My sister phoned me during lunch and I told her (nicely) that I was at that moment listening to the news of the death of Baroness Thatcher on Radio 4. I followed this up by saying I would go to London for her state funeral. You really think that highly of her, do you? responded my sister cautiously, and then reeled off a list of Lady Thatchers failings when in office: selling off the council houses, the notorious quote (taken out of context, of course) about society, not being keen to promote other women to high office and so on. Yes, she had flaws, I agreed, but she was still a great woman and today is an historic occasion. Why was she great? asked my socialist-leaning sister. Because she had the courage to stand up against Communism, I answered immediately. This thought hadnt occurred to her.
A great deal of ink will be spilt in the press during this next week or so, concerning Baroness Thatchers legacy. For me, whatever the rights and wrongs of her domestic policies and Lord Bell, her longstanding friend and colleague stated today on Radio 4 that he thought she would come to be seen as the greatest prime minister of the 20th century, leaving aside Churchills unique wartime achievement it is Thatchers passionate conviction, alongside Ronald Reagan, to whom she gave her unequivocal support, that Communism was an evil system and should be challenged, that is her finest hour.
It was this brave stand that brings Thatcher into the remarkable triumvirate whose other members were Reagan and the late John Paul II: remarkable because, as the daughter of a Grantham Methodist who had grown up with Sundays being dominated by chapel-going, it is unlikely that the head of the Catholic Church would have otherwise crossed her radar. Yet despite their differences in birth, religion and nationality, John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher instinctively spoke a common language on this subject. Karol Wojtyla, like the British prime minister, was a patriot; he loved his country and knew at first-hand how Polands fledgling democracy, culture and ancient religious traditions had been destroyed, first by the Nazis and then for long decades by Russia.
Margaret Thatcher had learnt her own political convictions from her father: patriotism, self-reliance, hard work, aspiration and the right of the people to participate in the democratic process of government. The idea that the state should dominate and control the lives of its citizens, bringing about the corruption of politics and the moral degradation of the populace, was deeply abhorrent to her. When she met Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet First Secretary at Chequers in December 1984, and declared in her somewhat regal fashion, I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together, she meant, if she did not spell it out to him at the time, that business did not simply mean discussion about defence or economic policies; it meant revealing her own profound reservations about the system Gorbachev represented.
Those on the Left who still probably regard Thatcher as a hate-figure, have either forgotten the history of the Cold War or possibly never understood that Communism meant the virtual enslavement of millions of people in the East European countries, who loathed its ideology as much as Margaret Thatcher herself. It is simply not possible to imagine Thatcher visiting Russia in the 1930s, like certain Left-wing useful idiots from Britain, and being taken in by Stalins propaganda machine. Ordinary East Europeans took a different view of her to her critics in this country. For them she symbolised opposition to Communism; indeed she was given a tumultuous welcome by the shipyard workers in Gdansk when she visited them. She wept at the sight. The shipyard workers would have been puzzled to learn of the refusal of Oxford University, her old alma mater and one of the most prestigious universities in the world, to give her an honorary degree.
The wife of an Oxford history professor once described Baroness Thatcher to me as evil. Another baroness, Dame Mary Warnock, once Mistress of my old Cambridge college, once described her in a shameful phrase (which she probably now regrets) as not vulgar, just low. What planet do these people live on?
Great statesmen have their flaws and blind spots; Churchill had them and so did Lady Thatcher, who died today. History will sift and debate these forever. Meanwhile I salute the memory of a woman of great courage and stature, someone who, in her own very English fashion and enunciated in her carefully controlled delivery, joined in an historic alliance with the head of the Catholic Church and the President of the United States to defend civilization.
Be not afraid! were Pope John Pauls first words on the balcony of St Peters on his election as Pope in October 1978. Margaret Thatcher would have understood what he meant.