Margaret Thatcher, Conviction not Consensus

Estimated reading time: 3 Minutes
How can you sum up a life like Margaret Thatcher’s in a few hundred words?

Today’s papers, much like last night’s television, will be full of the standard history of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership: ‘U-turn if you want to’; special forces storming the Iranian Embassy; Brixton burning; the task-force leaving Portsmouth harbour to retake the Falklands; police-men charging the striking miners; the collapse of heavy industry to be replaced by yuppies shouting on phones in the City of London; cruise missiles at Greenham Common; the Iron Lady with Reagan at Camp David, doing business with Gorbachev; riding aloft in a tank; people rioting over the Poll Tax; the final tearful exit from Downing Street.

From her unprivileged roots as a grocer’s daughter from the provinces, via Oxford and the working world, Margaret Thatcher fought her way to the top in a hostile environment, and left her mark on Britain and the world.  That is a legacy which any public leader would be proud of.

But just who was this woman? 

Who was this person who seemed to come from nowhere, who didn’t share the same background or experience as her fellow political leaders – whether in the UK or Europe – yet displayed unwavering self-belief and drive, where they showed doubt and hesitation.

The British male politicians and administrators she seemed to sweep aside had been actors in the management of decline as Britain’s place in the world diminished and its confidence collapsed.  The European leadership she infamously hand-bagged, were old men born out of the ashes of a disastrous conflict, who were dedicated to preserving peace through increasing integration.  Neither group were able to effectively counter her.

The world – generally – seemed to regard her as a statesman-like figure – one of the leaders who ‘won the Cold War’, a symbol of how the determination of an individual can change a nation.   There was no shortage of those willing to pay money to hear her speak on her lecture tours of the United States and she enjoyed surprising popularity in Russia…

Her legacy in Britain, amongst people who were most affected by her policies is more complicated.  For example we are a different country in terms of social attitudes, for good or bad today there is more emphasis placed on the individual rather than the collective, and this new attitude – despite her successor’s promotion of ‘The Big Society’ – remains pervasive in political debate and public policy.  For many people, through this individualism, she unleashed the shackles of society and gave them the freedom to pursue the opportunities they wanted.

What is equally inescapable is continued economic difficulties, thirty years on, in regions which lost their nationalised heavy and extractive industries to the challenges of the free market.  Many of communities, once prosperous are now plagued by unemployment and social problems.   For these places, Thatcherism has a very different connotation.  The support for devolution in Wales and Scotland during the 1997 referendum can be traced to the experiences of those two countries during the 1980s.  In my own country the scars of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike still loom large.

With some recent Prime Ministers - MacMillan, Heath, Callaghan, Major - there was a mellowing of public opinion towards them in their retirement - not so with the Iron Lady.  Her legacy in death will divide the people of Britain as much as her policies did in her lifetime. 

There is of course much more to Margaret Thatcher as a person, the realities of her political life, and her legacy than any television special, news report or blog article can encompass.  For example, the early years of her government in 1979-80, were not quite the monetarist economic paradise that is now portrayed.

Yet it is clear that her premiership changed the political, economic and social structures of Britain.  

It destroyed a post-war consensus which had been formed in a world where Britain and its Empire had just won a global war, was an economic power second only to the United States, and where a rigid class system still prevailed.  Yet over the next three decades, as world changed Britain seemed unable to adapt, it couldn’t find its place, didn’t know what it wanted, and – increasingly – didn’t seem to care.

She forced Britain to change despite the enormous pain it caused – though whether we are in a better place today for that change is debatable.  Furthermore her natural pride in being British not only found root in her foreign and trade policies, but transmitted itself to the nation which seemed to regain its confidence.  As a national leader with such an impact on Britain, she can be placed alongside the greatest Prime Ministers of the 20th century – Lloyd George, Churchill, and Attlee.

However, she also leaves another enduring legacy – she smashed the glass ceiling.  She became a woman Prime Minister when women were few in British politics, and the most they could ever be expected to achieve was a middle-ranking seat in cabinet.   Additionally her performance in her role was such, that gender could never seriously play a negative part in any future election campaign.

Whatever side of the political divide one is from; this must be considered a remarkable achievement and has paved the way for others from diverse backgrounds to make their way in public life.