Derek Phillips gave Margaret Thatcher one of her first breaks in politics. As a member of the selection committee in the North London area of Finchley, where the young, ambitious politician was, in 1958, trying to launch her career in the British Parliament, Phillips decided that he liked what he heard from the 33-year-old research chemist and lawyer. He voted with the majority on the committee to select her as the party’s local candidate. By a narrow margin Thatcher won election to Parliament at the 1959 general election, and so began the most storied career in British government since Winston Churchill’s retirement in 1955. Since 1958 Thatcher had been a regular and beloved presence at Finchley & Golders Green Conservative Association (known as Finchley Conservatives), even after her own retirement as a Member of Parliament in 1992, returning often to meet with supporters. But when the news broke of her death, at the age of 87, Monday afternoon, there were no tears shed by Phillips or anyone else at the Finchley Conservatives, where he is a volunteer campaigner. Weakness was not the Thatcher way. “No, no, no,” says Phillips, 80. “She wouldn’t have wanted us to be doing that. We’re all obviously very moved and upset about it. But we’re carrying on, as would be wanted. The main thing is, if she was suffering then we wouldn’t have wanted that to go on.”
Finchley Conservatives’ office was the ground zero of support for Thatcher throughout the former Prime Minister’s time in office — and reminders of its place in British political history remain to this day. The building that houses the offices is now called Margaret Thatcher House, and the meeting room, where a huge portrait of her hangs, is called the Margaret Thatcher Room. Shortly after the news broke of Baroness Thatcher’s death, a handful of the party faithful began to gather at Margaret Thatcher House. “People are just beginning to take in the news, I assume,” says Phillips, a retired political activist who is still a member of Finchley Conservatives. “She was just a fantastic lady. Just fantastic. A wonderful Member of Parliament, and still carried on to be so when she became Prime Minister. One wondered how she would cope with the constituency when she became Prime Minister — it didn’t affect it. She looked after the constituency fantastically. She was here for her surgeries [meetings with constituents] on a very regular basis. She attended the main social events as well. Never let us down. She was extremely important to the people of Finchley.”
Thatcher was no fan of feminism, in spite of being Britain’s first and so far only female Prime Minister, but she nevertheless was an inspiration to women in the male-dominated world of British politics — including in her own constituency.
Marina Yannakoudakis was elected as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for London in June 2009, and is based at Margaret Thatcher House. Thatcher, she says, helped her overcome the anxiety she felt about joining the male-dominated world of European politics. “When I was standing as an MEP, I asked her advice, and I said, ‘How do you cope with going into a space where you have a lot of European men?’ And she said to me, ‘Marina, you just go in there and tell them how it’s done,’ in that deep voice she had that was incredible. And I’ve found that’s worked very well for me.”
If Thatcher came over sometimes as intimidating in her sense of certainty, Yannakoudakis also remembers a politician with a personal touch. “Everyone’s devastated here,” she says. “But it’s more than that, it’s almost like the soul has been hit, in many ways. She was a great champion of Conservative principles, down-to-earth principles. And a great supporter of her Association, she never forgot her Association. I come across people all the time, people who worked with and people who knew her, through Association events, and they always say she knew peoples’ names, she knew their children. If they’d been through something, she’d ask about it.”
How would Yannakoudakis respond to those less enthusiastic about the work done by Thatcher — a highly divisive figure whose economic reforms often provoked intense hostility? “I’d like to remind them of what the U.K. was going through at the time,” she says. “The three-day week, the strikes and people not knowing from one day to the next where they stood. And you needed someone to be strong and take a strong lead, and that was what she did. The strength of the woman can never be underestimated, and has to be respected.”
Finchley Conservatives will set up their condolence book soon, says Yannakoudakis. “We’ll probably have an exhibition of memorabilia. We’ve obviously got a massive library of pictures here. At this stage it’s probably a bit early to know what we’ll be arranging. But her legacy will live on,” she says.
Jill Summers, chairwoman of Finchley Conservatives, agrees that Thatcher’s influence continues to be felt at the Finchley office. “She’s a huge part of the spirit of this place, and the people who are here at the moment,” she says. “She was a very caring person, beneath this very tough political exterior, a very soft center.”