Margaret Thatcher - the Blackpool years down to a T

Prime Minister in the making, Margaret Thatcher at the 92nd Conservative Conference- held in 1975  at Blackpool Winter Gardens
Prime Minister in the making, Margaret Thatcher at the 92nd Conservative Conference- held in 1975 at Blackpool Winter Gardens
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Margaret Thatcher once declared there was nothing she liked more than to be “made a fuss of by a lot of chaps”. She got that chance aplenty here.

During her 11-and-a-half years as Prime Minister, rather than Baroness, Mrs Thatcher visited the Fylde coast 15 times, mainly for party conferences or election campaigns.

Visit The Gazette archives and the images tumble out... Mrs Thatcher with a birthday cake presented by then Imperial general manager John Herdman.

Mrs T enjoying a dance with former Blackpool mayor Tony Battersby.

Former South Fylde MP Edward Gardner escorting the Iron Lady round the Warton airbase shortly after becoming Tory leader in 1975.

Hordes of Tory faithful proclaiming “Maggie In” at the Winter Gardens.

And Mrs T, in 1977, with her young protégé, a mop-topped William Hague, at her side, the 16-year-old schoolboy’s enigmatic smile hinting he would quite like to follow in her footsteps, having called upon the conference to cut taxes and curb the powers of the unions.

A chip off the old block indeed. But not quite as pre-packaged for Coalition consumption as David Cameron.

Few would disagree that the late Margaret Hilda Thatcher wrought massive changes in life here as elsewhere in Britain.

Where people divide is whether those changes were for good or ill.

She remains the only British female Prime Minister .

Our own archives often reveal the woman behind the politician – along with the way reporting has changed too ... one reporter choosing to discuss hemlines and hair-dos rather than grittier issues of the day.

There’s a smile of sheer delight on the face of a young girl clasped in a real embrace by Maggie on a visit to a Fylde school “for the handicapped”, as the caption of the day described it.

Blackpool was the first resort to host the Conservative Party Conference after the bombing of Brighton’s conference centre by the IRA.

It reinvented security in the aftermath of the explosion which injured, among others, Wyre MP Sir Walter Clegg, images of his bloodied face hitting front pages across the world.

When the Tories next checked into town, a ring of steel had been cast around the conference centre.

Once described as a “tigress surrounded by hamsters” Blackpool saw her fighting spirit when she stayed, as ever, in the Imperial Hotel, defying the threat of terrorist attack.

Former Fylde MP Michael Jack reminded locals that this was a leader who had already lost a very good friend, Airey Neave, to terrorism five years before Brighton.

“So she was not immune or detached,” he explained.

“ In Brighton the IRA came so near to taking out a vast number of the Cabinet but there was never any fear she would be bullied by terrorism and not go on.”

Blackpool was home from home , her suite, generally at the Imperial, had her favourite whisky waiting, and other creature comforts associated with this most political of animals who barely slept.

Like her protege, Hague, Mrs Thatcher made her political debut here, back on the fringe back in 1968. Her theme was “what’s wrong with politics?”

In 1972, as fast rising education minister, even under Edward Heath’s premiership, Margaret Thatcher arrived in town for a birthday lunch at Blackpool College of Technology and Art, which she had visited for the first time in 1970.

A celebratory cocktail was prepared by second-year catering students. The ‘Birthday Honours’ consisted of gin, apricot brandy, fresh lemon juice and egg white.

She was back in Blackpool the following year to give the 26th memorial lecture at Blackpool Collegiate Grammar School, now the subject of a controversial merger with Bispham High School.

She was not only the first education secretary to give the lecture, but the first woman to do so.

Titling her talk, Frontier of Freedom, Mrs Thatcher said she was 12 years old at the outbreak of the Second World War and never doubted Britain would win. She forecast the elimination of poverty – and later tucked into souffle Marguerite (in her honour).

Two years later she became leader of the Conservatives, and was snubbed by the ousted Ted Heath on arrival at the conference in Blackpool.

Heath walked to his seat on the platform without pausing to greet her .

There was none of the brittle warmth shown in earlier conference pictures.

The woman who died at the Ritz Hotel this week at the age of 87 , told The Gazette in February 1975: “Life at the top is short, you might as well go all out for it.”

She also told our reporter of her love for decorating. “There are times when I run out of inspiration, while I’m trying to make up a speech. I often regain it with a paintbrush in my hand.”

Our reporter forecast: “For Mrs Thatcher, wife, mother and politician, life at the political top looks like lasting.” And it did for the woman who became PM four years later in 1979 remained in the top until 1990.

In 1975, she visited Warton as she would in the 80s. In 1979, she met another woman in a million, local cancer campaigner (and former Gazette journalist), the late Pat Seed.

In October, 1980, a dazzled local journalist gushed Mrs T was “prettier, smaller and sexier than you have imagined: golden girl Maggie positively glows with sex appeal.”

They talked of marriage, motherhood, making time to take up a hemline –and getting by on one hairdo a week.

The 1983 post-election and Falklands conference saw one of her most distressing weeks when Cabinet confidant Cecil Parkinson resigned over his affair with his secretary Sarah Keays. The drama was played out in Blackpool.

The Brighton bomb the following year transformed conferences, and in 1985, 1987 and 1989 Blackpool was Fortress Fylde – Conservatives chanting “10 more years” when Mrs Thatcher addressed the faithful a decade since sweeping into No 10.

Then came Poll Tax – hailed by Thatcher as “the flagship of the Thatcherite fleet.”

With many Tories in revolt there was disorder, including in the North West. The die was cast for Mrs T’s downfall with the Trafalgar Square riots of March 1990. She was out of office by the end of November.

Michael Heseltine, Blackpool conference darling, announced his challenge for the leadership. But the victory went to the milder-mannered John Major. Mrs Thatcher resigned as PM on November 29.

Locally, critics celebrated, claiming she had crushed the unions, turned the public against police in the miners’ strike, given us poll tax, and devastated the economy; the recession of the early-1980s, sky-high interest and unemployment having been compounded by decisions such as the ending of the Fylde’s assisted area status.

Others said in devolving powers to the regions she boosted local civil service ranks. She also supported British Nuclear Fuels’ Springfield plant when under environmental siege.

More council tenants owned homes on Grange Park and Mereside.

The battle over Blackpool Sixth Form College’s opt-out plans highlighted the drive by former education minister Kenneth Baker, under orders from Mrs T, to break the grip of councils on education.The freeing-up of the financial services market was said to benefit firms like Guardian Royal Exchange, at Lytham, ahead of the single European market – although she dismissed a “united states of Europe” as a fantasy.

Michael Jack, who took a cut-out of her on the road for his own Fylde election campaign, highlighted her personal intervention with the Saudi Arabian monarchy to secure the multi-billion agreement under which British Aerospace supplied Tornados to the kingdom, sustaining thousands of jobs at the Warton division.

The rest is history...

* jacqui.morley@blackpoolgazette.co.uk

tweet her @jacquimorley