Memories of Margaret Thatcher: Esther Rantzen
13 May 2013 at 09:00
*This is an extract from my new book MEMORIES OF MARGARET THATCHER, which is published this week. A new extract will appear at 9am every day this week. The book contains 215 such essays by people from all walks of life who encountered the Iron Lady. You can order a signed copy of the book HERE
By Esther Rantzen
Mrs Thatcher and I are both products of the same Oxford college, Somerville. When she went there, and when I did, it was for women only, and we were taught by generations of pioneering women scholars. But I have never believed Mrs Thatcher should be judged, first woman Prime Minister though she was, as a woman. We at Somerville were encouraged to think rationally, using our minds, not our gender, and for me Mrs T thought like a scientist. She wanted to put forward policies that worked, that were successful. She felt the same about people, encouraging those who worked, and were successful. But there was one area in which it seemed to me that she thought and acted like a woman. And that was the absolute priority she placed on child protection.
I came up with the idea for ChildLine in 1986, (0800 1111, free, confidential, open 24/7) and there were plenty of people at the time who were horrified by the concept that abused children could be encouraged to ask for help themselves, on their own initiative. But Mrs Thatcher understood immediately that an anonymous helpline is the only way abused or neglected children could be helped. Child abuse, especially child sexual abuse, is a secret crime. It usually goes undetected by any helping agency. ChildLine offers abused children their one safe way to seek help, and protection.
Given the controversy around the idea, it was a thrill for the ChildLine team when very soon after our launch she hosted a reception at Number Ten for us. (There is a picture of her with some of the stars who came, Frank Bruno, David Frost, Susan Hampshire). But even more crucial than the celebrities we were able to invite were the philanthropists and the government ministers to whom we were able to describe our work. I stood in the receiving line next to the Prime Minister, pinching myself because I couldn’t believe I was in such distinguished company, as the rich, famous and powerful shook our hands. There was a momentary lull in the line of guests, and Mrs Thatcher turned to me.
“Miss Rantzen,”she said, “What are the long-term effects of child abuse?”
It was a big question, and I answered carefully. “Well, Prime Minister,” I replied, “If everything we learn as children about love, and trust, and loyalty, we learn first of all from our parents, and if instead we learn from them shame, and fear, and betrayal, it’s not surprising that abuse victims often end up with broken marriages, or in addiction units, or psychiatric hospitals, or prison.” By the time I had finished Mrs Thatcher’s famous blue eyes had glazed, and I thought, “Dammit, I’ve bored her. I’ve spent a life-time boring my family, and decades boring the viewers, now I’ve bored the Prime Minister.”
Then the guests began arriving again, and we continued shaking hands. Then Mrs Thatcher brought out on the embroidered footstool she always stood on so as to be seen and heard by everyone, and started her speech. She talked about the NSPCC (of which she was a constant supporter) and Christmas time (which was approaching) as a time to think about children, and then she said “You know, if everything we learn as children about love, and trust and loyalty we learn first of all from our parents, and if instead we learn from them shame, and fear, and betrayal…..” and she went on, word perfect, exactly as I had inadvertently briefed her. I stood next to her, with two thoughts in my head. Firstly, gratitude that I had not intended that to be my speech, because I was speaking second. And then, awe, at how brilliantly she had taken a brief, recognized information she could use, and used it, perfectly.
I spoke next, nervously reading every word, describing the suffering of the children who were ringing ChildLine. The third speaker was a survivor, who was fund-raising for us. She took my place on the footstool and looked around the grand stateroom, filled with distinguished guests. “My father,” she began, “was a Mason and a policeman, and I tell you that because I want you to understand how respected he was in our community. But nobody knew what he did to us children, once the front door had closed behind him.” And then the memories and the occasion overwhelmed her, and she broke down in tears.
She got down, and disappeared into the crowd, and I took her place on the footstool and explained that it was too late to do anything to protect yesterday’s children, like her. However, she had told me that she was determined to do everything she could to save today’s and tomorrow’s children, like her own daughters, and that was why she was raising money for ChildLine. Then I got off the footstool, and went to look for her. Someone said, “She’s in the Prime Minister’s private study.”
So I followed her, and found myself in a room with comfortable sofas, our fund-raiser sitting on one of them, and the Prime Minister bustling around filling a glass of water for her, and finding a towel for her to dry her eyes. As I arrived, Mrs Thatcher was saying “Now, my dear, you can stay here as long as you want. And cry if you want to, it’s better to let your feeling out, don’t try and bottle them up. That will only make you feel worse”. I watched, hugely impressed. Was this really the “Iron Lady”? This was an empathetic woman, instinctively saying and doing the simple, right, comforting and supportive things. I said, “Don’t worry, Prime Minister, I’ll stay here, you go back to the reception,” and when she was sure we didn’t need any more help from her, she went back to the party.
But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. On my way home with my husband, Desmond, we stopped to buy an evening paper, and there on the front page in a huge headline was the report, “Prime Minister comforts sobbing victim of abuse in Number Ten. At a ChildLine reception today…..” So her team had spotted what I had seen, the Iron Lady showing a compassionate heart, had decided to use it, and ChildLine was also given helpful publicity for our work.
So I treasured the memory of the consummate politician, who could take a brief, show instinctive compassion, with a highly professional team to support her, and use the whole event to support the work of an important new charity.
Later she came to visit our offices, and said, “You call ChildLine a helpline, I call it a life line.” And quietly, pausing in one of our corridors, she pulled out of her iconic handbag a personal cheque from her, a generous donation to ChildLine.
Towards the end of her life, Lady Thatcher attended a Women of the Year Lunch. She had been advised not to make any more public speeches, but typically she had ignored the advice, and spoke eloquently about history, and her feelings about her country. Afterwards I went up to her and said, “Lady Thatcher, I want to thank you for the wonderful support you gave ChildLine in our earliest days. We could not possibly have launched so successfully without your help.” She looked at me, and once again I have a memory of those bright blue eyes, focussed on me. “Nothing,” she said slowly, “Is more important that protecting children from abuse. Nothing.”
And I knew that came from the Iron Lady’s heart.