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8 May 2013

Mental health and Mrs Thatcher: “All due to a lack of personal drive, effort and will“

A discussion over dinner.

By Philip Maughan

In the early 1970s, Margaret Thatcher invited a psychiatrist to dinner in the House of Commons. At the time, she held the position of Secretary of State for Education (during which time she removed free milk from all children over the age of seven). Another MP who had been a neurology and psychiatric registrar at St Thomas’s Hospital, David Owen, passed by in the corridors of the house and recognised the psychiatrist. After a little small talk, Mrs Thatcher invited David and his wife to join her for coffee. The couple accepted.

[Mrs Thatcher] was sufficiently concerned about a constituent’s worries over her teenage son’s health to bother, when she was exceptionally busy, to arrange to meet the doctor who was treating him. Yet it soon became apparent that she neither accepted nor wanted to understand that any adolescent could be depressed. For her, it was all due to a lack of personal drive, effort and will.

As the conversation went on, her voice grew firm. She refused to hear any argument that might suggest the boy was having difficulties – that the state of his mental health, might be taking its toll. Owen’s wife, usually chatty and engaged, fell silent. She was staggered by Thatcher’s incomprehension.

As we rose to leave, Thatcher, right in front of her, said to me: “Is your wife always so quiet?” I have never forgotten that conversation. It showed Thatcher conscientious to a fault yet insensitive to someone she perceived as a non-achiever. This became ever clearer over the years in her attitudes towards poverty, social problems and the ethos of organisations such as the NHS.

You can read David Owen’s review of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: the Authorised Biography online now.

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