Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Mrs T and me

A rare visit to the North-East. Mrs Thatcher takes a walk in the industrial wasteland of Teesport in 1987

I never met Margaret Thatcher. She rarely came to the North-East, although there was one memorable walk in the wilderness in Teesside in 1987. I was meant to go to London to see her ... but fate, in the form of her resignation, intervened. A lunch was due to be held at 10 Downing Street on November 23, 1990, and I had accepted the invitation. On the morning of November 22 she resigned. All the journalists at The Northern Echo came in early and we produced a lunchtime edition. There was no commercial or sales rationale but it felt right editorially (those were the days). While I was on the floor drawing up pages, my secretary shouted over: 'Peter, Downing Street is on the phone for you.' The newsroom's collective jaw - mine included - dropped. I picked up the phone, swiftly thinking of the questions I would ask during my world exclusive interview. It was, of course, the appointments secretary to say, under the circumstances, tomorrow was cancelled.
David Kernek
My successor at the Echo, David Kernek, who had previously been deputy editor and Parliamentary correspondent did, however, meet Mrs Thatcher several times. Today, as Britain's first female Prime Minister is laid to rest, he reflects on her tenure. 

I will not be in London today for Mrs Thatcher’s state-funeral-in-all-but-name. I won’t be inside St. Paul’s Cathedral – I haven’t been invited – and I won’t be outside with my back turned as the gun carriage pulls her coffin up Ludgate Hill. My encounters with her were brief and sharp –and to her, doubtless, unmemorable – but I saw no reason to hate her as one might with good reason abominate Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot.
The grocer’s daughter made much of her small-town, down home values, but Grantham was not a small town to which she returned frequently either during her working life or after it. In a message she sent to the town’s museum, she said: "From this town I have learned so much, and I am proud to be one of its citizens." Proud? If so, it was a pride she rarely demonstrated. The name of the school at which she was head girl was Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School. When she took her seat in the House of Lords, it was as the Baroness of Kesteven, not Grantham.
Her constituency was in North London – one of the better-heeled parts – her country retreat was in Kent, and her post-PM decades were spent in Chelsea. There are people who arrange to die where they spent their childhood years. I wasn’t at all surprised when I heard that she’d died at the Ritz, Piccadilly, not in Kesteven, wherever that is. Oh yes, I know where it is; it’s north of Milton Keynes.
The small-town grocer’s daughter from somewhere up north was, much more than most of her kind in the upper reaches of the political class, a metropolitan  big shot inhabiting a universe that stretches selectively from Highgate, Hampstead and Islington in the north to Westminster and Belgravia in the south and Hammersmith and Putney in the west. Its people holiday in Tuscany – sometimes at villas loaned by crooked Italian prime ministers – and New England.
When these people have something to say, they say it first to the BBC, or ITN, or the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. They used to say it also to The Sun, but perhaps not these days. They tend not contact first The Kesteven and Grantham Bugle or, foolishly, The Northern Echo.
The House of Commons press lobby, however, offered a weekly opportunity to regional newspaper reporters to, as it were, get a look in. It was there as the Northern Echo’s political correspondent that I first met Mrs T who, like all opposition leaders and PMs took questions every Thursday from journalists at off-the-record meetings, sometimes in a small Commons’ attic, sometimes at No 10. This was in the days before those troublesome gates were put across Downing Street.
I can’t remember if Mrs T was then opposition leader or PM, but it didn’t matter; her response to my questions would have been much the same. I asked her what she thought of a speech to be made by John Nott – a senior Tory politician, who had thoughtfully given hacks advance copies.
What speech is that, she asked. The speech in which he said the terms on which Britain had entered the Common Market – as the Belgian Empire was then known – were seriously damaging to the country’s trade. He doesn’t say that, she said, glowering. He does, I said. No, no, he doesn’t, she said. I read out a sentence from Nott’s speech. Well, that’s not how I interpret it, she said, still glowering. Next question!
Mrs T was on the money when it came to the Soviet threat, but very slow to understand – until it was too late for her to do anything about it – what the Common Market was all about. She liberated the Falkland Islands, helped to hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union and got some of our money back from Brussels, but she shoved the Single European Act through Parliament. She appeared to be under the impression then that the European project was just about the free movement of Polish plumbers and Italian white goods.
I met her again a few years later, when I was deputy editor of The Northern Echo. I took a call from a big shot at the Conservative Party’s HQ in London. He asked for the editor. He’s on holiday, I said. Who are you? The deputy editor, I said. Right, he said, I’m phoning to ask if you’d like to attend a dinner in Newcastle tomorrow evening. Your host will be a VIP. I asked for the name of this VIP. He said he couldn’t tell me. Why not, I asked. Security, he said. I pointed out that The Northern Echo was a morning paper, which meant I normally had to be there at night. I couldn’t take the risk of going to a dinner in Newcastle to find the VIP wasn’t my idea of a VIP. Was it Mrs Thatcher? Couldn’t possibly tell you, old boy! I said I’d be there. This VIP, said the big shot, wanted to hear the opinions of opinion-formers in the North East. I wasn’t sure that I was an opinion-former – I didn’t have a certificate for it – but I very much doubted that hearing my opinions or those of colleagues in the region was what she wanted to do.
I was right. There were ten or 12 of us, journalists from NE newspapers, TV and radio stations. She greeted us warmly as we walked into the dining room. Haven’t I seen you before, she asked me. Yes, I worked at the Commons. Oh yes, that’s right. What brought you up here, David? Do have a drink!
My place at the table was directly opposite hers. The dinner was good – beef, lamb, something like that, and fine claret. The talk was small until we reached the coffee and chocs stage. The Government, she said, was having a problem getting its message across in the North-East. How did we think it could do better.  A little time was wasted as some of my colleagues tried to explain to her that the Government’s policies were wrecking what was left of the region’s industry. She showed no sign of being interested in the opinions of my fellow opinion-formers.
I piped up. “I don’t think, Prime Minister, that it’s our role to give you public relations advice.”
I got the glower, up close and personal.
“Well, I don’t know whose side you’re on, which party you support, but …”
“I’m not,” I interrupted, “on anyone’s side. I don’t support any party.” It was true; I didn’t.
I could have been speaking Mandarin Chinese. It was clear that I what I said was incomprehensible to her.
Much of what has been said about her this past week by her friends and foes alike has been claptrap. She was not a self-made woman. Marrying a millionaire was hardly an obstruction in the pursuit of her career goals. She was not uncaring and arrogant; she was kind and polite, unlike some on the Left – and in the middle – who claim in public to be champions of the people but who in private view them with contempt. She was not a witch. Yes, she knew her own mind, but was not greatly interested in the minds of others.
I still, after all these years, don’t support a political party, but looking back, and looking at what’s on offer these days, I give her one-and-a-half cheers. 

Footnote: Those of you familiar with the history of The Northern Echo might  know it has never had an editor by the name of David Kernek. Kernek is in fact David Flintham. This is the story in a par: He was adopted as a baby, when his surname was changed to that of his adoptive parents. In the 1990s, he traced his natural mother - a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria - and later changed his name back to Kernek. What's in a name? Everything and nothing, he says.

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