Somewhat unfairly, I think, the term ‘Big Man’ politics has come to be more associated with African political leaders than those from elsewhere. Why also refer only to ‘big man’ politics? Although fewer in number there have been, are still, ‘big’ woman politicians. Currently one might think of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. From the past certainly Indira Gandhi the former prime minister of India would qualify. And then, of course, there was Margaret Thatcher.
As an itinerant communications advisor who has worked in 22 countries last I counted, I have met quite a few of these ‘big’ men and women.
Former president Daniel arap Moi I met momentarily when at a funeral I turned to find I was looking up at Moi (tall, isn’t he). I slightly bowed my head and said “Your Excellency”. He raised an eyebrow. No other words were spoken.
Many words were spoken however, when I met with former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings in Accra during which he stormed at me for about three hours fifty minutes during a four hour meeting. A stocky, broad shouldered, muscular man who thundered out his words with increasing volume as the meetingprogressed, Rawlings often stood up from his chair to emphasise a point, each time he did so moving closer and closer to me. At one point Rawlings professed himself a lover of boxing and wrestling by which time he was centimeters from my face and looking me straight in the eye. I nervously held his gaze and then said, “I will keep that in mind Your Excellency”. He stared at me for what seemed an age and then his mouth gave the merest hint of a smile. He made the slightest of nods, returned to his seat and did not get up again.
The very aged President Hastings Banda didn’t really know I was in the room when I formally shook his hand but his Vice-President, Gwanda Chakuamba, was charming and would sit into the early hours of the morning discussing politics in Malawi. Ghana’s President John Atta Mills was friendly, kind and probably too nice to be in politics. The British Prime Minister from the 1990s, John Major, was outwardly very pleasant but was thin-skinned, bore grudges and indecisive; and I swear the Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie, of just about any man I have ever met, can charm the birds out of the trees.
‘MAGGIE’ UP CLOSE
Former dictator and President of Ghana Jerry Rawlings – loved boxing and wrestling
Then, as I say, there was Margaret Thatcher.
The first I saw of Margaret Thatcher close up she was silhouetted against a window, her mouth agape, with three men looking at her teeth.
At the time I was the most minor of Conservative Party apparatchiks, a trainee field agent in Mrs Thatcher’s north London constituency of Finchley, a training which on this day consisted of sitting in an ante chamber with a tray of tea, coffee and biscuits awaiting the order to deliver the same into the office where Margaret Thatcher was meeting her constituents.
In the same waiting room were three local dentists who wanted to protest at the introduction of dental charges. As I listened to their conversation it was clear they were furious and that they fully intended to say so to their MP and Prime Minister.
The three dentists were called through. A short while later I was told to bring in the tray. There was Mrs Thatcher with the three dentists peering into her mouth. “I had this one filled recently”, she was saying in a somewhat muffled fashion with her finger pointing to a tooth. “Oh yes, I see”, said one of the dentists as the other two looked on. They may have been looking into her mouth but Margaret Thatcher had the three of them in the palm of her hand.
As the Prime Minister was leaving via a back door, a body guard at her side holding an umbrella and men in uniform nearby carrying automatic weapons, she noticed road workmen in dirty overalls standing in the drizzle nearby, one leaning on a pneumatic drill. “Did you stop work for me? How kind”, she said and without waiting for an answer she hobbled across the broken tarmac in her high heeled shoes, stepped over a trench and approached the bemused workmen.
Aged President Banda of Malawi
“I am sorry to hold you up. I had a meeting with some of my constituents”, I could hear her saying as the security guys rushed around trying to get into position to cope with the unexpected change in plan. Can you imagine what the workmen had to say when they got back to the depot later that day?
IF YOU WANT A JOB DOING…
A few years later I had to take a delegation of 20 young party activists to meet with the Prime Minister in a committee room in the House of Commons. In swept Margaret Thatcher with a quite loud “Good morning” and then looked up at the windows, which were closed. “John”, she said to her Political Secretary John Whittingdale, “why are these windows closed? It’s very stuffy in her”.
“They won’t open Prime Minister”, Whittingdale responded.
“Nonsense”, said Thatcher, whereupon she took off her stilettos, hauled herself up onto a Victorian cast iron radiator, pulled mightily at a string and a window flew open.
“There, I told you, now let’s get the rest of them open”, said Mrs Thatcher as she climbed down from the radiator, slipped on her shoes and proceeded to the head of the table with a “Hello” to the awaiting youngsters who couldn’t believe what they had just seen.
When the meeting had finished an official photographer was on hand to record the event but the room was somewhat small and at first not everyone could fit into the shot. The photographer looked hesitant but not Margaret Thatcher. Off came her shoes again. She motioned to me. I got my shoulder under one end of a sofa that was in the way and at the other end was ‘The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’. “There”, she said, “now there’s plenty of room if we all just squeeze in a bit”.
A REAL PROFESSIONAL
Margaret Thatcher – The ‘”biggest ‘big man’ I have ever met in politics”
There is what I believe to be largely a myth about Margaret Thatcher that you couldn’t argue with her, or give any advice. You could but you really had to know your subject and you couldn’t give her any bull. If you kept that in mind she was very easy to work with for in addition to being a ‘conviction politician’ she was a real professional.
Organising a party for 750 youth activists at which the Prime Minister to was to make an appearance, I met with Mrs Thatcher and an aide. I told her where she was to enter the room; that she was to be escorted on to the stage; that the chairman of the youth organisation would make a short speech; she would then respond; then descend to the dance floor, dance around the room three times partnered by the young man passed the assembled cameramen; return to the stage; wave to the crowd, say a few more words and leave.
“What do you think I should say?” she asked.
“Well, with the Berlin Wall having just fallen, I thought you might like to quote the poet Wordsworth”, I responded and read my suggested quotation.
The Prime Minister made a note on a pad but said nothing and gave no indication that she agreed. Later that evening however, she arrived on time at the party, carried out the suggested plan to the letter and on returning to the stage exclaimed: “Fellow young Conservatives. With the momentous events going on in the former eastern bloc I am minded of the words of the great poet William Wordsworth, ‘Bliss was it on that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven’”. The young partygoers went wild.
Margaret Thatcher, one of the most significant political figures of the 20thCentury, was laid to rest in London yesterday. Today I will sign the book of condolences that has been opened at the British High Commission in Nairobi, without the shadow of doubt in my mind as I do so that the biggest ‘big man’ I have ever met in politics was a woman called Margaret Thatcher.
(An edited version of this article was published in The Daily Nation on Thursday, April 18, 2013 under the title ‘As far as ‘big men’ of politics go, Margaret Thatcher belonged right up there with them’. The author Martin Minns is a Communications Consultant based in Nairobi – email@example.com)