Jonathan Aitken spent over an hour regaling the large audience in the Great Hall at Queen’s with his insights into the political career of the late Margaret Thatcher. But perhaps more interesting were his anecdotes about the family life of the Thatchers, based mainly upon his three year relationship with Carol Thatcher in the 1970s.
BBC reporter Stephen Walker guided him expertly through his 700-page book, Margaret Thatcher: Power And Personality, published by Bloomsbury Continuum. This is one of the shorter works on the former Prime Minister and is some 200 pages less than Volume One of Charles Moore’s authorised biography ‘Not for Turning’, published after her death in April.
Extracts from Aitken’s work have already been serialised in the Daily Mail and if you want some idea of the stories the former Conservative MP told in Belfast on Sunday, fresh from appearances in Ilkley and Guildford, then you can read them here and here.
From his first meeting with Margaret Thatcher when she was a junior shadow minister in the mid 1960s, during her time as leader of the Opposition when he was a close family friend, and as a Member of Parliament throughout her years in power, Aitken had a special insight into many of the public and private happenings in the life of the woman dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’.
Aitken told the festival audience that in her heart Mrs T was a unionist but her head told her that a political arrangement over Ireland was worth pursuing and this led to the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in November 1985. Just a few months after surviving the IRA Brighton bomb during the Conservative party conference in October 1984, she set up a back channel for contacts with the Sinn Féin leadership. Central to reaching the Agreement was the relationship between Robert Armstrong, her Cabinet Secretary and his Irish counterpart Dermot Nally.
From his unique vantage point, Aitken shed new light on many crucial episodes of Thatcherism, including her ousting of Ted Heath, her battles with her Cabinet, the Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, and the build up to the plotting within the Conservative Party that brought about her downfall. In this biography, Aitken has used material from his own diaries and a wealth of extensive research including ninety interviews with statesmen like Mikhail Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger and Lord Carrington to many of her No.10 private secretaries and personal friends. His book conveys a fascinating portrait of the most influential political leader of post-war Britain, who was liked by many but also loathed especially by republicans in Northern Ireland because of her stance over the hunger strikers.
Aitken has written a dozen books. In 1997 he lost his Parliamentary seat. Then he faced a charge of perjury and perverting the course of justice, and in 1999 was jailed for 18 months. He tells an interesting story about the time he left prison and soon afterwards received a welcome invitation to join Denis Thatcher for lunch at his London club.
Looking at Aitken’s own life story is also interesting. He was born in Dublin and Taoiseach Éamonn de Valera attended his christening in 1942. Aged four, he was admitted to Cappagh hospital for treatment for tuberculosis and spent a few years there in the care of the nuns as an in-patient until the age of seven when he was able to rejoin his parents in England (Wikipedia).
One of Jonathan’s twin daughters, Victoria, flew over from London to hear his talk and this was her first visit to Belfast. I hope she got to see Wish, the new face of the city, created specially for the festival, as she departed from the City airport.