She did it her way
The Iron Lady, a title bestowed on her by the Russians and which she saw as a badge of honour, has died. For 11 years as the UK’s first woman prime minister, the longest premiership since 1812-1827 – was it really only 11 years? – Margaret Thatcher had forged a revolution that transformed Britain politically, economically and culturally. And she left a distinct conservative ideological legacy that still shapes the agenda a generation after she left office in 1990.
A deeply polarising figure even before she took office in 1979, yet Thatcher had promised on the doorstep of Downing Street in the words of St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. . . And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” It was not to be.
If you were not what she called “one of us”, if you did not accept the mantra that “there is no other way”, Thatcherism would not mean harmony. Truth would be her truth. “Aggressive to a fault,” biographer Hugo Young wrote , “she spent years scorning not only consensual policies but the consensual demeanour.”
In post-war Britain, a welfare state and NHS had been built by two similar political parties. The Tories and Labour were both creatures of social consensus and of its corollary, paternalism. They spoke a language of One Britain, of the erosion of class difference, the expansion of educational opportunity, of progress and new wealth. But the 1970s and economic difficulties would begin to fray the old certainties.
Britain’s fortunes had reached a post-war low in the winter of industrial discontent of 1978-79, and in Thatcher a growing middle class backlash found a new champion determined not to accept what one writer has called “the ruling liberal elite’s fatalistic acceptance of ‘managed decline’.”
She would provide the ideological underpinning for an onslaught on much of the welfare state, and the state itself, on what she saw as dinosaur industries in decline like mining, and for the privatisation of industry and housing. Union resistance, the only force capable of halting her mission, would be swept aside in the bitter miners’ strike .
All under the guise of the housewifely prudence of a shopkeeper’s daughter. “Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country,” she told voters in 1979.
The subtext, however, was a far more sophisticated economic philosophy borrowed from the monetarists of Chicago and her guru Sir Keith Joseph. Out went interventionist Keynesianism, in came deregulation, low taxes, and Wall Street’s “greed is good”. “There is no such thing as society,” she claimed.
The ground was laid both in Britain and the US, which, under soulmate Ronald Reagan, was following a similar path, for the development of a new Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Key elements of its new “truths”, particularly its liberal economics, would be incorporated by Tony Blair into New Labour – imitation, the sincerest form of flattery.
Thatcher’s attitude to Ireland mellowed somewhat, reflecting a pragmatism that was not often seen in her. She was determined to face down the hunger strikers and the IRA took its revenge, an attempt to murder her in the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in October 1984, killing four.
Her relationship with Taoiseach Charles Haughey was fractious. However in 1985, cajoled by Garret FitzGerald with whom she developed a better relationship, she signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement . But she remained adamant that she would not surrender to the IRA and later denounced the Good Friday agreement for its prisoner release provisions.
On the international stage, which she bestrode like a world leader , she provoked the same polarising reactions as at home. But never indifference. She charmed both Reagan, who shared her conservatism, and the reforming Mikhail Gorbachev with whom Sir Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, said the chemistry was “quite extraordinary”.
In Europe her growing English nationalism – her “No! No! No!” in the Commons to any further integration – and demands for Britain’s money back sparked uncomfortably off many leaders.
François Mitterrand once said of her: “She has the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” Helmut Schmidt, the West German chancellor described her as “no soft touch”. His successor, Helmut Kohl, found her altogether overwhelming.
Like it or not this time will be known as the Thatcher Era. The least likeable of all leaders, according to consistent opinion poll findings, she nonetheless won three elections, and certainly left her mark. No apologies, no pandering to public opinion, she did it her way.