Sir Malcolm Rifkind became a Member of Britain’s Parliament in 1974 when Margaret Thatcher’s star was on the rise. He went on to serve in her government and in that of her successor, John Major—one of the longest uninterrupted Ministerial services in British political history. Sir Rifkind, who is now chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, spoke with TIME about his admiration for–and disagreements with–the Iron Lady.
What was your reaction to the news of Baroness Thatcher’s death?
That it’s an end of an era. I was a member of her government for the whole eleven years she was Prime Minister, so I have a lot of personal memories of her.
What are your earliest memories of Thatcher?
My first memories of her was when I entered the House of Commons in February 1974. We had just lost the election under Ted Heath, and Thatcher, who was one of his ministers, increasingly came to the fore as a candidate for leader. I was aware of her name before then, but when I saw her I thought she was one of the most forceful, energetic and dynamic front bench ministers. To everyone’s surprise she put herself forward as leader.
In the first round I voted for Heath – it was out of loyalty. I had met Heath and I hadn’t met her. But then I voted for her in the second round, I had increasingly become impressed by her sheer vigor and energy. Her opponents William Whitelaw and Geoffrey Howe were closer to me in terms of politics, but I thought she was more likely to be a successful leader and win elections. I remember a few minutes after it was announced she had won the leadership, she was crossing Westminster Hall and I offered her my congratulations–she was very excited. Forty-eight hours later she made me her junior spokesman.
Did you feel at the time that her election to Prime Minister was a watershed moment in British politics?
I thought it was extraordinary that a woman was leading a political party. In other parts of the world, Sri Lanka or India, the female leaders tended to be widows or have some kind of family connection to former leaders, so what Lady Thatcher did was really impressive.
Did your opinion change of her over the course of her leadership?
I came more from the traditional end of the Conservative party — she was more of a right-wing leader than I would have supported. By the time her first term ended however, I became persuaded that the way in which she led the party really was what the country needed. People forget now, she was far more unpopular in the first two and half years of being Prime Minister than David Cameron is today. I recall hundreds of economists writing letters to her protesting her policies. Time proved her correct.
(PHOTOS: Portait of the Iron Lady)
How did you feel she treated those who disagreed with her?
She made a distinction between those who disagreed with her but who could argue with facts and statistics. People who opposed her by suggesting something was too unpopular or difficult to attempt, she did not have time for.
The most remarkable thing about her is that you could have strong disagreements with her, including angry confrontations, and it might affect her judgment of your ability – but it didn’t have an effect on her personal judgment of you.
I was one among those who advised her it was time to step down toward the end of her leadership. She did not enjoy hearing that at all. I remember when meeting her on occasions after that feeling very awkward, but she could not be more charming. I’ve met with her numerous times since then, and there was never any reference to previous times we disagreed.
Do you think she regretted how she handled some members of her party – most notably Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation many commentators say contributed to her downfall?
I don’t know, but she treated Howe appallingly. No one understood why – he had been extremely loyal to her. They drifted apart when he became foreign secretary. By that stage she was so convinced of her rectitude. It was not so much their difference in views, what appeared to infuriate her was that Geoffrey was so utterly different in style – he rarely raised his voice. She became progressively irritated, and that led to her downfall. I don’t think [Howe's resignation] was the cause however – I think her leadership would have come to an end irrespective of that, but it was a key moment.
How will she be remembered in British politics?
Undoubtedly she was the most successful and impressive Prime Minister since the Second World War. She essentially modernized Britain to face the challenges it has today. From reducing the tax burden to home ownership – she tackled a whole range of social issues which no other Prime Minister has since then attempted.
What is her legacy in global politics?
Her single most important contribution was ending the Cold War. I was responsible for our relations with the Soviet Union at the time. It was the Soviets who called her the Iron Lady – but when they found they could do business with each other, it was she who convinced Reagan that Gorbachev wanted to initiate real change. Reagan would have been skeptical had it not been for Thatcher.
What was her greatest flaw?
Like all Prime Ministers she came to believe in herself in too unreserved a fashion. She assumed her judgments were always right. She wanted to stay in power until someone could come along to replace her, but no one was ever deemed good enough. In the U.S. Presidents are only given two terms, and you can see why, after eight or nine years most Prime Ministers are not capable of delivering much more.
What is your defining memory of her?
My lasting memory is hugely favorable, she was someone who was totally disinterested in short term popularity. She did not care about having friendly or unfriendly profiles in newspapers – though she knew you needed that to win elections – but she thought what really counted was what she had done as leader.