The Thatcher phenomenon

In view of the furore surrounding the Thatcher funeral, I am reminded that a statesman is someone around whom everyone, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, can feel loyalty, where a politician is forever divisive and will provoke as much if not more hatred than love.

Margaret Thatcher might have viewed herself as a stateswoman, but was undoubtedly in the second camp:  she polarised opinion more sharply than any politician of her generation.  Ask a Thatcher supporter and you will hear chapter and verse about her virtues as a leader, how she rescued the country from the dogs and much more.  Ask an opponent and you will be told she ripped the country to shreds, set the widest divide ever between the haves and the have nots.

She certainly belied her initial Downing Street address – the St Francis  of Assissi speech, as it is often known (ironic given that we now have a Pope Francis I):

“Her Majesty The Queen has asked me to form a new administration and I have accepted. It is, of course, the greatest honour that can come to any citizen in a democracy. (Cheering) I know full well the responsibilities that await me as I enter the door of No. 10 and I’ll strive unceasingly to try to fulfil the trust and confidence that the British people have placed in me and the things in which I believe. And I would just like to remember some words of St. Francis of Assisi which I think are really just particularly apt at the moment. ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’ …   And to all the British people—howsoever they voted—may I say this. Now that the Election is over, may we get together and strive to serve and strengthen the country of which we’re so proud to be a part. [Interruption “Prime Minister …   .”]  And finally, one last thing: in the words of Airey Neave whom we had hoped to bring here with us, ‘There is now work to be done’.”

‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’  You would be hard-pressed to say that whatever your view on Thatcher, she brought any of those things to the party – and speaking in the royal “we” didn’t help her cause any. Her hard-line stance on most issues brought her internal Tory opposition from the so-called “wets” – though it was ultimately the wets that had the last laugh, as Tory grandees began a whispering campaign and eventually forced her to resign from office in a flood of tears.  Her downfall was her own ego and the unshakeable belief she was correct in everything, and that if she articulated slowly and clearly the scales would drop from our eyes and we would see how right she was – even when she clearly was not and was losing her mental faculties.

The words of Geoffrey Howe (of whom Denis Healey famously said that being attacked by Howe was like “being savaged by a dead sheep”) in his resignation speech were the beginning of the end for Thatcher:

“The tragedy is — and it is for me personally, for my party, for our whole people, and for my Right Honourable Friend herself, a very real tragedy — that the Prime Minister’s perceived attitude towards Europe is running increasingly serious risks for the future of our nation. It risks minimising our influence and maximising our chances of being once again shut out.  I believe that both the Chancellor and the governor are cricketing enthusiasts, so I hope that there is no monopoly of cricketing metaphors. It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

In the 1979 election her party won 339 out of 635 seats but only 43.9% of the vote – and that was her highest return.  Had Labour been stronger history may have turned out differently, but the period 1979-91 is painted as the era of Thatcherism and of a strong and radical right-wing government.  Her party won three elections though her personal approval rating dropped to 23% in 1980.  In spite of opposition from economists she continued on her monetarist course and famously nailed her colours to the mast in October 1980 and earned her the title of “Iron Lady” (and later the movie of the same name):

“If our people feel that they are part of a great nation and they are prepared to will the means to keep it great, a great nation we shall be, and shall remain. So, what can stop us from achieving this? What then stands in our way? The prospect of another winter of discontent? I suppose it might.  But I prefer to believe that certain lessons have been learnt from experience, that we are coming, slowly, painfully, to an autumn of understanding. And I hope that it will be followed by a winter of common sense. If it is not, we shall not be—diverted from our course.  To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn [U-turn] if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’ I say that not only to you but to our friends overseas and also to those who are not our friends.”

In the 79 election I campaigned somewhat reluctantly for the Labour party candidate Michael English in whichever Nottingham constituency it was, a few years prior to giving up party politics altogether in favour of campaigning to transform the system in many ways for the good of democracy.  English, whom I loathed for several reasons, was in my view an awful candidate but won by 2,500 or so votes.  But the election was won by the Thatcher Tories, thus beginning her 12 years at the helm.

I did see her once, while campaigning against her.  She came to some event in Nottingham in 1981, I think it was.  Several hundred campaigners were pushing hard against the police line and barricades, and the police line pushed back.  Her Rolls came along and parked in front of the building.  Out stepped Mrs Thatcher, resplendent in a cornflower blue suit and a shockwave of dyed hair, waving serenely as if confronted with a joyful cheering crowd, apparently oblivious to the reality.  She went into the building and that was that.  Doubtless to her press office it was a successful outcome, but then of the 100+ MPs I’ve ever met very few if any would squander a photo-call and a chance to put their point across, whatever the truth of the situation.

At the time she was loved by the Tory darlings and right-wing press, tolerated by a few as the best available candidate in the face of an opposition destined for its wilderness years, and loathed by a good proportion, not only for her unashamed desire to shake the status quo, but also for her attitude.  This was, after all, a woman who came across in public as patronising to the core, who talked down to ordinary people in spite of her well-coached “sympathetic” tone.  Many would view her as arrogant and high-handed, not least the many people at the receiving end of some of her harsher policies would certainly have viewed her as anything but sympathetic – among them those who rioted in 1981.

The flipside, to supporters, was the enablement of market capitalism to the masses: the sale of council houses (but not using the revenue to build more); privatising state-owned industries by floating shares for a song to create a share-owning lower-middle class; the privatisation of the rail industry – in hindsight a failure, though everyone agreed something had to change; and so on.  Her mission to democratise capitalism was mirrored by means to make it easier for people to use private education and healthcare, though she (unlike the current government) never took steps to dismantle the NHS – that would be a step too far in the 80s, though the seeds of GP fundholding were sown in those days.

This was also a period of deconstruction of British manufacturing industry, of mass unemployment and a war against trade union militancy, culminating in the miners’ strike of 1985-86, though Mrs Thatcher is widely associated with promoting the “greed is good” era, of encouraging the housing boom and bankers’ bonuses – which makes you wonder what she thought of the banking system collapse in the UK and many other countries.  UK growth was fuelled by service industries, notably the City of London as a centre for financial dealing.

She claimed to support the ordinary man, quoting her own upbringing in Grantham, her father being a grocer, though arguably the measure which earned her the most bitter opposition was the poll tax – the one that best demonstrated how in reality she was out of touch with the common man.  Poll tax was introduced under the euphemism of “community charge” to replace the old rating system.  It was not popular, to the extent that from its initial pilot in Scotland riots ensued, with some people choosing to go to jail (sometimes repeatedly) rather than pay what was seen as a regressive tax, whereupon the highest burden fell upon those with the lowest incomes.

Thatcher will also be remembered for the Falklands War, her great patriotic adventure, one that probably made it impossible for Labour to win the 1983 election even if they had been in a state to win.  Ironically, the Blair attempt to do the same with Iraq brought him much hatred, though he is convinced to this day that he was right.  In this case, there was little constructive opposition to the war, which arguably could have been prevented by diplomacy, had the government had any wish so to do, but did successfully divert attention from disenchantment with domestic policy and the economy.

Her legacy?  The first female PM and the only one to date, in what is still very much a man’s world.  That achievement is undeniable, though to a great many there is no revisionist thinking required.

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