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Margaret Thatcher, Jaffa Cakes & Me

With all the World and his Uncle currently commenting on the late Margaret Thatcher, Insider editor Charles Christian has decided to add his own perspective on her motivations and rise to power…


With all the World and his Uncle currently commenting on the late Margaret Thatcher, Insider editor Charles Christian has decided to add his own perspective on her motivations and rise to power…

Back when I was a baby barrister, I did my second six months’ pupilage at a Chancery set in Lincoln’s Inn. This was still a time of gracious living for the Bar – never mind every barrister having his own desk, in this set every barrister had his own room! And, once a day – every day, except Fridays, we would assemble in the head of chambers room at about 4:15pm (after court – the chambers were only two minutes walk from the Royal Courts of Justice – but before the 5:00pm conference meetings with solicitors and clients) for afternoon tea. It was always Earl Grey, served with a choice of Jaffa Cakes and HobNobs.

Normally the conversation was very formal, by comparison the Japanese Tea Ritual is a bundle of laughs, but it suited us pupils fine as we could concentrate on scoffing as many free biscuits as we decently could. Remember, this was in the days when pupils still had to pay over a £500 per six-months fee to their pupil-master (plus 10% to the clerk) and somehow fund their living expenses in London out of their own pockets, as distinct from today when the Bar Council requires pupils to be paid/earn a minimum of £1000 a month.

However one day the head of chambers mentioned Margaret Thatcher, this was shortly after she’d defenestrated Ted Heath from the leadership of the Tory Party and become the Leader of the Opposition. By then, Mrs T was already starting to set out her political stall, which not only included disempowering the trade unions but also the professions. Most of the reforms – or deskilling – we have seen in medicine, law, teaching and banking since the 1980s can all be traced back to Mrs T’s agenda.

But back to my head of chambers. “It’s all my fault,” he said. “Years before Thatcher applied for a place in these chambers and I turned her down. If only we’d accepted her, she might have settled down to practice law and only dabbled in politics. Instead, she’s on course to become our next Prime Minister and she’s going to have her revenge on everyone and anyone who ever crossed her.”

The rest is history although I no longer eat Jaffa Cakes. Incidentally, I never met Margaret Thatcher but I did meet Ted Heath once – and despite external appearances, he really did have a kind heart.


2 replies on “Margaret Thatcher, Jaffa Cakes & Me”

In the eighties I worked for a government department and was stationed in Washington from 1988 to 1990 – this is my Mrs T story…

Mrs Thatcher visited the US on numerous occasions in her time as Prime Minister but the visit that had the biggest impact on me was in 1989 when a special ceremony was being held on the White House lawn for her to say goodbye to a retiring Ronald Reagan. The two of them were the epitome of the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries and shared many political views and battles with the Eastern Bloc. Politics and world staging aside, the truth is they were genuinely friends.

Two of us were selected, myself and A to be responsible for Mrs Thatcher’s communications during her visit. The US government had assigned her Blair House (spot the irony) for the duration of her visit mainly because it was in close proximity to the White House but also due to the fact it was an elegant and historic building, something there aren’t too many of in Washington DC. Her communication team arrived the day before and we worked with them to set everything up in a Victorian style drawing room in Blair House.

It wasn’t the most convenient of places to do this as there was hardly any power sockets and only basic air conditioning but we were used to ‘making do’ as were her team. We had a few tables brought in and set everything up from teleprinters and cypher gear to radio and satellite communications and even ‘the button’ (the capability to launch a nuclear missile from a briefcase) that followed her everywhere.

The day of her arrival me and A were hanging around in the war room as we affectionately called it when she walked in with her personal aide. She asked who we were, shook our hands and thanked us for our help. Just as she was leaving her aide turned to me and said;
‘Mr’s Thatcher has asked if you would remove that book from the bookshelf. Thank you’
‘What book?’
‘The big red one’.
I went over to an ornate glass fronted French bookcase that was against the far wall and found the book she described. It was indeed big and red and entitled ‘History of the Labour Party’.
’I had heard Mrs T was a stickler for detail but how on earth she spotted that book I will never know.

A few minutes later there was a slight commotion in the door way. One of Mrs T’s team called me over and said;
‘The miserable old bastard wants to speak to someone from the Embassy – good luck.’
Dennis Thatcher was standing there with an angry look on his face.
‘Get me todays Times boy. Stop whatever you are doing and go and get it now.’
I was a little taken aback. He was after all the Prime Ministers husband but at 25 I regarded myself as getting on rather than a ‘boy’ and in any case there were two problems, one I was under instruction not to leave the room and two, we only got papers a day late at the Embassy. Luckily his assistant had ushered him away and then returned to say;
‘Forget about the paper, he’s just grumpy because he didn’t finish the crossword. I’ll sort him out’
We were finalising some tests on the communication equipment when one of Mrs T’s team said the Secret Service were outside the room and needed to speak to us. As friendly as we were with the yanks, we couldn’t let them into that room so all went into the corridor. A typical clean cut, dark blue suited agent handed us all a small lapel badge.
‘These are your assigned badges. Wear them at all times and note they will expire after the White House ceremony tomorrow.’ With that he left.
The badge was just a navy blue square with a white circle in it, a bit boring but would make a decent keepsake of the occasion. I put mine in my pocket ready to put on my jacket lapel later. I went back into the room to speak to A when another of Mr’s T’s guys said.
‘Where’s your badge?’
‘In my pocket. I’m going to put it on my jacket.’
‘I’d get it on now mate. He wasn’t joking when he said wear it at all times and don’t make the rookie mistake of taking your jacket off with the badge attached.’
‘What’s the big deal?’
‘Come with me.’ He walked me to the curtains.
‘Look out there at the roof opposite’ There were snipers positioned at various locations.
‘They’re just the ones you can see. If the shit hits the fan at any point, anyone not wearing a badge goes down first.’
I never took that badge off again.

Wow, After reading the posting of Anonymous about Mrs T visit helps me understand why in the UK establishment when she was in power we had strict rules on “badges”. Her attention to detail, no matter whether political or personal was indeed second to none. Her ability to understand modern technology was far greater than people gave her credit for and setting up any venue, either in the UK or abroad she would always try to meet and thank those that crawled on the floor and set things up so that she could work. Her loyalty to the British people also extended to which brand of water was drunk in front of her, many a time a famous brand of water was discarded to the bin.

Working for her painted a different picture to seeing her press releases but rest assured, she was a hard human being on the exterior and rarely showed emotion. To work for her meant dedicating your whole time to her passion and for some of us it was too hard a sacrifice to make so walking away was the only solution. Certainly the most influential boss one could ever have worked for and without doubt a lot of her one liners will have been true as her ability to cut anyone down with a quip was something that she so enjoyed. Politics aside, she was another member of the human race trying to do a job that she was passionate about to a fault.

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