Margaret Thatcher’s revealing response to John Humphrys during the 1987 election
Amidst all of the anecdotes about Thatcher we’ve heard today, I have one of my own.
I interviewed Radio 4′s John Humphrys in October 2004 where he described the experience of speaking to then PM Margaret Thatcher on the Today programme during the 1987 election campaign:
You have said on a number of occasions that your first interview with Margaret Thatcher was your most forbidding, difficult interview. What precisely about the interview was so difficult?
She was at the height of her powers, worshipped by her followers, feared by her opponents and she routinely ate interviewers for breakfast. She had come into the Today studio (prime ministers don’t do that any more; we have to go to them) for what was to be one of her last interviews before a general election.
I cannot tell you how soul-destroying it can be to interview a party leader at the end of the campaign. There is no question they have not been asked during the campaign, no answer they have not honed to repetitive perfection.
So I thought I would be clever. I had heard her being asked, some days earlier, about her faith. She is a church-going Christian. So I wondered how a tough, cynical, battle-hardened politician defined Christianity.
Instead of asking her a routine question about how she could defend policies that had contributed to unemployment of more than three million would it not be very clever to start the interview by asking her to define her own version of Christianity. I hoped, and believed, that she would be greatly surprised and mumble something about morality or love.
Then I could pounce. “Ah! You talk of love and you condemn millions to a life on the dole!” or something similar. You can see how naive I was. In my dreams she would sob and beg forgiveness and I would be hailed as the great interviewer who had brought the iron lady to her knees. It did not work out quite like that.
I confess I was nervous – she had that effect on all of us – but I knew that I was on to a winner here and I delivered my brilliant sucker punch with great panache.
“Prime Minister, what is the essence of Christianity?”
She did not miss a beat. Her eyes, hooded at the best of times, may have narrowed a fraction of a millimetre but the answer came out like a bullet.
There are occasions as an interviewer when you pray that a great thunderbolt will strike the power supply that serves your studio and you will be wiped off the air… possibly even off the face of the earth.
Or at the very least that something will happen to give you a few seconds to regroup your devastated forces and launch a counter-attack. This was one of those occasions but, sadly, there was no divine intervention.
I gulped, tried to imagine what on earth she was getting at, and failed. The interview was indeed a triumph… for her. Thirty seconds too late I had realised exactly what she meant and, dammit, she was right.
The whole point of Christianity is that you have a choice between doing good and doing evil. If you end up in heaven, that’s because you made the right choice; if you end up in hell, it’s your own damn fault.
So it was sound theologically and, from her point of view, just as sound politically. I resolved not to try to be too clever next time.
When your beliefs are underpinned by a strong moral philosophy your political positions become simultaneously harder to deviate from and easier to defend.
Thatcher: the grocer’s daughter with a brilliant philosophical touch.