Tuesday, April 09, 2013
She saved the Nation , but she put Finchley on the map !
I somehow thought she was immortal .
Only last month I was reading an obituary in the "Daily Telegraph" of an old acquaintance of mine , Sir Fergus Montgomery former MP for Altrincham amongst other places, and recalling that the last time I chatted to him was when he , along with other former Parliamentary Private Secretaries to Margaret Thatcher, acted as an usher at Sir Denis Thatcher's Memorial Service at the Guards Chapel .
I had a vision then of Lady Thatcher reading the same article over her cornflakes at the Ritz Hotel and thinking "Oh dear another good friend gone" but as many people do a they get older secretly congratulating herself on outlasting someone else from their past.
Over the last few years Lady Thatcher's declining number of public appearances were mainly restricted to funerals and Memorial Services , the "cocktail parties of the geriatric set" as Harold Macmillan famously described them, and as former friends and foes joined those green benches in the sky Lady Thatcher sailed serenely , although increasingly frailly on .
I last saw her about a year ago having lunch in the excellent restaurant of the Goring Hotel near Buckingham Palace with three friends . I was delighted to see that I was not the only one who could manage three courses from their first class lunch menu and that age and ill health had not diminished her appetite .
In Spring 2010 whilst I was Mayor she agreed to attend a Mayoral Charity lunch I was hosting at Mossimon's in Belgravia , we told no one in advance she was coming and of course she received a rapturous reception and enjoyed the lunch . However by that time she could only respond to fairly straightforward questions requiring simple answers and the then Lord Mayor of Westminster Duncan Sands and I kept the conversation going. A year of two previously I had given an interview to the distinguished historian Philip Ziegler who had been commissioned to write the official biography of Ted Heath and I asked him if he had interviewed Lady Thatcher ? "I am told there is no point as she cannot remember " he replied " yes she may have difficulty remembering three weeks ago but she still remembers thirty years ago " was my advise to him .
Her recent ill health, she struggled to get over the death of her devoted and extraordinary husband Denis who was her complete rock , slightly overshadowed her legion of achievements which will fill acres of newsprint over the coming days .
However whilst she certainly put Great Britain back on the map after the Nation's decline under Labour in the 1970s she put Finchley firmly on the map !
When she was selected for the then Finchley and Friern Barnet Constituency ( and many commentators forget the Friern Barnet element ) to fight the 1959 General election nobody could have envisaged her future career.
Sir John Crowder , the retiring Member of Parliament firmly told his Conservative Association that he was sure they would want to select "a younger man ",but younger members of the Finchley and Friern Barnet Conservatives ( and in those days there were many as apparently it was the best place to met members of the opposite sex ) took one look at this strong , determined young woman who knew how to make a decent speech and decided she was the candidate for them . As a young backbencher she introduced a Private Members Bill ensuring access to the meetings of public bodies although I suspect she would have been applled at the behaviour of some who choose to exorcise the rights that her Act conferred in the Barnet public gallery .
Indeed over the next 33 years the Constituency always came first for Margaret Thatcher . When Prime Minister she gave the best part of a Friday or Saturday about every three weeks to local matters and events, she missed the Finchley Carnival only once and that was for the World Economic Summit at Versailles , there was virtually no local organisation she was not part of as President or Patron and she never attended any event without ensuring she had spoken to everybody in the room and nipped into the kitchen to lend a hand with the washing up as well . "You can never have enough tea towels " I once heard her remark at a Finchley Conservative Bazaar , somehow I cannot image David Cameron making that remark with total naturalness.
Her support for Finchley Memorial Hospital was unstinting and we knew that the hospital would never be earmarked for closure, ( yes NHS cuts are nothing new) , whilst she was Prime Minister .
She had that unique gift possessed by few Politicians ( Tony Blair has it in spades as well I have to say ) that whilst you were talking to her YOU were the most important person in her life , she was not looking over your shoulder for someone more important or interesting to talk to .
She fought a last ditch campaign to save Grammar Schools in Barnet and when Secretary of State for Education clashed with a number of Conservative Members of Barnet Council who wished to rush headlong into comprehensive education . Indeed on the whole she had little time for the then Conservative Adminstration of Barnet considering several of its leading members wet and far too patrician in their approach and she could not understand why her own Borough Council was constantly increasing the rates and was not like Wandsworth and Westminster in the vanguard of Conservative local Conservative local government innovation . When Council Leader the late Leslie Pym would explain that Barnet did not receive the same level of grant as Westminster and Wandsworth he would be dismissed with a waive of the hand , he still got his CBE . She supported those of her Councillors who kept to proper Conservative values ( the formidable Barbara Langstone, wife of her long term devoted Constituency agent , who stood for no nonsense , John Tiplady who carefully controlled planning and the great Frank Gibson whom she credited for her selection and whose funeral at All Saints she attended even though there were pressing National issues to be dealt with ) and accepted their explanations that they were always out voted by the wets from Hendon and Chipping Barnet .
Her support for the State of Israel and the local Jewish Community fundamentally changed local Politics in Finchley . Memories of the "Great Golf Club scandal " of 1962 which saw Jews excluded from Finchley Golf Club and was blamed on the local Tory establishment leading to the loss of the Finchley Borough Council were well and truly banished by Mrs Thatcher's barnstorming appearance at a hastily arranged "support Israel " meeting at Moss Hall Junior School during the Six Day War . Her decision to allow American planes to use British bases to bomb Libya in 1986 ensured a record number of subscriptions for the Finchley Conservative Association.
There were many thousands of ordinary Finchley and Friern Barnet residents who benefited from her advise and help over the years , from my late Father who in the 1970s had difficulties with the Inland Revenue over tax on properties he owned ( a helpful letter from the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury Robert Sheldon soon arrived following Mrs T's intervention ), to a fellow Finchley Methodist infamously imprisoned in Moscow by the KGB for alleged Bible smuggling who to this day recalls Mrs T's support of his wife and keeping up the Parliamentary pressure on Harold Wilson which eventually lead to his release in a spy exchange .
Whatever the world crisis her constituency correspondence was dealt with quickly and efficiently and across Finchley there are hundreds of people who have fading Prime Ministerial correspondence on every subject under the sun siting in the back of draws waiting for the grandchildren to inherit it . She found time for her constituents as individuals.
Her contribution to the Borough was recognised by the award , just after she was elected Prime Minister, of the Freedom of the Borough. It needs a two thirds majority of the Council and Labour had done so badly in the 1978 Council elections, being reduced to a rump of nine seats, that they could not block it . Her death leaves only two living Freemen of the Borough , Lord Sacks and former Councillor John Apthorp founder of Bejams and Majestic Wine.
Prime Ministers of course enjoy total power except for that brief period during a General election when the polls have closed and they are waiting for the count to be declared in their own constituency , Lady Thatcher of course could not stand incompetence and inefficacy and Barnet Council who to this day are renowned for their slow election counts would feel the wrath of her anger as she sat in the Mayor's Parlour at Hendon Town Hall sipping scotch and watching the clock tick forward into the early hours . In 1987 as David Dimbleby told the Nation on the BBC that "Mrs Thatcher was heading back to Downing Street " she yelled at the telly " No I am not , I am still waiting for this Bloody count !"
Some were disappointed when she choose the area of her Lincolnshire Birth place (Kesteven) in her House of Lords title rather than Finchley and certainly had she continued the (now abandoned ) tradition of accepting an hereditary Earldom for ex Prime Ministers,being Countess of Finchley had a certain ring to it but that geographical designation remains available for a future political star .
When I used to serve on the Council of Europe and visit Eastern Europe to monitor elections and when asked where I came from I would say "Finchley" always the reply came " Ah, Have you met Margaret Thatcher ?"
In a hundred years time when all of us are forgotten, Margaret Thatcher will still be remembered and revered on every continent and the North London Suburb of Finchley will have earned its' part in world history .