So it’s happened. For anyone of my ‘baby boomer’ age cohort,
I thought this would be a ‘stop all the clocks’ moment either of champagne cork
popping celebration or dismal regret and thoughts of what might have been. Margaret
Thatcher had such an enormous influence on the Britain in which I lived throughout
the eighties and since. Her views and impact are still with us today and I
expect the “Thatcher Effect” to extend into many future decades.
Why did this grocer’s daughter from Grantham become the
equivalent of our peacetime Churchill? Perhaps a little bit like Winston it
was:: her courage, her clarity and her luck.
When, in 1975, she won the leadership of a party shot
through with sexism and misoginy, she had been the only challenger with the
courage to stand up to the irascible and domineering Ted Heath. The huge vote
she elicited in the first round of the contest, reflected her fellow MPs’-
misogyny notwithstanding- appreciation of her raw courage. It established a
momentum which carried her through to victory. Nervous opponents like Whitelaw,
who thought Margaret would be a stalking horse for their later entry to the contest,
were caught unawares.
Her courage was always a feature and was the reverse side of
her formidable combative personality. She was happy to take on all comers-
union leaders, foreign generals, party grandees, and, yes, even her friend
Ronald Reagan. Compare and contrast the pusillanimous way Tony Blair’s hero
worship of George Bush caused him to ignore intelligence briefings and cave
into George Bush at that infamous Crawford Ranch weekend meeting.
Her clarity was evident every time she spoke. She managed to
distil the thinking of Richard Cobden and Milton Friedman plus her own take on
the Conservative tradition into a form everyone could understand almost immediately.
That made her a divisive figure but in an age of political fudging a coalition
of voters, including a big slice of the working class, thought she was worth
giving a chance. Nobody could say they did not expect what happened and nobody,
from the humblest MP to the most senior civil service mandarin could say they
did not ‘get’ Thatcherism. Compare and contrast with the vague and waffly
opportunism of her current successors.
Thirdly she was very lucky to have encountered a party
leader who was so grumpy and anti-social that he had few remaining friends left
in 1975 when he was challenged. She was incredibly lucky to find the Callaghan
government in 1979, foundering on rocks created by the union movement when her
own prescription for the nation entailed taking them on an defeating them. And
she was astonishingly lucky that, when her fortunes were falling fast and she
was threatened by: a large section of her own party; an economy which displayed
a shrinking GDP combined with soaring inflation; an emergent new centre-ground
party in the form of the Social Democratic Party; and Galtieri’s invasion of the Falklands
Without those challenges to overcome she would not have
succeeded and historical analysis shows that just a couple more Exocets on
target could have tipped the balance Argentina’s way. Once the victor of
Falklands, she walked on water as far as her
own party and much of the nation was concerned. Fatally though, as it turned
out, she seemed to come to believe this myth herself as she later slid into
reckless misjudgement over the Poll Tax and Europe.. All this is not to say her
indefatigable energy and quick (though not profound) intellect, were not of
enormous importance too, but that she
was greatly assisted by Lady Luck there is no doubt.
She was also extraordinarily divisive, causing rational
people to shriek in pain whenever they heard her flutingly bossy Home Counties
tones on the radio or saw her perfect Stepford Wives hair do and smug face with
its menacing eyebrows. For a generation of people I know, she determined that
their political opinions be defined in terms of a species of hate. She improved
productivity and reminded us all that our standard of life is dependent
essentially on the health of the economy. She arguably, I agree, cut the
over-powerful unions down to size and proved that a politician with huge energy
and passion really could change the state of the country. And a woman
politician to boot.
On the debit side she dismantled our decaying industries in
a cataclysm of unemployment while failing to retrain the unemployed or revive
the manufacturing sector; and this despite the amazing windfall of North Sea
Oil (more luck there too!). She legitimised a form of corrosive contempt with
which the middle classes, especially Daily Mail readers felt they could define
the working and indeed non working classes. In the end her imperious
narcissistic prime ministerial style sickened even her own hand picked Cabinet
acolytes and on 21st November 1990 they showed her the door. Now on
8th April 2013, she has died, but her legend will live on: a heroine
miracle worker to the right and to the
left a monstrous personification of callous spite and indifference. . .