x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

I disagreed with Thatcher but am glad now that I once shook her hand

I was against Margaret Thatcher's policies in the first half of her premiership, but reckon the British prime minister got it mostly right in the second half of the 1980s.

I only once shook the hand of the Iron Lady, and cold it was too.

I don't mean Margaret Thatcher's hand was cold. By the time she got round to me in the line-up, it had been pressed so many times it was warm and moist. But the surroundings were freezing.

It must have been early in 1991, because I also remember she had recently become a former prime minister of the United Kingdom.

She had obviously accepted a prior invitation from the French president François Mitterrand to join him for a celebratory lunch once the Channel Tunnel had been completed, and she was determined to keep the appointment, in or out of office.

I was one of a number of journalists invited along to witness the slightly bizarre occasion. The tunnel was finished in the sense that the two ends of it met beneath the English Channel, but only in that sense.

The interior hadn't yet been properly sealed, and we saw engineers still working on it - installing arc-lighting and other essential bits of kit - as we travelled along the rails from Folkestone. I remember dripping water and freezing air.

But it was sufficiently complete to get a splendid lunch delivered to a midway point under the sea between the French and English coastlines. The food, I guess, came from the French side.

So there I was, standing in line as Maggie and François made their way to me, rather nervous at the prospect of meeting her, mainly because I had spent much of the previous decade in profound disagreement with her government and its policies.

Whatever she was against, I was for: the striking miners, the starving Irish, the sacked print workers, the Argentinians. My opposition was not always for the soundest of political reasons, I admit now. Over the Falkland Islands it was mainly because my football team, Tottenham, had two Argentinians in the line-up.

But on the other issues, I just thought she was dead wrong, and could summon a host of political, historical and economic arguments as to why.

They say she was divisive, and for me the 1980s divided almost down the middle. Before 1986, up to and including the violent printers' dispute at Wapping, she could do nothing right. From then, until the end of her reign as prime minister in 1990, I think she made a fair stab at politics. Even the poll tax, which contributed greatly to her downfall, doesn't seem so bad viewed from the hindsight of "austerity Britain".

The Big Bang reform of the City of London; the privatisation of large chunks of state-owned industry; her role in helping to end the tyranny of Soviet communism; all these were good things that transformed the world, mainly for the better.

And I personally had a very good decade. I became a journalist, my lifelong career ambition. I married (not for the first or last time) and became a homeowner. I took part in some spectacular bits of street theatre on miners' and printers' pickets. My football team even won some trophies. They were eventful years, the 1980s.

May you live in interesting times, they say, and the Thatcher years were certainly that.

Now I'm rather proud I shook her hand that day, and a little sad a link to those days has passed. But I hope none of the old comrades reads this.

 

fkane@thenational.ae