There’s a line in my life, drawn just before I married and started a family, before moving abroad to cover the shattering of Old Europe and the Middle East, just after Prague’s velvet revolution, but before Maastricht and Sarajevo and the remaking of a continent’s economy into an idiot’s bagatelle.
That line was the gentle coup that put Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher out of power in November 1990. You knew it was a coup, because it actually felt like one. You knew it was gentle because the deposed tyrant left office snuffling back tears, sitting in the back of a Bentley clutching the hand of her solid, solicitous golfing partner of an old man.
I know coming from a British-born mixed-race ‘Asian’, it sounds like the opening line of Steve Martin’s film The Jerk, but I grew up white working class, in the shadow of my bull-shouldered brickie granddad, a five year veteran of the WWII convoys on a ratty lend-lease destroyer, lifelong socialist, heavyweight boxer, working class hero and big man about town.
My granddad gave me a pass on failing to be the first family member to go to university only because I got an old school apprenticeship, not as a printer, but as a reporter, indentured, not on paper, but on a sheet of vellum, signed, not by me, but by my father, committing me for four years on £232 take home a month, working for a chain of local newspapers.
One of those papers was the constituency local of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a grammar school girl allowed into politics by the grace and favour of a brigade of public schoolboys, dismayed not so much by her gender, or her Midlands schooling, but by her time at Oxford studying chemistry and her father, a small town grocer.
Not that I was knowingly allowed to approach her. The paper’s group editor venerated Maggie in a manner that would make a Bieber Belieber blush and practically stalked her. But the MP covering the constituency covered in turn by the group title I mainly worked for, the Borehamwood & Elstree Post, was one Cecil Parkinson, another lower middle class tyke made good via a grammar school and Oxbridge.
Parkinson saw in me, I think, the same striving son of the ordinary that he was. Appointed chairman of the Conservative Party and during the Falklands conflict, a member of Thatcher’s ‘war cabinet’ he still took time to get me in front of the PM even though he knew I was a Labour voter and voting for Michael Foot to boot. I like to think I had at least the good grace to look sheepish about that.
Maybe Thatcher would have thought the same, recognising something of her grocer father in my in-trade granddad. It never happened, as my meetings with Margaret were rare and brief, usually only after I was tipped off by Parkinson’s stalwart constituency agent about which back door of which public hall she would enter or leave from.
She would stride by, half recognising me as she took the questions. I think I was possibly the only British Asian youth who ever crossed her path.
I never got closer to the Falklands conflict than G&Ts with Parkinson in Borehamwood, and then I had no idea how much war was to dominate my life in the decades to follow. Yet it was still my first.
Barely 21 years old, calling in on the recently war bereaved, tipped off by the Press Association hours before some hapless padre could be sent down to step in, taking quotes in between clumsy sentiment. (“It’s a fascist dictatorship,” I would say, channeling my granddad. “Your son died for Argentina’s liberty too, you know…”)
Yet Thatcher, and Parkinson for that matter, never seemed to make light of the decisions they were making. I never met Tony Blair, so I have no idea what he really made of the appalling price of the string of wars he threw Britain into during his own time in Number 10. I dislike the man, but I like to think that someone as religious as he claims to be today might at least have taken pause.
But I always had the sense that Thatcher seemed to regard the combat losses as part of her personal responsibility. Not her personal destiny, which is how it seemed to be for Blair.
You can’t make light of what Thatcher did to Britain. Covering the miners’ strike in Cannock Chase was a shocking experience for me. It was like a civil war. Families divided by desperation and propaganda, smug ideological platitudes from both sides giving cover to raw injustice and extraordinary violence.
When I met her she seemed to be under the impression that I was a Ugandan Asian runaway from Idi Amin, and thus a ‘natural Tory’. Well no, not even up to a point, Baroness Thatcher.
But, oh boy, she was hard. I will never forget how her face locked and her eyes narrowed, standing in a wet car park, reacting to my quick, anodyne questions about striking nurses. “Now let me tell YOU, young man…” I didn’t get my answer. But I got my lesson.