LONDON — With the death of Sir Denis Thatcher, a prince among supporting players ambles off the stage with a cheery wave and an understated smile. Lady Thatcher’s loyal and loving husband, who died Thursday at the age of 88 at the Lister Hospital in London after a short illness, was the reliable, strong, and steadying consort who quietly supported Britain’s most formidable postwar peacetime prime minister through crises at home and abroad from the miners’ strike to the Falklands War.
Like the duke of Edinburgh, he invariably could be found on public occasions following three paces after his wife, his hands clasped behind his back, dutifully asking sensible questions, and nodding sympathetically at the answers. Also like Prince Philip, on less public occasions, he was known for down-to-earth commonsensical opinions, a breezy contempt for political correctness, and salty barroom language. Yet unlike other prime ministerial and presidential spouses, he caused his wife not one moment’s political embarrassment in the eleven years of her premiership. And the death of this decent old-fashioned Englishman will be mourned by many outside England and the Tory party.
Denis Thatcher was born into the solid British commercial middle class — and he was extraordinarily representative of that class in his hard work, his patriotism, his devotion to duty, and his conservative political opinions. At the time of Munich in 1938, he saw the inevitability of the coming war with Hitler and joined the British army. He fought as an artillery major in the war and was mentioned in dispatches for bravery. And the Second World War was probably the single biggest influence on his political thinking — after, of course, his wife.
After demobilization he returned to the family business but, seeing the need for larger resources, he amalgamated it with Burmah Oil, embarking on a second business career and ending up as a director there.
It was in the late 40s that he met a young Tory candidate, Margaret Roberts, in his local Conservative Association and was immediately smitten. They married in 1951, and from the first he supported her ambitions for a political career both financially and emotionally. He had an unwavering faith in her political destiny. At a party in the early 60s, he told the Anglo-American political theorist, Shirley Robin Letwin, that she must meet his wife who was certain to be the first woman prime minister. That was a hope that even Lady Thatcher did not then dare cherish, telling people until the mid-70s that her highest ambition was to be the country’s first chancellor of the exchequer (or finance minister.) It was only when no suitable right-winger could be found to oppose Edward Heath in 1975 that she stepped forward and seized the Tory leadership in an astonishing upset.
Denis Thatcher’s main business career ended when he retired from Burmah Oil at almost the same time. He continued to hold directorships in Britain and abroad, in particular in America, which both the Thatchers admired for its vigorous free-enterprise business climate. But his main role thereafter was to counsel and support his wife through the vicissitudes of politics and international affairs.
Though he conducted himself with great discretion in this role, and though he never interfered in the details of policymaking, Denis exercised very considerable influence on the prime minister. In the main this influence consisted of strengthening her own will with loyal assurances that in conflicts such as the 1985 miners’ strike she was right and ultimately would prevail. In the Falklands War that support was vital. Denis Thatcher — who took a keen interest in military affairs as a veteran — helped instill in her the confidence that the war was winnable and should be fought. Lady Thatcher’s rapport then and later with the armed forces is attributable in large measure to her husband’s advice.
On other matters his influence was more colorful. He tried to keep her workaholic instincts in check. To ensure that she did not stay up too late at Tory conferences, for instance, he would suddenly appear at a party where she was holding court to an eager crowd, tap his watch meaningfully, and declare: “Margaret, time for Bedfordshire.”
If he thought that one of her speeches was going down badly with a cold and unresponsive audience, he would repair to the back of the hall and, at some appropriate moment, shout “Hear Hear” and begin clapping loudly. On more than one occasion, he turned around the audience’s reaction with these loyal interventions.
And his down-to-earthness helped to humanize the sometimes austere image and policies of the early Thatcher governments. He was known to enjoy a drink and a game of golf, he had a life outside politics as, among other things, a football referee, and he was the source of several remarks that seem destined for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations:
Asked who wore the trousers in the Thatcher household, he replied: “I do. And I wash and iron them too.”
Queried by someone at a Tory function as to whether he had a drink problem, he said: “I certainly do. I can never get enough of the stuff on occasions like this.”
And when his wife reproved him gently for ordering a gin and tonic at 11 in the morning, he answered: “My dear, it is never too early for a gin and tonic.”
Elements of the Denis Thatcher public image were fashioned not by the man himself but by the satirical portrait of him in the “Dear Bill” letters in Private Eye — supposedly letters from Downing Street from him to his golfing chum, Lord “Bill” Deedes, sometime editor and columnist of the Daily Telegraph. The portrait was in many respects monstrously unfair — depicting Sir Denis as gin-soaked old blimp rather than as the shrewd businessman he really was. But there were aspects of the fictional “Denis Thatcher” that revealed something important about the Thatcher years.
The column’s theory-cum-running-gag was that Sir Denis represented a kind of reactionary saloon-bar commonsense that saw through the ideological panacea-mongers surrounding the prime minister. Sir Denis would have denied this very firmly, but there is something in it. He could cut through the complex intellectual arguments of others to state simple but sensible truths that needed saying. And since he was the last person to speak to the prime minister at night, he carried weight. Historians may well conclude that his straightforward realism was really much more a hallmark of Thatcherism than the complex theoretical neo-liberal “projects” that have so obsessed political reporters and such impressionable imitators as Tony Blair.
Despite those early gin-and-tonics, Sir Denis lived a long, full, and healthy life. He was up and about after a major operation, going out for lunch and dinner only a few weeks ago. When the end came, it came quickly and mercifully, and his beloved wife and family were by his bedside.
It is easy to believe that, after a life of such selflessness, duty, and merriment, Sir Denis will shortly be enjoying an unusually good dry martini at some celestial 19th hole in the Sky. Lady Thatcher, however, will be hard hit by the loss of her husband of 52 years who was beside her every inch of the way except for those moments when he was three paces behind her. Our prayers should be not only for Sir Denis but also for those he has left behind.
— John O’Sullivan, currently editor-in-chief of United Press International, worked as a special adviser to Margaret Thatcher from 1986-88, and subsequently helped with the writing of her memoirs. This piece was written for UPI and is reprinted with permission.