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Brian Monteith: On the day of her funeral, Margaret Thatcher is alive

BMBrian Monteith is a former Tory student chairman and Conservative MSP.  He is now editor of

Leadership is something, that you either have in you, or you don’t. To be a good leader of men or women, you need to have a natural empathy with those that will take your commands, and an understanding of the effort and sacrifices being asked of them, no matter how small. You need to be decisive; it instills confidence that you know what you are doing and are not just making it up as you go along - while being open to different approaches and new ideas before you come to your decision strengthens the bond with your charges.

If you have such qualities, and in many regards they can only come in life from witnessing or experiencing disappointments, from facing adversity or overcoming injustice, you will have the opportunity to inspire people to join with you and go beyond what is normally asked of anyone or might be expected of them.

Margaret Thatcher had such leadership qualities in spades, both for the nation and her parliamentary party – but also, we should never forget, for the Conservative Party.  If we take a small step back and consider for a moment those people who were young enough to be her foot soldiers at the time of, first, her leadership of the Party from 1975, and then her premiership from 1979, we can see the impact that she made and conclude that the party owes her a great debt.

I must admit, I did not take to Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) immediately. As a raw young teenager in 1975, not yet able to vote and with an underdeveloped knowledge of economics or philosophy the world was very black or white to me, or should I say blue or red. I certainly had no sense of nuance about the layers within political parties. My mixture of Scottish chippyness and bravado made me dismissive and suspicious of Margaret Thatcher, whose voice I found grating in a way that I had not when Ted Heath spoke.

What had, until then, led me to be a Conservative was my patriotism for Britain born of our nation’s history, and my revulsion at both fascism and communism which I had studied at school through the writings of Churchill. Thanks, though, to the weekend political seminars for young people held by Margaret Thatcher’s Centre for Policy Studies, I developed my political thinking, mixed with people beyond my parochial upbringing and began to admire and believe in what Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph were saying. I was hooked. And I was not alone.

For the next twelve years I was either a Conservative student hack or a rapidly ageing YC losing my hair.  The 1970s were not only a time of industrial strife, economic failure and regular national humiliation.  They were also the apogee of the hairy demonstrating student. It seemed a week rarely passed by without some student union somewhere chartering a bus to a demo here or occupying an admin building there.

To be a Tory student and speak at a union general meeting was to stand up and be counted – and Margaret Thatcher gave many of us the ideological steel and the cast-iron faith that we were in the right, and could justifiably take on the intimidating odds. That she had a developed philosophy was especially appealing to young people, who tend to enjoy politics with a passion and can see every issue as a great wrong to be righted or social injustice to be reformed.

Younger Conservatives gathered round Margaret Thatcher’s banner, and were willing to throw themselves at the political enemy. Crucially though, she appealed to everyone: there were no class barriers, no advantages for some, no discrimination in Thatcher’s battalions.  Many like me, whose parents had voted Labour all their lives, saw no difficulty, no contradiction in joining Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.

The keynote speeches of Thatcher, Joseph and Howe were supplied in pamphlet form for us young disciples to devour. Papers by MPs with articulate reasoned arguments showing the positive future of free markets and a strong defence were produced by the Conservative Political Centre, while statements from CCO press office came through my Mum’s letterbox daily.

The IEA and ASI gave us further succour and support, arming us with the intellectual weapons and creative ideas that were to form the backbone of Margaret Thatcher’s governments. It was to become common for many of us to pass through their doors and work for them.  Some, like Philip Booth, are still doing great work there.

The growing threat of the Soviet Empire that had proxy wars, coups or revolutions in nearly every continent, and the apparent self-doubt in the West’s response presented a worrying international scene, while the violent mass picketing of the Grunwick dispute and the growth of the left within the Labour Party provided a dark shadow over our own democracy.  These challenges were meat and drink to Margaret Thatcher - and her resolute support for the rule of law at home and abroad inspired young Tories put our own case and take the socialists on.

Margaret Thatcher’s party was fed and watered on what our nation’s problems were and what we were going to do about it.  But still, there was a niggling doubt, if given the honour of leading the country would she crumble under the weight of the forces against her.  Would she buckle, like Ted Heath?

Then she was elected and she never let us down.  We didn’t always agree (nor did we always agree amongst ourselves), but when the chips were down we would fall into line and fight shoulder to shoulder with her for our cause. When Kenny Everett said “Let’s bomb Russia”, we all got the joke, but behind his ad-lib was the realisation that in Margaret Thatcher we had a prime minister who could lead the country against the gravest of perils and most desparate of situations.

Membership of both the Conservative students and YCs blossomed, no longer were student groups the out-of-season ski-club or a rival marriage bureau to the Young Farmers – they were up for politics and started winning their own small battles.
Soon I was hearing the rhetorical flourish of Des Swayne in his red St Andrew’s gown, witnessing Eleanor Laing becoming the first Union President at Edinburgh university while Alex Sherbrooke (now parish priest at St Patrick’s, Soho Square) and Charles Hendry campaigned there with success too. I saw William Hague make that speech at my first Blackpool conference and John Whittingdale was never out of his leather jacket. Simon Richards, now running the Freedom Association, organised his students union to disaffiliate from NUS and around the country many more of us rose up to try the same.

Dundee pulled out, then my own gaff, Heriot Watt; there were campaigns at Durham run by Nick Gibb; others at Reading by Alan Griffiths; Leicester by Rachel Daniels, Newcastle Poly by Martin Callanan - and many, many more.  The left were on the back foot. Many of these people went on to become members of parliament, councillors or leaders in their chosen field, such as Peter Bingle. This article cannot begin to capture them all or include everyone – but they know they were there fighting Margaret Thatcher’s corner.

The greatest campaign of the time was to challenge the growth of CND and, with help from Julian Lewis and our own Mark Prisk we saw to it young people had the materials to do it. And we won that argument.

Margaret Thatcher was an inspiration to them all.

Most noticeable in this period was how the Conservative students’ membership expanded beyond the traditional Ivory Towers - and even beyond the red brick uni’s and into the polytechnics and small colleges. Although many students in small institutions might be part-time we just had to turn up with a folding table, set up our stall with “Support the cuts” posters, “Cruise on” badges and Solidarnosc tee-shirts, and people would sign up. Margaret Thatcher was often fighting another battle, be it the Falklands, a steel strike, then the miners’ strike – but these and other challenges and how she rose to them put the Great back in Britain and young people flocked to the YC and student groups. Combined membership must have been over 100,000.
Of course with such passion and devotion came great internal arguments of about what was the right approach to this question or that; there were some who openly doubted our prime minister, some who wanted a little moderation here or there and others who felt she was not going quick enough or cutting deep enough.  But these were the problems of electoral success and the opportunities that those created for us.  We all wanted the Conservatives to win, were nervous that we might lose when there was still so much to be done – and impatient to make the changes our country needed.

Chairmen of the time such as Peter Young and Tim Linacre, Marc Glendenning and Mark MacGregor carried a torch for Margaret Thatcher deep into enemy territory, a young chap called Paul Goodman and another named John Bercow took that torch all the way into the Commons. Others such as Harry Phibbs, Gary Ling and Donal Blaney came through the ranks cutting their teeth on the ideological clash with colour and impact. Iain Dale had long hair and big ideas while Jonathan Isaby and others saw their future in the media, PR and law.  Aeroflot offices would be occupied, leaflets handed out in Red Square, Afghan freedom fighters and Solidarity trade unionists address our conferences.

Being a student or young conservative under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership gave you a cause and we were happy to take the socialists on. In 1983, the 50th anniversary of the Conservative Students our work was recognised by Mrs T hosting a reception at Downing Street while every year she took the first dance at the YC ball at party conference.  She mixed, she listened, she laughed, but most of all she led us from the front.

The Conservative Party became a truly open, democratic and revitalised party under Margaret Thatcher - after having suffered two demoralising electoral defeats – she attracted many into politics that would never previously have given it a thought and she laid the foundations for future electoral success and for those outside politics professional achievement.

I am now in my fifties, an old bufty like those that used to tell me I was too brash, too pushy too rebellious – but I rejoice in the knowledge that I was fortunate to be one of Thatcher’s legionaries, and that because she had a philosophical and intellectual backbone, as well as great courage and fortitude, her work will be carried on by today’s younger conservatives and hope they will be as strident and outspoken as we were.  Trotsky was right, the revolution must and will be permanent – he just didn’t realise it would be a Conservative revolution, a Thatcherite one.


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