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Gerard O’Regan: A woman who lived a crowded life but died a sad and lonely death


EVEN the most hard-hearted of Margaret Thatcher's critics would surely see a certain poignancy and sadness in the fact she had to eke out her dying days in the soulless surrounds of a hotel suite, no matter how luxurious it was deigned to be.

Nobody can know what subterranean thoughts harboured in the deeper recesses of the redoubtable Mrs T's once formidable brain as Alzheimer's, advancing years, and intermittent strokes inexorably led to a fading of the light.

The lady who was centre stage on the world scene for so long was in a real sense very much alone in her final days.

Of course she had her carers, plus an assortment of acquaintances and sundry hangers on, many fevered by a determination to keep the Thatcherite flame alive.

But the essential isolation of her old age is especially encapsulated in her relationship with her two children – neither of whom, according to reports, has spent much time in her company since her ousting as prime minister back in 1990.

There never was much real rapport with an over-indulged but neglected son, nor with a daughter, who has often said she remained outside her mother's emotional compass from the time she was a toddler.

This all cannot but have been a keenly felt tragedy for the Iron Lady, during her unhappy, post-Downing Street years.

Mrs Thatcher never got over the fact that she had been, as she saw it, stabbed in the back by her own party, and particularly by her cabinet colleagues. This brooding sense of injustice blighted her time in retirement; she went to her grave with unresolved feelings of rage and betrayal over the way she felt she had been treated.

But the reality is that what done for Mrs Thatcher in the end is that she was judged by her peers as being no longer a vote-getter for the Conservative Party, and that she had in fact become a political liability.

Overall, the key to understanding the complexities of her personal and political life is to acknowledge the unique relationship she had with her father.

The biographies would suggest he was a small-town, somewhat small-minded, man, constrained by the limitations of his provincial circumstances. In the absence of a son, it would be the favourite of his two daughters who would provide recompense for these frustrations.

As a consequence Mrs Thatcher would always remain "a man's woman'' at ease when interacting with the opposite sex on various levels. She had little time for the fixations of feminism, believing that if any woman put her mind to it, she could, just as she had done, make her mark career-wise in the world of work.

In what is probably the best book on her life and times, the author Hugo Young writes: "What is certainly not disputable is the reluctance of this controlled, and controlling, woman to treat women, politically, as any different from men. She was quite against this on principle."

But she was also a woman very conscious of her femininity and would on occasions use it as a ploy to impose her will on whatever was the argument of the moment.

A surprising number of her colleagues were mildly mystified that they found her so physically alluring. "I never came across any other woman in politics as sexually attractive in terms of eyes, wrists and ankles,'' famously wrote Alan Clarke, one of her ministers, in his diaries.

In relation to Ireland she has been praised for instigating the Anglo Irish Agreement. However, it was a deal she signed off on resentfully, and her endless hectoring, haranguing, and ludicrous point-scoring, coupled with an an obvious disdain for Irish politics in general, unnecessarily stalled the peace process.

In contrast, we cannot but be grateful for the magnanimity shown in the approach of her successors, John Major and Tony Blair, with regard to their Northern Ireland policies.

In general, she was lucky in her enemies. Arthur Scargill, her opposite number during the great stand-off with the coalminers, was such a non-strategist that he called his national strike when winter was actually ending. In her Falklands adventure, she was confronted by a tin-pot dictator heading up a tin-pot army.

At the end of it all, her greatest weakness was narrowness of vision. Mrs Thatcher was a Little Englander with some of the charms, but also the limitations, of that caste.

She would have been a better prime minister, and a much happier person, if her sensibilities and perceptions had been more finely tuned during her formative years.

What would she be like if, say, she had spent a year in Paris as a young woman, perhaps indulging a doomed love affair with some Frenchman, as they both spent lazy afternoons sipping red wine, gazing at the Seine, and philosophising about life?

This is indeed an unlikely image, but such experiences, so much outside her ken, might have made her more at ease with herself, in the tumult and turmoil of the pathways she chose.

They might also have made Maggie, the grocer's daughter from Grantham, much more accepting of a world that is rarely black and white. A world that is more often than not encased in varying – and ever changing – shades of grey.

Irish Independent