Expert Comment: Margaret Thatcher diesMonday 8 April 2013
Professor Bill Jones from the Department of Politics, History, Media and Communications, looks at the life and legacy of Margaret Thatcher.
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 misogyny, 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.
It 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 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 and 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 the 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. 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 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.