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Margaret Tebbit, R.I.P.

(BrianAJackson/Getty Images)
Margaret Tebbit’s life was a determined struggle not to surrender to her paralysis.

Thirty-six years ago, in the early morning of October 12th, 1984, an IRA bomb exploded in the Grand Hotel, Brighton, during the Tory Party annual conference. It narrowly failed to kill its principal target, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but it killed five people and it severely injured another 31. Two of the most seriously injured victims that night were Norman Tebbit, then-secretary of state for Industry and a rising star of Thatcherite Toryism, and his wife, Margaret. She suffered perhaps the worst injuries of those who survived, first suffering great pain as they waited for rescuers to dig them from out of the rubble, then feeling nothing at all, which as a former nurse she realized meant paralysis below the neck. Earlier this week Margaret (now Lady) Tebbit died after 36 years of fighting disability, determinedly wresting some mobility back from it, but finally losing the battle we all eventually lose.

Until the Brighton bomb, Margaret Tebbit had been the lively better half of a highly successful and not very typical Tory marriage. She had been a nurse, Norman Tebbit an airline pilot — one, moreover, who had led a pilots’ strike — and they were impatient activists in a generation of non-establishment Tories who were to become the infantry of Thatcherism. I had met Norman and Margaret in 1967 when they attended a course at Swinton Conservative College (where my first job was the humble role of junior tutor) for young Tory candidates judged by the party to be promising. I had been told that before, of course, but . . . as I wrote in an obituary appreciation of Tom Stuttaford (the father of NR’s Andrew Stuttaford) here:

On this occasion the three rising stars turned out to be Norman Tebbitt, Cecil Parkinson and Tom Stuttaford. The three candidates all rose together too, entering Parliament in the 1970 election. I joined them that year — in the building, at least — as correspondent for RTE and later parliamentary sketch-writer for the Telegraph. I felt I had friends at court and excellent sources too. For it was undeniable by that time that Cecil, Norman and Tom were all rising, all independent-minded, and in time all potential ministers or potential rebels.

Their wives too were completely different from the standard leftist caricature of “Tory wives,” being lively, clever, attractive, unpompous, and shrewd in the political advice they gave to their husbands. To put it in the jargon of the political professionals, they were “helpmeets without being doormats.” I can’t say that I thought a lot about this at the time. I simply liked Margaret Tebbit because she was friendly, fun, and had a slightly unusual way of seeing things that made her conversation interesting. She was the kind of woman I hoped to be seated next to at a dinner party. I was always glad to see her.

Others must have felt the same way. She was popular with ordinary Tories, her husband’s civil-service advisers, and even with other Tory wives. She managed the tricky role of a political and ministerial wife who has to combine family life with the pressures of high politics as her husband rose over the next 20 years to the highest positions (bar one) in British public life. On the day before the Brighton bomb exploded, she was by his side when his powerful speech was received with rapture by the Tory conference. He was seen as both the single best exponent of Thatcherism and as a potential successor to the prime minister. Then everything changed.

The degree of that change was not at first clear. Both Margaret and Norman spent months in the hospital. But though his injuries were serious, they were curable. He was still a minister. Civil servants ferried his “red boxes” of ministerial papers to the hospital so that he could work on them. On one occasion his Labour “shadow minister,” John Smith, later the party leader until his untimely death, asked to join the visit, and the two men spent time having an enjoyable joust about politics. He returned to the front-line of politics and was greeted with sympathy across the spectrum. The IRA’s bomb meant that partisan attacks on him wounded mainly the attacker. Mrs. Thatcher needed a political Big Beast to take charge of the Tory campaign for the oncoming 1987 election and appointed him Tory Party chairman. That meant a return to partisanship on both sides. But Norman fought fiercer battles with Downing Street than with Labour on “Wobbly Thursday” when the Tory high command panicked over bad opinion polls. And his strategy was vindicated when the Tories won their third election victory with a 100+ majority. Arriving at his victory party on the post-election morning, I took enormous pleasure in presenting him with the first edition of the Guardian whose headline read “Labour Surges as Tories Fall Back.”

Yet his career in high politics had already ended a month before when he told the prime minister that he would not be serving in her government if she won and so would not contest another election. The reason was that his wife’s injuries were a permanent condition that might be gradually alleviated but that would require constant care indefinitely. He needed to be with her both to provide that care himself and also to earn money to pay for others to give the specialist attention beyond him. According to the diary of her confidante Woodrow Wyatt, Thatcher told him:

He’ll carry the scar of that Brighton bombing all his life. I didn’t want him to go. Whenever he is away from her he can’t even attend to business properly. He’s always ringing up to find out if the nurses are looking after his wife all right.

And that was the case until this week. Margaret Tebbit’s life was a determined struggle not to surrender to her paralysis. With the help of doctors and physiotherapists — whom she praised passionately for being so tough with her that they forced her almost beyond her limits to regain some power of movement — she reached the point where, as she gleefully told the BBC program Desert Island Discs, she was able “to kick her husband.” She also refused to devote the remainder of her life to bitterness and recrimination against those terrorists who had planted the bomb. (Indeed, the Queen visiting her in hospital wondered if she shouldn’t be more angry towards them.) Avoiding false piety, on the other hand, she hoped she would forgive someone who had repented. But since the terrorist in question, Patrick Magee (now at large and making television programs) had not repented, she could hardly forgive him for something he still didn’t think wrong. She decided to make disability a cause rather than a handicap, campaigning for wheelchair access to theaters, fundraising for spinal research, and later becoming vice-chairman of the charity created to promote it. All in all, she led a full and productive life until a few years ago when she began to slip slowly out of that life and this week left it finally.

Norman did not retire entirely into private life. He’s a member of the House of Lords who takes part in its debates; he wrote a book of memoirs; his sits on company boards; he remains an occasional (acerbic and acute) columnist for the Daily Telegraph. Essentially, however, his life for the last 36 years has been devoted to assisting and, more important, living with his wife. When I last saw him at a conference where he was a speaker in Colorado, he was accompanying Margaret. They went everywhere together. And if you’re living with someone who can’t do certain household tasks, you do them yourself. So Norman learned to cook. And since he enjoys shooting, he learned to cook game birds. That led a few steps later to his writing a book on how to cook game birds. And by degrees he was leading a different life in all sorts of ways.

Yes, he had caretakers to help in helping Margaret — he thanked them all in the statement announcing her death — but his life had revolved around that task for the last 36 years.

Did he sacrifice the chance of becoming prime minister? I asked a seasoned political observer of the politics of the 1980s that question and got the reply: “One can never say that someone could have been prime minister because the variables are so many and changing. But if he had been a candidate in 1990 when Thatcher was challenged, I think it would have come down to a choice between Norman and Heseltine. And in that contest Norman would have been the favorite.” And that’s my view too.

If Norman ever asks himself if he had passed up on being prime minister, I doubt he thinks in terms of sacrifice. He enjoyed politics; he was good at the game; and he reached almost the top. He did all these things without compromising his conservatism. Indeed, he was one of the leading architects of a new and self-confident Toryism that changed his country for the better, if temporarily. But when it became clear that his wife needed from him a monopoly of loving attention that was inconsistent with the demands of high politics, he gave up those ambitions quite easily. He did what he most wanted to do which happened also to be what he should do. And I don’t think he ever regretted it.

Margaret is now gone. God rest her soul. But Norman is still with us, deprived of the task that has occupied him for half a lifetime. They both need our prayers.

Norman Tebbit in a 2015 interview. (via YouTube)

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