For the Biteback Book Festival, we were lucky enough to chat with Margaret Thatcher's only female private secretary, and author of our book People Like Us, Caroline Slocock. Though the interview initially took place on Twitter, we're publishing a slightly-edited version here for you to enjoy...
Welcome Caroline! What was it like being the only female private secretary to work for Margaret Thatcher?
I was the first woman Private Secretary at No. 10. Women were unusual – I was the only other one in the Cabinet Room when Mrs Thatcher resigned. We both knew you had to work harder than a man to be accepted but I also knew she‘d ruled out women in my role, before. She preferred men. I was an outsider and I didn’t share her politics, but I was in her inner circle of five.
I was fascinated by her and as a woman saw things most men didn’t. For example, I saw her insecurity: her challenging behaviour toward her ministers was a response to her feeling undermined, I thought. I saw her cry in front of her Cabinet when she resigned. Having seen events over the previous eighteen months, I thought she was right to go, but as a woman I also understood why she felt angry at and betrayed by her colleagues.
What made you want to become a civil servant?
It wasn’t my first choice. I wanted to become an academic (and a novelist), but the jobs in English departments dried up due to Thatcher’s cuts of arts departments. My PhD supervisor suggested the fast stream civil servant after I’d been unemployed for a year. I applied to the civil service because I thought good administration, whatever the government, was important. I believed as I still do that civil servants should serve the government the people elect, faithfully and well. Bad policies become even worse, if executed badly.
How did you get the job as private secretary?
I slipped through the net. Permanent Secretaries were told not to put forward women as Mrs Thatcher did not want them. But mine refused to go along and the new No. 10 Principal Private Secretary did not know about the edict. He put me in a short list of one, and she interviewed me. The interview was one-to-one, and I was terrified because I couldn’t stand her image or her politics and knew her views on women. She brought blue hyacinths from her flat – ‘I thought you’d like them, Caroline’ – placed them between us, listened and then accepted me. We clicked.
Was she very different in person to the way in which she has been remembered in the media?
She was far more feminine than media images suggest- for example, than the Spitting Image puppet in a man’s suit. Misogyny and stereotypes play a part in this. Across history powerful women have been portrayed as men, and dangerous too. There are good reasons for hating her but these don’t justify the effigies of her as a witch which were burnt at her death. We still see this misogyny today, for instance, with the “Kill the Bitch’ chants against Hilary Clinton at Trump rallies, with T-shirts showing her as Medusa’s severed head.
What’s your favourite memory of working for Margaret Thatcher?
I was at her side during trips and it was good to see her more relaxed. We visited the Rovers Return in Coronation Street and she was offered a drink by Bet Lynch. With the bouffant hair and the big personalities, they were oddly similar! They were both acting, in a way.
It's tempting to think of the big things - that final Cabinet - but tiny things capture her too. Once she spotted that the hem of my skirt was coming down and offered to take me up to the flat to hem it up for me. I refused and said I'd use sellotape instead. Shame, really.
How do think she would have handled this crisis?
She would have been thinking ahead more, and been more across the detail than Johnson, challenging scientists and her own Ministers and coordinating everything. She was a scientist, and would have mastered the science, not let experts completely master her. And I think she would have taken a global leadership role like she did (well ahead of her time) on global warming, going to the UN to seek international action to tackle it. I believe that she'd also be convening world leaders.
What did you move onto after she resigned?
I went to the Treasury, and eventually left the civil service to become CEO of the Equal Opportunity Commission, where we tackled the discrimination women face at work and the systemic barriers they face. It was a fantastic, important job – and it also helped me write this book.
How do you think politics has changed since Thatcher’s era?
No. 10 has far more power now and that’s not a good thing. It’s trying to do too much from the centre, it’s been trying to control the media (for example, not putting up Ministers until recently to the Today programme), and even prorogued Parliament when it got in the way. It’s vital politicians are challenged and scrutinised, it’s bad for government when unaccountable and unelected advisers in No. 10 gain too much power. This caused Thatcher’s Chancellor to resign (and ultimately her) and more recently Johnson lost his.
Power corrupts. Command and control models, which were intensified under Blair and Brown, don’t work well: you just can’t do everything from the centre. Communities are being far more effective in the crisis than the government in getting practical help to where it’s needed, for example.
Do you think that today’s female politicians still struggle to make their voices heard?
Definitely. Recently, Sarah Wollaston complained that women were still being ridiculed in Parliament for their high pitched voices, something that happened to Thatcher. It's a sign that women are still struggling to be heard in what is remains a world dominated by male voices.