Margaret Thatcher – the woman who changed Britain

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

The passing of Margaret Thatcher

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.

Labour isn't Working - most bitterly ironic Thatcher poster

Labour isn’t Working – Thatcher’s most cynical campaign poster, 1978

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.

Richard III, Leicester and me


Richard III in Leicester. The king’s skeleton has been found under a Leicester car park 

I took this photo of Richard III’s statue shortly before graduating from the University of Leicester in 1985. It was extraordinary to learn that the university this week played a key role in establishing ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Richard III’s skeleton had been found in the city.

As I blogged nostalgically last September, Leicester was a good place to be a student, despite its reputation as an unexciting place. I was fascinated by its rich history, including its links with Richard III. The city is already planning to exploit this week’s dramatic news – and who can blame it.

Today’s Guardian included intriguing interviews with actors who have played Shakespeare’s Richard III over the years, including Antony Sher. Sher famously played the role for the RSC during my time at Leicester. He published a wonderful account of his Year of the King, which I read almost in a single sitting in 1992 when I spent a lot of time in Stratford. As Sher recounts in the Guardian:

I became very interested in the fact that Richard is a severely disabled man. Some actors underplay this – but if you read Richard’s opening speech about himself, he is clearly disabled, and has experienced a lot of prejudice, a lot of hatred. This, in turn, has filled him with self-hatred. It’s this that enables him to do such evil to other people. He was used to hatred as a disabled man in an un-PC society. There were no Paralympics then.

We’ll hear a lot about Richard III – the king and the legend – in the coming weeks. 


David Cameron, Harold Wilson and Euro referendums

David Cameron has opened a new chapter in Britain’s troubled membership of what we now call the European Union. He says his party will hold a referendum to decide whether we should stay in the EU, should it win the 2015 general election. He will campaign for Britain to stay, provided he is happy with whatever new settlement he negotiates with Britain’s EU partners.

Any referendum will be the first on Europe since Harold Wilson’s Labour government’s 1975 poll settled the issue for a generation. At the time, it was seen as a clever fix for Labour’s internal war about Europe. (Typical Wilson…) But within five years the party was at war again, leading to the SDP breakaway. Time will tell if Cameron’s move will be any more successful.

I was 11 when Britain voted in 1975. We had a day off school as Cardiff High was being used as a polling station. I remember telling friends we should pull out – I even stuck a copy of the No campaign’s leaflet inside the lid of my school desk. (My friends were sensibly more concerned about whether Bay City Rollers would make number 1.)

In time, I became convinced that Britain should be a positive, active member of what we now call the EU. But I have always been concerned by the madder aspects of the EU: the stupidity of the Common Agricultural Policy, the bureaucracy and lack of democracy. I hate the way the Irish have been told to rerun referendums until they get the ‘right’ result. This is not an institution that inspires love or affection in sensible folk.

I happened to listen to David Cameron’s speech live on BBC Radio 5 Live on Wednesday. It struck me as a very cleverly constructed case for change. I particularly liked the way the prime minister accepted the role the EU played in ending Europe’s eternal wars. He was right to say Europe’s single market was its biggest strength. No sensible person can argue against the idea that the EU desperately needs to change if Europe is to flourish and compete against China, India and Brazil.

Yet Cameron’s move is so blatantly a bid to secure party unity that it’s hard to see it succeeding. Europe isn’t an issue that most people care about – except in the Westminster village. Cameron is unlikely to win an overall majority in 2015, which means he won’t be the one to hold a Euro poll. Unlike Harold Wilson, that wily politician who dominated British politics for over a decade in the 1960s and 1970s.

Life in the blitz: the hairdresser’s forgotten customer

Mum told me a funny (true) story when I went home to Wales yesterday. During the war, her mother was at the hairdressers in Penarth when German bombers raided. I imagine this would have been in 1940 or 1941, when Mum was 12. Her father heard a loud noise, and went into the garden to investigate. He crawled back to the house under the shelter of the garden wall after experiencing a loud explosion. (A bomb going about 500 yards away.)

When the all clear sounded, the hairdressers emerged from the shelter – and remembered that they’d left my grandma under big hairdryer. She knew nothing of the air-raid because of the noise of the dryer!

Review: Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden's Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden is a brave man. The Great Western Railway is the most chronicled railway in Britain, if not the world. So any additional book about it has to be very good to justify its existence. The good news is that Roden has risen to the challenge, although a series of irritating factual errors spoil what would otherwise be an outstanding history.

My Nan gave me Frank Booker’s one volume history of the GWR as a Christmas present in 1979. Booker’s account was a much easier read than McDermott’s legendary account, published by the GWR over 80 years ago. Roden takes a different approach, giving a vivid insight into the lives of ordinary passengers and railwaymen, as well as the social impact of the railway. This alone makes his book a worthy addition to GWR literature.

Roden is particularly strong on the GWR’s troubled years in the 1860s. He explains how the broad gauge had become a millstone at a time when financial crisis brought the company almost to its knees. Yet the GWR bounced back, with the extraordinary achievement of the Severn Tunnel and the 1892 gauge conversion: an engineering and organisational triumph.

It’s a shame that this fine book is riddled by factual errors. Wootton Bassett is misspelled repeatedly (odd, given that town’s current high profile). Roden claims the Severn Tunnel to be eight miles long (it’s actually half that). He describes 20th century GWR chairman Viscount Churchill as Winston’s father – bizarre, as WSC was just 10 years younger, and was in fact the son of 19th century politician Lord Randolph Churchill. ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, not Enginemen and Footplatemen as Roden suggests. (Where did he get that howler from?) There are others…


A short history of time in Britain

It’s hard to imagine Britain having different time zones. Yet it’s well under 200 years since Britain had the same time across the nation.

The railways created the need for the whole of Britain to be on the same time. When life moved at a horse’s pace, it didn’t matter that Cardiff time was some 15 minutes behind London’s. Time was local – determined by a sundial. But when the steam engine took people hundreds of miles within hours, the idea of a common time became urgent. Railway time or London time was the result.

Brunel’s Great Western Railway provided the impetus, along with the electric telegraph. In November 1840, the GWR adopted Greenwich Mean Time for its timetable, followed by almost all our railways by 1848. It meant that Bristol was no longer 10 minutes behind London. By 1855, almost all towns in Britain had adopted the unified time, although this only had legal force in 1880. Within 50 years of the GWR’s move, most major countries followed suit, although larger countries did so with multiple time zones.

Bristol time. Photo: Rod Ward, via Wikipedia.

Yet to this day, Bristol’s Exchange clock shows two minute hands: one for London time, the other for Bristol time. It’s a timely reminder of the days when time was a moveable concept in these islands.

Rex Hunt: hero of the Falklands and Britain

“You have landed unlawfully on British territory and I order you to remove yourself and your troops forthwith.”

With these stirring words, Sir Rex Hunt, who has died aged 86, expressed his contempt for the Argentinian troops who had invaded the Falkland Islands, and made his reputation as the islands’ most famous governor.

Falklands report

Hunt’s death recalls one of the most extraordinary episodes in post-war British history. As I recounted in my blogpost marking the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war, it was a huge shock in 1982 to find Britain at war. Especially against a country with which we shared very close links. As an 18 year old who had a typically boyish interest in the second world war (put that down to Thames Television’s magnificent The World at War and endless Airfix kits), I was fascinated by that Falklands spring.

There were many links between the 1982 conflict and the second world war. Argentina’s cruiser, General Belgrano, was an American warship that survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. (It wasn’t so luck in May 1982.) Argentina’s aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo was launched in 1943 as HMS Venerable. The flagship of Britain’s naval task force, HMS Hermes, was also laid down during the war. And the RAF’s extraordinary feat in bombing Port Stanley airport was assisted by the Vulcan V-bombers’ H2S radar – first used in the RAF’s deadly firestorm raid on Hamburg in 1943.

The sight of Harrier jump jets taking off into the South Atlantic mist sealed the nation’s love affair with this amazing aircraft, echoing the previous generation’s affection for the Spitfire and Hurricane. I delayed my walk to school one morning as the BBC promised the first film from the South Atlantic – naturally featuring the Harrier. (“At last! BBC Brian Hanrahan film from Hermes, shown at 8.50am. Go in to school slightly later,” I recorded in my diary.)

Rex Hunt’s defiance in the face of impossible odds burnished the legend of ignominious defeat turned into honourable retreat. Britain’s victory in the ensuing war led to his return in triumph later in 1982 – and his happy place in history.

Back to RAF Museum, London

Owen and the immortal Spitfire and Hurricane, November 2011

We went back to the RAF Museum, London in Hendon, London, today. It was Owen’s choice – he loved our two visits last winter and couldn’t wait to return.

As I blogged last November about the RAF Museum, Owen enjoyed the hands-on gallery that explains how aircraft fly. This time, we watched the moving and impressive film about Our Finest Hour – the RAF’s role saving Britain in 1940. flight works.


After three visits, we’ve still not seen the whole of the museum. We’ll be back!

Finally, here’s the video I made of our first visit in November 2011.

Tony Blair on Neville Chamberlain: a noble ambition

Tony Blair’s reputation has been shredded by his disastrous decision to back George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That conflict was one of many Blair plunged Britain into. So much so that John Kampfner devoted a book to Blair’s wars.

So Blair seems an unlikely person to seek to explain and sympathise with arch appeaser Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister who sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 at Munich in the vain hope that it would ensure peace.

Yet in his memoirs, A Journey, Blair speaks eloquently of Chamberlain’s mission:

“A comparison to Chamberlain is one of the worst British political insults. Yet what did he do? In a world still suffering from the trauma of the Great War, a war in which millions died, including many of his close family and friends, he had grieved; and in his grief pledged to prevent another such war. Not a bad ambition; in fact, a noble one.

“One day [at Chequers], I picked up his diaries and began to read his account of his famous meeting with Hitler prior to Munich … in Berchtesgaden… He recounts how Hitler alternated between reason … and angry ranting, almost screaming about the Czechs, the Poles, the Jews… Chamberlain came away convinced that he had met a madman, someone who has real capacity to do evil. This is what intrigued me. We are taught that Chamberlain was a dupe; a fool, taken in by Hitler’s charm. He wasn’t. He was entirely alive to his badness.

“I tried to imagine being like him, thinking like him. He knows this man is wicked, but he cannot know how far it might extend. So, instead of provoking him, contain him. Germany will come to its senses, time will move on and, with luck, so will Herr Hitler.

“Seen in this way, Munich was not the product of a leader gulled but of a leader looking to postpone… Above all, it was the leader with a paramount and overwhelming desire to avoid the blood, mourning and misery of war.”

It’s intriguing to compare Blair and Chamberlain. The man who sacrificed Czechoslovakia for a mirage of peace had a sense of destiny and certainty. Blair was similarly driven by a near-religious confidence in his judgement, especially after 9/11.

I’ll leave the last word to Winston Churchill. Just six months after succeeding Chamberlain, Churchill had the sad task of paying tribute to the man who had ignored his warnings of the mortal threat Hitler’s Germany posed to Britain. (Chamberlain died of cancer six months almost to the day of being ousted.) Winston said:

“Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity .. and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead for what is called the verdict of history is concerned.”

Could the Lib Dems revenge Tories for 1922 Carlton Club rebellion?

Here’s an intriguing thought. This Friday marks the 90th anniversary of the Carlton Club rebellion of Tory MPs against the coalition with the Liberals. It forced David Lloyd George‘s resignation as prime minister. Could the Liberal Democrats exert revenge nine decades later by bringing down David Cameron in similar dramatic fashion?

The 1922 Tory backbenchers were unhappy with the coalition, especially after it nearly went to war with Turkey in the Chanak crisis. The party’s leaders wanted to continue the coalition, but the backbenchers won the day. Lloyd George was out, never again to hold office. King George V said he was sorry to see him go, but added that ‘Some day he will be prime minister again’. The king was wrong.

The Liberal Democrats have proved spineless in coalition. They broke their election pledge on student fees. They cravenly allowed the Tories to break their own promise not to reorganise the NHS. They have let the Tories wreak havoc with brutal spending cuts that have plunged us into a double dip recession. The list goes on. Will they one day reach breaking point and say ‘no more’?

Sceptics will say it’s unlikely. The Lib Dems face disaster at the next election – so why would they prompt an early election? (Assuming that’s even possible after the coalition legislated for a fixed term.) And the Lib Dem ministers are clearly enjoying the privileges of office.

But who can tell what pressures may build up over the next 30 months. We may yet see the creation of the Liberal Democrats’ 2014 committee, named after the year of the great rebellion that ended David Cameron’s political career…