'Margaret Thatcher rejoiced in her role as the charioteer of the nation'
“I am fighting as an ordinary person for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters.” Thus Boadicea addressed her Iceni army, facing the Roman legions, from her chariot — the first articulation of what we may call the Boadicea principle. “Consider how many of you are fighting — and why. Then you will win this battle, or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do. Let the men live in slavery if they will.”
Tacitus, to whom we owe this speech — and who in turn had it from an eye witness, his father-in-law Agricola — was emphatic that the ancient Britons “did not discriminate against women in matters of command”. Margaret Thatcher adopted the Boadicea principle. She had to fight for her right to lead from the first, but she was helped by her enemies. Before she had even become prime minister, the Soviet army newspaper, the Red Star, had contemptuously dubbed her “the Iron Lady” — a sobriquet that she adopted with alacrity. Sarcastic comparisons with Boadicea were directed at her by the Left after the Falklands War. She rejoiced in her role as the charioteer of the nation.
Now that she has gone, however, such martial images are disapproved of by the Conservative establishment. “Conservatives should beware of accepting the myth of Mrs Thatcher as a Tory Boadicea who would have flown into every battle no matter what,” warned an editorial in the Tory house journal, the Spectator. “As they mourn, Tories ought not to be too hard on themselves or their current leader.”
Well, some Tory mourners recall the fact that it was precisely Mrs Thatcher’s adherence to the Boadicea principle in the Falklands War that reversed her electoral fortunes and cemented her image as a formidable leader. Would that David Cameron’s foray into Libya had yielded such clear-cut results. In fact, the Western-backed Islamist uprising known as the Arab Spring has proved disastrous for the West. And while the main responsibility for the weakness of Western policy must lie with President Obama, Mr Cameron — unlike Tony Blair — has failed to emulate Mrs Thatcher in strengthening the resolve of US administrations and showing solidarity with allies under siege. Mrs Thatcher visited Israel three times as prime minister; Mr Cameron not once. Only in Europe has Mr Cameron shown his mettle, but even here his instinct is emollient. Helmut Kohl remarked that Mrs Thatcher “wanted Europe, but a different Europe from that wanted by most of her European colleagues and me”. Mr Cameron says he wants a different Europe too — but does he mean it? His hero, Harold Macmillan, saw Europe as the solution to British decline. Mrs Thatcher did not — in fact, she realised belatedly that Europe was part of the problem, not the solution. Whose side is Mr Cameron on?
Yet the days between Mrs Thatcher’s death and her funeral may prove to have been cathartic for the British people. As Tony Blair’s ability to capitalise on Diana’s death showed, a week of mourning can be a long time in politics. Mrs Thatcher’s achievement, by common consent, is comparable only to Churchill’s in wartime. But the decades since her fall have revealed a depressing British tendency to revert to the postwar attitude of acquiescence in decline. Only now has her true significance, her defiance of historical inevitability, fully dawned on us.
I include myself. Raised on the Left, I took time to adjust to a leader from the Right. Mrs Thatcher and my father admired one another — Nick Garland caricatured her as Mae West, beckoning him to “come up and see me some time” — and I was drawn to the bracing rigour of her intellectual supporters, not least at the Letwin salon. (See articles by Paul Johnson and Charles Moore inside.) But it was only after living with the reality of the Cold War in Berlin that I was ready to reconsider my allegiance. And only when the Falklands War forced me to take sides did I admit to myself that Mrs Thatcher represented freedom, and that she was right.
That recognition changed my life. Academics loathed Thatcherism — my alma mater, Oxford, refused her an honorary degree — and I gravitated first to the think tank she had founded, and then to the Daily Telegraph and The Times. The battle of ideas still raged. At one of her press conferences in the 1987 election, I asked a question on education that provoked an outburst from Mrs Thatcher. Contradicting the Tory manifesto, she wanted to allow the proposed grant-maintained schools — precursors of today’s academies and free schools — to charge fees, like the old direct grant schools. That was on “wobbly Thursday”; her frankness almost cost her the election.
The fall of Communism was a glorious vindication of the Boadicea principle, but Mrs Thatcher feared the consequences of German reunification. A year after she resigned, I invited a few younger journalists to meet her for dinner at the Travellers’ Club. When I mentioned among her accomplishments the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had brought freedom and unity to the German people, Mrs Thatcher saw red. It was as if one had reminded Boadicea that her late husband was an ally of the Romans. She thought a united Germany would inevitably dominate the Continent. Like Boadicea, Mrs Thatcher went down fighting against the idea of a European imperium. Who now will defend our freedom?