New Statesman may be taking these assertions of her innocence with a pinch of salt. It hardly conforms with the image of the Iron Lady and She Who Must Be Obeyed. But how else can one explain a prime minister who, at a public gathering, praised her deputy with the immortal line, "Every prime minister needs a Willie"? Denis had to explain why her audience were falling about.

I recall briefing her when I was secretary of state for Scotland and she was about to record a long interview for Scottish television. You must stop referring to "You in Scotland", I advised. It sounded as if she were visiting a foreign country. She agreed and went into the studio to record the interview while we watched on the monitor. To my horror, she suddenly started talking about "We in Scotland". The effect was hilarious as well as meaningless. She was unaware of it.

While she was still the leader of the opposition, she encouraged James Callaghan to "keep taking the tablets" after the prime minister had been likened by Peter Jay to Moses. She only used the phrase after she had been persuaded, against her instincts, not to encourage him to "keep taking the pill", which she thought was funnier.

I mention these examples because they illustrate that the Thatcher phenomenon was much more complicated and improbable than is usually assumed. Thatcher did more than most to help the west win the cold war; she modernised Britain and helped it regain its self-confidence; and she won more general elections in a row than any other British political leader. But she was an innocent abroad when it came to matters outside politics.

She succeeded despite being unsophisticated because of her phenomenal single-mindedness in the pursuit and use of power. She wasn't much interested in anything else. Outside politics, she has little hinterland. Harold Macmillan used to say that, when he was bored, he "liked to go to bed with a Trollope". Thatcher would have preferred a white paper. When she visited the old Yugoslavia, the British ambassador pointed to a glorious sandy beach far below the cliff road on which they were travelling. On the beach were hundreds of people lying inert sunbathing. The ambassador informed Thatcher that they were mainly British tourists. "But ambassador," she said, "what do they do all day?"

This dichotomy between the powerful, dominant, successful politician and the unimaginative, conventional and rather naive housewife is brought out, splendidly, in John Campbell's first volume of his new biography. As he points out, it didn't just result in amusing anecdotes about her. It also helps explain her success.

Despite the voice, the pearls and the handbag, Thatcher had, Campbell reminds us, a better rapport with the British people than any other prime minister. This was because she combined a powerful intellect and a dominant personality with the prejudices of ordinary folk and an unsophisticated outlook on life. These were her natural qualities, but she was also happy to remind the electorate of them. She was proud to be a grocer's daughter from Grantham, a housewife who made her husband's breakfast, and a mother of her children as well as of the nation.

This was not bogus. I remember being at a lunch at Chequers where she fussed around ensuring that everyone had enough food, that their glasses were full and that their comforts were provided. One had to remind oneself that this was the prime minister, and not his spouse. But this ordinariness also made her seem strangely vulnerable and that did her no harm. Her bossiness was more tolerable when it was seen to be only part of her complex character.

This unsophisticated personality had other political benefits. Most party leaders detest their party conferences. Arthur Balfour once famously said that he would rather take advice from his valet than from the Conservative Party conference. But, as Campbell points out, Thatcher loved the party activists and they loved her in return. They sensed, correctly, that she shared their views on hanging murderers and penalising scroungers, and that, if the government didn't act accordingly, this was its fault, not hers. Indeed, on more than one occasion, she appeared to be distancing herself from the government of which she was the head.

What she did share with other politicians were views that changed as the years went by. Campbell has done some good research, discovering a speech she made in her constituency in 1961 about the Common Market, in which she declared that "France and Germany have attempted to sink their political differences and work for a united Europe. If France can do this, so can we." Earlier in the same speech, she said: "It is no good being independent in isolation if it involves running down our economy and watching other nations outstrip us both in trade and influence." That was Thatcher speaking, not Ted Heath or Roy Jenkins.

But to be fair, all of us in politics can have speeches thrown back at us that we would rather forget; and, in any event, if the world changes, politicians who don't change become irrelevant very quickly. Thatcher changed less than most over the years. From the first, her instincts and her convictions were a wholesome mixture of self-improvement, the virtues of low taxes and the rule of law, combined with a deep patriotism and a hatred of socialism (whether of the social democratic or Marxist variety). An early electioneering slogan was "Vote Right To Keep What's Left" - which, as Campbell remarks, simultaneously identified the Conservatives with morality and Labour with ruin and decline.

Although Thatcher's vision was national, she was deeply partisan in her loyalties. On several occasions around the Cabinet table, I heard her saying that the government must do or not do something because it would help or harm "our people"- by which she meant the homeowning, self-employed middle classes.

She said this not because of any social snobbery. I never met anyone less snobbish. She was partisan partly because she did not want to lose the votes of her core support and partly because their values were the ones that she was convinced were needed to restore Britain to greatness.

Tony Blair sometimes likes to compare himself with Thatcher; but the contempt he has for traditional Labour, its values and its prejudices, couldn't be more different than Thatcher's uncritical acceptance of Tory beliefs and traditions. She is a natural Conservative. He is a very unnatural socialist. One could never imagine her in any other party. The same cannot be said of the current Prime Minister.

They don't make them like Margaret Thatcher any more. Denis Healey, with characteristic charm, once referred to her as "Attila the Hen". President Mitterrand said that she had "the eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe". One of her more endearing qualities is that she would probably take both of these descriptions as a compliment. She asked for no quarter and she gave none.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind was foreign secretary from 1995-97