Reading People Like Us by Caroline Slocock (Biteback Publishing) was an unusual exercise. The author, who became the first ever female private secretary at No 10 during the final 18 months of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was, by her own admission, a left-wing feminist. Thatcher’s political views were naturally very different and she heartily disliked the label “feminist”; she had reached the pinnacle of politics on her own merits and felt that other women should do the same.
Nonetheless, Slocock, looking back after nearly 30 years, provides a sympathetic, sensitive and generous portrait of this formidable woman, admitting her initial prejudices and confessing to being “shocked to discover [Thatcher’s] empathy, her charm and her underlying vulnerability as well as her inner reserves of strength.”
At her job interview, having been warned that Thatcher would never appoint a woman to the post, she noticed the Prime Minister’s “spontaneity and grace.” She was neither “Boudicca or a witch” but a woman “who listened, was interested in other people, showed a natural ability to put herself in others’ shoes and cared about the emotional…side of things.”
Slocock does not pick up on Thatcher’s strong Christian views, shaped by the Methodism of her childhood, and is dismissive of state occasions like Trooping the Colour (which Thatcher thought of as “what we do best”), revealing her own preferences for “the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Henry Moore, David Hockney and Terence Conran – future-focused creativity…not backward-looking regimental pomp.” What she does not see is that Thatcher was formed by the grocery shop, the War, listening to Churchill’s speeches, and that “regimental pomp” simply meant the premier’s belief in tradition, monarchy and attending to history – all staunchly conservative values.
Slocock’s most telling recollection is not when Thatcher breaks down in her final Cabinet meeting as she reads her resignation speech, causing the author and several of the men present to weep alongside her; it is when Slocock is helping the premier to prepare a speech on family values. Thatcher tells the author firmly that “Children need security and must be brought up in a stable, loving environment in which parents offer time, affection and guidance. These things are most likely when the parents are married – and stay married.” It goes without saying that Thatcher assumed marriage to be between a man and woman and instinctively recoiled from divorce because of its effect on the children. In this she simply reflects her generation, her upbringing and her beliefs.
No prime minister today could ever voice such things; it would be almost enough to bring down a government. Some people consider this progress. Thatcher would not have thought so.