Margaret Thatcher made history. She was Britain’s first woman prime minister – a landmark that will live in history books long after the controversies of her premiership have faded. She defeated an Argentinian dictator and British union barons. She sold off most nationalised industries. And she helped end the Cold War.
When she became prime minister in May 1979, Britain was in a sorry state. The winter of discontent in 1978/79 made her victory inevitable. While many felt sympathy for low paid workers fighting for higher pay, millions decided enough was enough – ‘we can’t go on like this’ was a common feeling. People were sickened by unions that intimidated members into going on strike and used mobs to enforce their will. Two governments had been destroyed by the unions, in 1974 and 1979. Thatcher was determined it wouldn’t happen again.
Yet Thatcher was often more cautious in her early days than her legend suggests. She gave in to the miners’ demands in 1981 rather than risk defeat. The early union reforms were modest. And privatisation wasn’t even mentioned in the 1979 election manifesto.
She was lucky in her enemies. Winning the Falklands War against the Argentinian junta – a brutal dictatorship that murdered thousands of its own people – ended her vulnerable early days when the SDP/Liberal Alliance was threatening the Tories and Labour alike. Arthur Scargill stupidly bullied the miners into the 1984/85 strike when winter was ending and coal stocks were high.
In time, she became more reckless, more strident, most famously in the disastrous poll tax. John Campbell showed graphically in volume two of his biography of Margaret Thatcher, Iron Lady, how disfunctional her government became in its last years because of her behaviour. Her fall in November 1990 was no surprise.
She also began the long decline of local pride and enterprise, thanks to the emasculation of local government. For the daughter of an alderman, she was indifferent to local initiative and hostile to the idea of an alternative power base, leading to the abolition of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council and the English metropolitan counties. Under her rule, Britain saw the rise of private wealth and public squalor, and a sense that selfishness was acceptable.
She was also callous in her indifference to the fate of communities devastated by the mass unemployment her government unleashed. The 1981 budget was one of the most brutal of the post war era, leading many to accuse her of using mass unemployment as a weapon to achieve her aims. (And in the doomed attempt to test the economic theory called monetarism.) Similarly, she deliberately shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the less well off in the move to indirect taxation. Her choice of St Francis’s prayer – “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – was cynical, as was the 1978 election poster condemning Labour for high unemployment, above. Under her rule, the jobless total reached three million for the first time since the 1930s.
Finally, Margaret Thatcher suffered the fate of someone who lived only for work. She had no hinterland, as Denis Healey put it. This made her a very bad member of the former prime ministers’ club, as her successor John Major found out to his cost.
On the day Margaret Thatcher died, it’s hard to imagine a time before her time in Downing Street. But my first Thatcher memory was her appearance as education secretary 40 years on the BBC children’s programme Val Meets the VIPs. (Val was the Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton.) In October 1978, our family friends in Germany asked us what we thought of Mrs Thatcher. We explained we weren’t impressed by her stridency…
Tonight, Britain and the world is remembering Britain’s most remarkable postwar prime minister. Our country is the nation she created – for good and ill. None of her successors has matched her ability to explain their mission. And no man since 1979 has dared to suggest that a woman couldn’t be prime minister. That might be as great a legacy as any.