15 April 2013 | Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)

The official obituaries have been, as often happens, partial in both senses: sympathetic and incomplete. With regard to the divisive effect of her reign, one omission was significant and glaring: Section 28.

Lest we forget, this nasty, brutish and short measure of the third Thatcher administration, was designed to slander homosexuality, by prohibiting state schools from discussing positively gay people and our "pretended family relations". Opposition to Section 28 galvanised a new generation of activists who joined with long-time campaigners for equality. Stonewall UK was founded, to repeal Section 28 and pluck older rotten anti-gay legislation from the constitutional tree. This has taken two decades to achieve.

Pathetically, in her dotage, Baroness Thatcher was led by her supporters into the House of Lords to vote against Section 28's repeal: her final contribution to UK politics. She dies too early to oppose Parliament's inevitable acceptance of same–gender marriage.

Thatcher misjudged the future when, according to her deputy chief whip, she "threw a piece of red meat (Section 28) to her right-wing wolves". Some of these beasts survive her, albeit de-fanged. When, to take a recent example, a disgraced cardinal delivers anti-gay diatribes, the spirit of social Thatcherism is revealed as barren, hypocritical and now pointless.


Thatcher's acting was mannered and unconvincing; from her pious St Francis quotation (sneaking a prompt from the script in her hand) as she first entered Downing Street; to her scripted gags at Conference; to the ludicrous "We are a grandmother"; to dolling herself up as Elizabeth 1, in cloak and ruffled collar. After a dinner for President Mubarak, I heard her refer to "my government". I wonder what the real Queen thought about that gaffe.

Her womanliness was a weapon, we are told, in cabinet. At the end of a Downing Street reception, I was the last to leave, alone with Mr and Mrs Thatcher. In that low voice, trained to sooth, she said flirtatiously: "Mr McKellen, I like your suit. Where did you get it?" "It's Japanese, Prime Minister." She grimaced like a nanny: "Naughty, naughty!" and closed the double doors in my face.


After opening in the National Theatre's Richard 111 in Paris, I was having breakfast alone in bed, watching the television relay from London, where the cameras were fixed on the front door of Number 10, waiting for Mrs Thatcher's final exit as Prime Minister. She had been in Paris earlier that week, when the vote went against her on the first ballot. The ambassador gave the NT actors the champagne he'd had cooled for her victory party that was never held.

Now the phone rang: "This is 10 Downing Street". I thought it was a colleague having a joke but no: "The Prime Minister has been trying to reach you. She has it in mind (so the officialese goes) to recommend that the Queen give you a knighthood." Flummoxed, I asked for time to think it over. Then, just as I put down the phone, the big black shiny door opened and the Thatchers emerged, she crying a little. It was if she had kept the world waiting until she knew for sure that I'd been contacted. Of course not. But nevertheless, I suppose the very last thing Thatcher did as prime minster was to organise my knighthood. Ding dong, maybe, but thanks all the same.

Ian McKellen, Montreal, 15 April 2013

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