Over thirty years ago, I was sitting in my friend Bill’s front room watching the results of the 1979 UK General Election with horror. Britain certainly had many internal problems – low productivity, general malaise, strikes and so on – but the solution did not appear to be the increase in confrontation promised by Margaret Thatcher.
If at that time you had told me that I would one day write her Obituary for publication in a medium then undreamt with readers from all over the globe, I would probably have had you committed to a mental institution. Most of my friends now will probably have me committed instead!
Margaret Thatcher died yesterday after a long illness and there are people in Britain cheering and crying – different people of course. Let me explain.
She evoked such passions because of her strength, her refusal to compromise on points of principle and her determination to see things through. But she was far from infallible. She was a conviction politician who, unlike modern politicians, really didn’t seem to care that much whether she was liked or disliked – in fact the more she was disliked, the more she was convinced she was right. Because sometimes, she was. That is a sign of greatness in some ways – or arrogance in others – and eventually became her downfall. Looking at the political landscape today, I don’t see anyone to compare with her.
There were serious mistakes promoted during her tenure in Downing Street – but also great successes. There are aspects that have been eulogised and demonised in the press these past days – we have all read about her relationship with Ronald Reagan, the fall of the Soviet empire, her attitude to the (then) Common Market, the Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, civil unrest but I want to look at some aspects of her legacy that I think have been missed.
I see three main areas.
Firstly, while impoverished and in many ways on its way out, Britain still had ‘global interests’ and thought itself the centre of the universe as epitomised to a younger generation by the Swinging Sixties, Beatles and all that. And to an older generation who had been through WW1, the Depression and WW2, the world in some way ‘owed us’ a debt of gratitude.
This was always poppycock of course. But Thatcher, whether deliberately or as a by-product of divisive policies, showed the nation that we have to fight for what we want in peace as much as in war. It is a lesson that has yet to be learned in some European capitals – the world does not owe Europe a living!
Secondly she encouraged people to own property and even shares in companies. But these were both tarnished as councils, obliged to sell public housing to their occupiers at knock-down prices, were not allowed to renew the housing stock which has led to a dearth of housing in Britain, as we recently commented. The liberalisation of finance during the mid ‘80s therefore resulted in a housing price boom rather than housing boom, from which we still suffer. Most of the shares in privatised industries ended up back in the market pretty quickly as people took a quick profit and some who bought their council houses have found them very difficult to sell.
Lastly has been her effect on the Union – the legal entity that is the United Kingdom. Thatcher was a peculiarly English person. The other parts of the UK did not seem to hold any attraction for her, unlike her more aristocratic predecessors at No 10. Scotland in particular became her victim. There was a clear case of gerrymandering a constituency boundary in Glasgow to ‘ensure’ a Conservative representative and more famously the Poll Tax was tried in Scotland a full year before it was implemented in England.
This was understandably resented north of the border and has led directly to the rise of the Scottish Nationalists whose avowed aim is independence. To say that she was the best recruitment sergeant for the SNP is not too far from the truth.
So a third result of her policies may be the demise of the United Kingdom. We will see next year.
Other things are well known.
The attitude to entrepreneurism has certainly changed for the better – it is much easier to start businesses in the UK now than it was and than in most other parts of the European Union if not the world.
But this freedom has overshot as pure greed has become one of the effects – hence stupid levels of remuneration not so much in the City of London where they do take risks but in public service where people consider running a public body with sound business principles meant that they were running a private business. This sort of greed is very corrosive to society.
Her attitude to Europe is well known. She recognised early on that the British payments to the EEC (as was) were inequitable, based largely on an agricultural policy that is still not fit for purpose. This is the source of the (in)famous British Rebate that arguably should be available to other countries like Holland. Europe of course remains a serious problem for the Conservative Party.
The liberalisation of finance in the mid ‘80s made London a world financial centre, part of the price of which we are now paying although to be fair, this has been a problem of regulation – and again greed – rather than the financial system itself.
While many old manufacturing industries were closed down, not only was this probably inevitable but it promoted the early rise of service industries as well as some remarkable very high tech cases. This was no help to the cruelly displaced workers and the consequent loss of engineering skills that we seem to have just ‘discovered’.
Policing was put back many years with the politicisation during the year-long miners’ strike. Details are only now coming to light but some people have carried convictions all their lives as a result. And there will be no tears for her in Liverpool where victims of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 are only now having some closure.
It was a fascinating if rather scary time in British politics. We should not forget the sheer scale of Margaret Thatcher’s achievements. She was a woman very much in a man’s world yet was clearly the best at the job. She scaled heights that no simple grocer’s daughter – or son – would expect to achieve. She strode the world stage in a way that no politician – even US President – has been able to emulate. She has been out of the limelight now for over twenty years yet still commands passions in her demise.
She was undoubtedly a great leader but, as with all great leaders, had her time and will be remembered for it.