People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me by Caroline Slocock

Anyone interested in Margaret Thatcher should get hold of this book, and so should anyone who wishes for a feminism which encourages the acceptance of women in positions of power, rather than their denunciation as witches and bitches.

Caroline Slocock is no Thatcherite, but wept at the fall of Thatcher. She was the first female private secretary to work in Number Ten, which for the 18 months leading up to the grand climax of November 1990 put her in close proximity to the first female Prime Minister.

Here is a feminist who observes that feminism “has enough battles to fight without attacking women who reach the top for not being the ‘right’ kind of woman.”

The most dramatic part of the book is without doubt the death scene which takes place at the end of 1990. Number 10 becomes “more like the stage of an opera or the setting for a grand funeral”, the corridors full of flowers, the normal ways of doing things abandoned: “Time seems to stretch out, and there is a sadness and growing unreality in the air.”

Slocock is one of the few officials, and only woman, who on 22 November sees Thatcher break down while reading her resignation statement to the Cabinet:

“A sense of betrayal hangs in the air and the men look guilty. It is the raw hurt, anger and shock in her voice that really registers with me – that, and her loss of dignity and the sorrow felt by everyone in the room that things should end in this appalling way. It reduces me to unexpected tears, then, as I try to fight them back, even sobbing, as I leave the room.”

On returning to Downing Street from Buckingham Palace, Thatcher “breaks down in the front hall and starts sobbing in front of everyone there, the custodians and the detectives”. Later that day, she gives her electrifying reply in the Commons to Labour’s motion of no confidence, in which she declares “I’m enjoying this”.

Slocock, watching from the officials’ box to the right of the Speaker’s chair, finds tears once more springing to her eyes, and notices Neil Kinnock, the Leader of the Opposition, looking in her direction:

“It might be a trick of my imagination but he seems to look closely at me. Perhaps he can see that I am moved. I wish I could explain to him that it is not that I agree with Margaret Thatcher or think it is wrong that she has resigned or even that I want her to stay. It is just that I feel the pain she is experiencing – and her courage – so greatly.”

Thatcher inspires loyalty among her staff, treating them like family. Slocock sees how impolitic this is: it is the Conservative Party which requires that care and consideration, instead of which the Prime Minister treats Sir Geoffrey Howe with unbelievable rudeness.

One of Slocock’s duties is to brief the Prime Minister before visits to the regions, and to travel with her. She observes how Thatcher loves being “let out to play”, escaping the claustrophobia and the pressure of Downing Street.

And she senses that at the root of Thatcher’s “excessive preparation for public speaking” lay “a sense of not being good enough just as herself”. Hence the contrived tone of voice and over-scripted turns of phrase which so many people hated.

Slocock, who is in her early thirties and from a modest background, suffers from the same sense of not being good enough just as herself. Like Thatcher, she has ascended into the ruling class (not that she puts it that way), and feels the need for a manner which others will find acceptable.

This inability to be herself prevents Slocock from becoming one of the great diarists. She lacks the uninhibitedness which they display. On one occasion, Thatcher, who is deeply interested in clothes, notices the hem has come down on the skirt of Slocock’s suit,

“and very kindly suggested I come up to the flat, where she promised to hem it up for me in a jiffy. I declined, not being able to cope with the thought of taking my skirt off in her presence, and said I would tape it up with some sellotape until I got home that night. It reminded me a bit of that time when we both discovered at the same moment that we’d left our handbags on the helicopter that had flown away, and laughed together, momentarily sisters in a pickle no man could understand.”

In the hands of a great diarist, the skirt scene could have become a classic, repeated for generations by people who take no interest in politics. But Slocock has instead turned herself, by natural ability and unremitting industry, into a great official.

She marshals the facts, and when she does not already know them, she engages in diligent research. Her diaries, which suffer from a certain banality of style, are supplemented by quotations from interviews she has carried out, and by references to the works of Charles Moore, Jonathan Aitken and many others.

This is a public service, and you always feel she is being straight with the reader, or as straight as her professional discretion will allow. For although she has very strong views of her own, for most of the time she suppresses them. She travels by car to Chequers and back with Robin Harris, from the Downing Street Policy Unit, to help Thatcher work on a speech about divorce and absent fathers, from which the idea of the Child Support Agency will spring.

Slocock wonders whether to contribute to the conversation her own horrific experience of her parents getting divorced, and wishes now she had been brave enough to do so, but at the time she is too afraid of bursting into tears. Nor does she tell us anything about Harris – a gifted and combative figure, with convictions deeply opposed to her own, about whom no true diarist would have been able to remain silent.

All we get, later, is a tentative suggestion that Harris might have “put in a bad word against me” when she does not get an expected promotion.

Ferdinand Mount has left, in Cold Cream, the funniest account of what it was like working for Thatcher. But Slocock sees things which others miss. She remarks that Thatcher created in Downing Street “the most feminine working environment I have ever known”, and she manages to acquire a portrait of Thatcher by an Indian artist, who

“portrays her almost as a girl, full of wonder and freshness…the woman I sometimes saw when I worked for her – especially when we were out and about and meeting new people – even if it is a very long way away from how she looked when she thought that she, or what she believed in, was under attack.”