Margaret Thatcher was always at ease with our community, the Jewish community. She told me once that she was proud of the way, in the late thirties, her family gave a home to a 17 year-old Austrian Jewish girl and that it opened her eyes at an early age to injustice and prejudice. They became friends and created a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
I did not actually meet Margaret Thatcher until a British ORT lunch in the late 1970s. I had been the Chairman for some years and we would have a fundraising lunch once a year where we would invite a leading businessman or politician and, as Margaret had created a great deal of interest as the first woman to head a major political party in the UK, we invited her. We sat together and I found to my surprise she knew all about ORT and the work we did and took a keen interest. When she spoke she was unlike any other politician of the day - clear, decisive, with a belief in liberty and the small state that certainly struck a chord with her audience - but few thought she would be elected. Less than a year later, in 1979, she became Britain's first woman Prime Minister.
I started working for Keith Joseph – then Secretary of State for Industry - after the 1979 elections, but I met the Prime Minister only occasionally, until two years later I went to the Manpower Services Commission (the U.K.'s principal employment and training agency), and thereafter I would see much more of her. Traditionally, the Jewish community in the U.K. had supported the Labour party (as did I at one time), but that had changed: Labour moved left (and became anti-Israel), and the pro-enterprise policies of Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher captured the Conservative Party and a large part of our community. Margaret was the Member of Parliament for Finchley, where she had much to do with the large Jewish community there, so I was not too surprised to find that the first time we were invited to Chequers, the country home of British prime ministers, we were served food sensitive to the principles of kosher eating. Although I am not religious, whenever Margaret had anything to do with it, I knew thereafter that tradition would continue.
I entered the Cabinet in September 1984. In those days the Cabinet always met on a Thursday morning, and I found that my second meeting coincided with Rosh Hashanah. Although I am not particularly religious, I had never worked on our New Year and I did not want to offend our community by attending then, so I asked my office to give my apologies. The reply was immediate. There could be no excuse for not attending Cabinet unless you were overseas on a government business or you were ill. Go back, I said, and actually ask the PM. They did and she agreed to my non-attendance immediately.
There is no doubt that she had an affinity for members of our community. It was nothing to do with our religion, rather more to do with empathy for the usual first or second-generation immigrants' drive to better themselves. She liked self-starters, people who would do more than they were asked, and particularly those who were in any way entrepreneurial. I believe that this came from her upbringing, for her father was a small businessman who spent time on civic duties and gave her a thirst for education; Margaret was both a chemist and a barrister and had a strong desire for public service. Above all she came from a home where business was discussed at the dinner table, where hard work and enterprise were taken for granted.
The Cabinet I joined, back in the mid-eighties, was different from any before: There were, at one time or another, five Jewish ministers, nearly a quarter of the total, although not all were practicing. But this did show how public life in the U.K. had changed during the eighties. It was the decade when you first saw people wearing a yarmulke working in blue-blooded banks in the City, and the first of the public lightings of Chanukah candles. Today, each year there is a menorah lighting ceremony in the Speakers House in the Commons, in No. 10 Downing Street and even at the end of Park Lane in London and many more.
All this cannot be to the credit of Margaret alone, but these positive feelings towards the Jewish community were reinforced by the fact that she was the first U.K. prime minister to be open to Israel and the first to have paid an official visit. I remember many years later, when we were sitting reminiscing with her and her husband Denis, I asked her which was her most memorable overseas visit. “Israel,” she replied instantly, “it was, Denis, wasn’t it?” She said that the crowds had been more enthusiastic, more fervent, than anywhere else. “I will never forget”, she said, “the opening of the ORT Ronson school in Ashkelon. At one time I thought that we were going to be mobbed.”
It is too much of a simplification to say that the U.K.'s Jews all became Thatcherites or were converted to her political beliefs. It was her spirit of self-reliance, of support for the underdog, of not giving up when times were hard, that struck a chord with our community and with Israelis. There have not been many like her.
David Young, Lord Young of Graffham, was a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinets from 1984-1989 as Secretary of State for Employment and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He has served as Executive Chairman of Cable and Wireless, President of the U.K.'s Institute of Directors and as the first President of Jewish Care, one of the U.K. Jewish community's largest health and social care organizations.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now