Death of a Member: Baroness Thatcher — Tributes

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 10th April 2013.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 2:52 pm, 10th April 2013

My Lords, I begin by following on from what the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition have said in associating these Benches with condolences to Baroness Thatcher's immediate family. I will also tie in something the Leader of the House said with a personal reminiscence. Due to some serendipity, for about five years at the State Opening of Parliament I found myself sitting on the Bench opposite next to Mrs Thatcher and spending time with her as we awaited the Queen's arrival. The one thing I want to share with the House took place in the year her husband died, when she had already had a number of minor strokes and did not speak a great deal. She suddenly turned to me and said, "My husband died earlier this year". I said, "Yes, Baroness Thatcher, I know". She paused again and then said, "I miss him very much". That tremendous partnership between Baroness Thatcher and her husband, which was so much a factor in her own political life, is remembered today.

There are times when, for all the grandeur of the surroundings of this House, we have to play second fiddle to activities down the Corridor. Today, however, although the tributes in the other place will no doubt be eloquent and apposite, it is in this Chamber, as the Leader of the House has reminded us, that we will hear the memories and judgments of those who experienced first hand the Thatcher phenomenon. If one considers the number of people whom she sacked, promoted, defeated or berated, they must make up a goodly number of those present in the House today. In short, the importance of the next couple of hours is that not only does this House know where the bodies are buried but some of the bodies are present here.

In January 1965, when paying tribute to the life of Sir Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson referred to,

"the sullen feet of marching men in Tonypandy"- a reminder that Churchill, in a long life, had sometimes been at the heart of bitter social conflict, as well as showing great leadership in the times of national crisis. So it was with Margaret Thatcher, and that reality was reflected in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I quote again from Harold Wilson's tribute to Churchill. He said that,

"the tempestuous years are over; the years of appraisal are yet to come".-[Hansard, Commons, 25/1/65; col. 672.]

I shall not attempt such an appraisal today. Instead, I shall rely on two perspectives given not at the time of her death but some years ago.

Seven years ago, the New Statesman invited its readers to nominate their "heroes of our time". Somewhat to the surprise and embarrassment of the New Statesman, Baroness Thatcher was the highest-rated British politician. The paper explained this result as being due to the fact that no one was in any doubt about what Mrs Thatcher stood for and what she believed in, and it was those qualities of steadfastness and clarity of purpose which had been recognised by the New Statesman readers.

My second assessment comes from another surprising source. As a Member of the other place in 1982, I was present for two exchanges that took place between Enoch Powell and Mrs Thatcher. To appreciate fully the quotations that I am about to give, your Lordships will have to imagine that slightly nasal, Black Country twang in which Mr Powell spoke, but which I shall not try to imitate. The first is Enoch Powell addressing Mrs Thatcher after the Falkland Islands had been invaded. Speaking on 3 April in the House of Commons, he said:

"The Prime Minister, shortly after she came into office, received a soubriquet as the 'Iron Lady'. It arose in the context of remarks which she made about defence against the Soviet Union and its allies; but there was no reason to suppose that the right hon. Lady did not welcome and, indeed, take pride in that description. In the next week or two this House, the nation and the right hon. Lady herself will learn of what metal she is made".-[Hansard, Commons, 3/4/82; col. 644.]

My second quotation is from some 10 weeks later- 17 June 1982-after the British victory in the Falklands war. Enoch Powell said:

"Is the right hon. Lady aware that the report has now been received from the public analyst on a certain substance recently subjected to analysis and that I have obtained a copy of the report? It shows that the substance under test consisted of ferrous matter of the highest quality, that it is of exceptional tensile strength, is highly resistant to wear and tear and to stress, and may be used with advantage for all national purposes".-[Hansard, Commons, 17/6/82; col. 1082.]

That was the only time in my experience that Enoch Powell made a joke.

There is no need to airbrush out of history or to ignore the fact that most of us on these Benches spent a good deal of our political lives fiercely opposing many aspects of what became known as "Thatcherism". However, that does not prevent us recognising the qualities that were highlighted both by the New Statesman and by Enoch Powell-qualities that have quite rightly brought us together today to pay due respect and proper tribute to Margaret Thatcher as a figure of enduring importance in our national life.