Sometimes the work of a writer can throw up unexpected challenges. These aren't the sort you see coming, like the difficulty of writing about a sensitive or complicated issue or juggling deadlines. These are the ones that take you completely by surprise. A seemingly simple issue grows more complicated the more you think about it, perhaps, or a short assignment balloons despite your best efforts into a grand undertaking.
The dilemma facing me at the minute is one I've never even thought about before. What, precisely, am I supposed to write about Margaret Thatcher?
As a Conservative writer it seems inconceivable that I could not write about the death of the Iron Lady; could simply glide from one commonplace assignment to the next without pausing to mention in some small fashion the passing of so totemic a figure. Indeed, writing about Thatcher doesn't seem to be a hardship for any other right-leaning commentator I've come across, whether they knew her or not. Given that, how to explain my own reluctance?
At heart, I think, it is that I have neither the qualifications nor the inclinations to write Lady Thatcher's obituary. I grew up in the post-Thatcher world and spent most of my childhood and adolescence cheering for the Liberal Democrats because they were my dad's team. I only joined the Conservatives in 2008 when I went to university. I've no first-hand experience of the Thatcherite government or the rather depressing-looking Britain that preceded it.
Unlike a lot of my young Conservative peers I never met the Iron Lady and, now, never will. I did not know her, and there are plenty writing who did. Their insights, laced with personal touches and decades of experience and perspective, will be far more valuable to the reader looking to learn something of the woman than anything I can muster at the age of 23.
So if not the woman, what else could an article about Thatcher focus on? The obvious answer is her accomplishments, but how you do you prevent that sort of article becoming a sort of third-rate history of the 1980s? Did you know that she won three elections and a war? That she was this country's first female prime minister? That she took on the Soviet Union and the trade unions? In all likelihood you do, and if you don't there are again a lot of people providing that sort of whistlestop tour of her time in government. A day after the fact, you don't need me to do it.
Passing of a political giant
Yet if choosing to focus neither on the lady or the facts, all that's left to examine is her legacy, and that is a very complicated and more importantly very subjective topic. A political legacy is examined by trying to trace the influence of someone's actions on the political life that we live today, as viewed through our own eyes. Any such article would thus become at least as much about me - my Conservatism, my values, my judgments - as about its purported subject, and that struck me as perhaps being somewhat vainglorious and disrespectful, as if the passing of a political giant were just another excuse to talk about me.
Of course, one could say much the same thing about writing a whole article of personal reflections on the challenges of writing about Thatcher. Besides which, an attempt at an impersonal view of her legacy falls into the same trap as the second option above listed: there are plenty of people doing it already. The only thing I can bring to a discussion of Thatcher that nobody else can is me. So, vainglory it is.
My personal view of Thatcher's legacy, and it's one I deeply wish I'd had the opportunity to put to her, was that she injected something of the Labour party into the Tories.
No, don't look at me like that. I know she despised the cloying choke-hold socialism held over this county and, to an infinitely greater and more evil degree, the bulk of Eurasia from Saxony to Saigon. I know she broke the militant unions and ripped open the closed shop and made such an impression on Labour that Tony Blair was moulded around it. That's not what I meant.
What I meant was that she introduced to our patriotically pragmatic party that potent Class A intoxicant, ideological fervour.
This was traditionally a vice of the left in general and, intermittently, Labour in particular. Labour members and MPs were in service to a higher cause - socialism - and measured their leaders against it. When those leaders had to make the grubby compromises of power, this would usually anger some portion of the left enough to form a new party at a comfortingly remote distance from the prospect of difficult decisions.
There were, of course, periods when Labour was run by practical, down-to-earth working people and I don't want to overlook them, but the ideological conscience was not a Conservative phenomenon. It is now.
Our very own Shining Path
Decades on from her leadership, Thatcherism, or rather something called Thatcherism formed from the generous elision in fond memories of a difficult 11-year reign into a montage of triumphal snapshots, pervades the party. "What would Thatcher do?" has become the yardstick by which politicians and policies alike are measured. Rebellious ideologues, claiming to be acting in service to this higher power, disembowelled the Major administration, led us to two disastrous post-Major elections and continue to harass today's leadership. It's like having an in-house guerrilla resistance, our very own Shining Path.
The upshot of this is that the party can't move on. Until it stops defining itself by Thatcher it can't expect the country to, especially those parts of the country - the Northeast and Scotland especially - whose own partial and misremembered Thatcherite legacy is a much darker, fundamentally negative thing.
Margaret Thatcher was a great lady. You don't need me to tell you that and there are lots of people across the media explaining why that was. I don't dispute the value of her political triumphs or her personal qualities.
But she was not, or at least should not have become, greater than the Conservative party. It is an old party and a good one, and is as much the property of each of its members as the most powerful of its leaders. For all the good she did, the Iron Lady bequeathed to a large portion of it the dangerous memory of a golden age and the witch-hunter instincts of an inquisition. This isn't a criticism of her values, many of which are perfectly sound: it's the hero-worship and puritanism itself that's the trouble.
Thatcher and the party just couldn't bring themselves to let go of each other and in the end this unprecedented mutual loyalty has not been kind to either. She passes on as the pre-eminent politician of the postwar age. If the party she loved seems less than it was, perhaps it is because it stands in the shadow of giants.