Book review: memories of Margaret Thatcher from No 10’s first female private secretary

Caroline Slocock depicts a more human Margaret Thatcher, writes Sue Cameron


PA

By Sue Cameron

18 May 2018

A sense of betrayal hangs in the air of the Cabinet Room as prime minister Margaret Thatcher reads out her resignation statement. She breaks down after every few words. When she manages to reach the end, she says: “I doubt you all heard that, so I will read it again.” She doesn’t seem to notice that others, including her cabinet colleagues, are also in tears.

Describing the scene, Caroline Slocock, the only other woman present, says: “It is absolute torture to hear her… the sorrow felt by everyone in the room.” Slocock, the first woman to become a civil service private secretary in No 10, also starts to sob despite never having expected to be overcome with emotion. Left-leaning and a passionate feminist, she did not share Thatcher’s world view, though as a good civil servant she thought it was her job to be politically neutral and keep her personal opinions to herself. What she had not been prepared for was how different Thatcher was to her media image.

In her book People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me, she writes: “On first meeting her, I was shocked to discover her empathy, her charm and her underlying vulnerability as well as her inner reserves of strength. I struggled to reconcile this softer side with her aggressiveness and outright meanness toward some of her colleagues.”

Based on Slocock’s diaries from the time, the book draws a vivid picture of Britain’s first female PM with all her contradictions: a woman who inspired such conflicting emotions that, as Slocock movingly describes, even the men who had just ousted her were in tears at her final cabinet meeting; an Iron Lady who was distinctly feminine – a whole chapter is devoted to her love of clothes – and who knew how to use female charm on male leaders like Gorbachev and Reagan; a woman whose kindness and thoughtfulness won her the loyalty and love of the Downing Street staff but who was ruthless in getting her own way as prime minister, brooking no dissent and publicly humiliating cabinet colleagues.

The book is arranged under headings like “Margaret Thatcher’s Court”, “Margaret Thatcher and Gay Men” and “Girl Power or Twisted Sister?”. It gives almost as much weight to domestic detail as to political drama and in doing so conveys a real sense of what it was like to work in No 10.

Here is Thatcher in high heels walking down the steep stairs from the No 10 flat with a bowl of blue hyacinths for Slocock the first time they meet; there is Andrew, now Lord, Turnbull, then the principal private secretary, explaining where to find the emergency bottle of water should the PM have a coughing fit; we read of Thatcher’s hospital visit to people dying of Aids and her insistence that it be kept secret lest people think she is trying to copy Princess Diana.

Everything is seen through a feminist prism but there are inconsistencies. Asked what the PM would be wearing to a dinner so that female guests could follow her lead, Slocock says disdainfully that she has more important things to do than resolve dress dilemmas. Yet a few pages later she complains that the clothes allowance for private secretaries accompanying the PM may pay for a man’s dinner jacket but is “not nearly enough” to buy an “upmarket cocktail dress”. She negotiates an increase.

Meanwhile there are signs of challenge to Thatcher’s power. The chancellor, Nigel Lawson, tells her to “shut up and listen for once”. There is so much antipathy between Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe, that Charles Powell, the private secretary for foreign affairs, complains that he is having to “act like a marriage guidance counsellor” between them. The more the men stood up to what they saw as a bullying woman, the more Thatcher tried to assert her authority. Slocock argues that women like Thatcher behave just like the men but when they do so they are characterised as aggressive, hectoring and domineering rather than powerful and in control.

It is a persuasive analysis, all the more so for the very human way Margaret Thatcher is drawn as against the Spitting Image cut-out so often depicted. In a final note, Slocock praises Thatcher’s courage, conviction and determination and calls for an end to the “deep rooted prejudice that represents powerful women as bitches, witches or non human.” Margaret Thatcher, she says “was just a woman, flawed like the rest of us but a great woman nonetheless. She is not ‘one of them’ but a woman like us – if only we have the eyes to see it.”

❱ People Like Us –  Margaret Thatcher and Me
❱ Caroline Slocock
❱ Biteback Publishing

❱ Hardback £20

Read the most recent articles written by Sue Cameron - Book review: Where power lies behind the black door of No.10

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