Former Health Secretary Lord Fowler has revealed that Margaret Thatcher felt he was in danger of becoming known as the “minister for AIDS” due to his crusade against the epidemic in the late 1980s.

Speaking to PinkNews about his new book, AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice, the Tory grandee charts the battle he fought in overcoming Thatcher’s formidable opposition to launching the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign in 1986.

The campaign remains one of the largest and most successful public health initiatives ever undertaken. Together with the chilling ‘tombstone’ adverts, leaflets warning about the AIDS epidemic were posted to every household in Britain. With effective HIV medication another decade away, the necessity for a hard-hitting campaign was seen as paramount by Lord Fowler.

Yet Thatcher’s approach to the crisis was very different. “I don’t think I ever had a ‘row’ with her”, Lord Fowler said to PinkNews.co.uk when asked if his frustrations ever boiled over into a heated verbal exchange. “She just wasn’t really on our side… I mean her view was that we were being too explicit, too upfront, that we should just put notices in public lavatories. Well we had moved on about 50 years from that kind of position.”

In the 1980s, the British Government was categorised by many campaigners as being at best slow, or at worst indifferent to the growing number of mostly gay and bisexual men dying from AIDS-related illnesses. In December 1986, Margaret Thatcher vetoed plans for a ministerial broadcast on HIV awareness – despite cross-party approval from Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Michael Meacher, who had waived his right of reply.

‘You’ve done quite enough in this area already’

Lord Fowler recalled meeting with the Iron Lady in her Number 10 study on New Year’s Eve 1986. He wanted approval for the broadcast, but after Thatcher’s obligatory offer of a whiskey, the Health Secretary quickly found out that he was not going to get it. In his diary, Lord Fowler wrote: “It becomes clear after one minute flat that she will not be changed on the ministerial broadcast.

“She says that she has not had one on the Falklands, on the riots or on any other health issues. She thinks I will get quite enough publicity from news broadcasts and it is more effective.”

Later on in the meeting Thatcher told him that, “You mustn’t become known just as the minister for AIDS”, Lord Fowler admits the comment initially left him perplexed.

“Well of course with Margaret it was very difficult,” the peer told PinkNews.co.uk. “Because for quite a long time I thought ‘that’s a compliment I think?’. I mean what she’s saying is, ‘You mustn’t do that one subject; there are many, there are other horizons’.”

The Prime Minister had praised Lord Fowler on a speech made at the Conservative Party Conference. But he believes behind her diplomatic tone was a coded message. “I think on reflection what she really meant was, ‘Why don’t you move onto something else? You’ve done quite enough in this area already’.”

“It was far too late for her to say that”, Lord Fowler added with a defiant tone. “I wasn’t going to ‘move on’.” In 1986, the fight against AIDS was at the top of his red ministerial box, but for many in the Thatcher government, the crisis amounted to acknowledging “vulgarity” – as the then Lord Chancellor, Quintin Hailsham expressed in a memo to the Health Secretary.

Lord Fowler was very much out on a limb with his policy of a large-scale hard-hitting campaign. Even junior ministers such as John MacKay, who also had responsibility for health, warned about the political risks of “delivering sexually explicit leaflets to every household in the country”.

Margaret Thatcher’s instinct was one of deliberate avoidance. Lord Fowler continued: “She had this, I think, fairly extraordinary view that if you warned people explicitly about the dangers [of unprotected sex] young people would start copying these practices when the whole purpose was to warn them against it.

“And I never saw the logic of that position. Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits took exactly the same view, and in fact the results afterwards showed quite clearly that we warned people and HIV went down, infection through shared needles went down as well, sexual disease also fell.

“So I think frankly on this occasion, I can say that our policy, the policy that I was in charge of at the time as Secretary of State, did actually work.”

Lord Fowler believes the role of the late Deputy Prime Minister Willie Whitelaw was instrumental in helping him to overcome Thatcher’s opposition.

“Whitelaw was one of the unsung heroes of all of this”, Lord Fowler told PinkNews.co.uk. “I don’t know if he’d recognise that as a description – but he just did it in the old soldier way.” The former Health Secretary explained that Margaret Thatcher’s decision to allow Whitehall to chair a Cabinet AIDS committee, and not herself, greatly improved Lord Fowler’s ability to get on with implementing the campaign.

Whitelaw’s experience of being responsible for sexual health provision at one point during his Army days meant that he approached the issue of HIV in a “pragmatic and sensible fashion”, Lord Fowler added.

Whilst Margaret Thatcher’s role in trying initially to undermine the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign is well documented, the peer remains generous in finding praise for the late Prime Minister.

“But to do her fairness, to do her justice, she got out of the way.”

He added: “Margaret Thatcher was not an enthusiast on our policy but at least she allowed me to get on with it”. In contrast, Thatcher’s greatest political and personal overseas ally, President Ronald Reagan, seemed incapable of getting his administration to publicly acknowledge the severity of the AIDS epidemic, which was even more acute in the US.

“Ronald Reagan said absolutely nothing about it,” Lord Fowler expressed with disdain. “And his Health Secretary, who I remember seeing, said this is simply a matter for ‘local decision’ so, surprise surprise, nothing got done.”

The peer concluded by recalling a poignant visit to San Francisco, which left an indelible mark on his conscience.

“Literally you could see people in restaurants who were quite clearly dying. And I went to the general hospital, to a massive ward of young men who were dying from AIDs, and it was extraordinary that there was no policy in response. The voluntary organisations were doing wonderful things, as they always do, but government, the U.S. administration, was doing nothing.

“It was a great tragedy.”

Lord Fowler

‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice’, by Norman Fowler is available to buy in bookshops.