The champion of free enterprise

By David Young, January 5, 2012
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Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady

I first met Margaret Thatcher at a British ORT lunch in the late '70s. As I was the chairman, we sat together and I discovered she knew about, and took a keen interest in ORT. When she spoke, she certainly struck a chord with her audience.

I started working for [Sir] Keith Joseph after the election, but she and I met only occasionally until I went to the Manpower Services Commission, and thereafter I saw much more of her.

Jews had not been numerous in the Conservative Party: traditionally our community had been Labour (as was I), but that had changed as Labour moved left and the pro-enterprise policies of Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher captured the Conservatives.

There is no doubt that she had an affinity for our community. It was nothing to do with our religion, rather more to do with empathy for the usual first or second-generation immigrants' drive to better themselves.

She liked self-starters, people who would do more than they were asked and particularly those who were in any way entrepreneurial.

The Cabinet I joined, back in the mid-'80s, was different from any before or since. Of the 21 of us, no less than 11 had started their own business. Secondly, at one time or another, there were five Jews, although not all were practising. Both taken together showed how public life changed during the 1980s. It was the decade when you first saw yarmulka-wearers working in blue-blooded banks in the City, and the first of the public lightings of Chanucah candles.

Not all this can be put to Margaret Thatcher's credit, but she was the first Prime Minister to be open to Israel and the first to have paid an official visit. I remember years later, when we were reminiscing with her and Denis, I asked her which was her most memorable overseas visit. "Israel," she replied instantly, "it was, Denis, wasn't it?" She said that the crowds had been more enthusiastic, more fervent, than anywhere else. "I will never forget", she said, "the opening of the ORT Ronson school in Ashkelon. At one point, I thought we were going to be mobbed."

It wasn't that we all became Thatcherites or were converted to her political beliefs. It was her spirit of self-reliance, of support for the underdog, of not giving up when times were hard, that struck a chord with the Israelis. It struck a chord with our community at home and far wider. There have not been many like her.

Lord Young of Graffham was Secretary of State for Employment and then for Trade and Industry in Mrs Thatcher's government

    Last updated: 1:17pm, April 8 2013