I was brought up to hate Thatcher. With a ex-hippie for a dad, he actually got me so terrified of her with witch-like descriptions, that I would run past her house which was en route to my primary school church.
I studied Thatcher as a result of a ‘history of modern Britain’ course. I went into to class with bias, as a lof of my companions did. And I think it’s fair to say that 90% of the class, even the most leftists, came out surprised by the end of the course. What we realised is that she wasn’t actually ‘evil’, and she did do some good. A lot of the reasons why we thought we hated her, were actually misconstrued.
I’m not anti or pro Thatcher. I’m neutral. But I’m a historian and my job is to weigh up the evidence and think objectively. So I want to share a few things I learned, which helped me think more clearly about Thatcher:
1. She was not anti-Europe. What she was anti was a political European union, she was in fact, very pro an economic union, as it tied in with her beliefs about business and free trade.
2. The famous ‘milk snatching’ happened before she was PM, when she was Minister for Education. She has since said of that decision: “I learned a valuable lesson – I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”
3. Her close relationship with Reagan, and of course the rise of Gorbachev, was instrumental in bringing about the end of the cold war.
4. Re: the unions. This is a big one, because so many people were effected, so I have to tread carefully. The truth is, the unions, especially in the 70s, had the country at ransom. With things like the ‘three-day week,’ the ‘winter of discontent’ and constant striking. No doubt they had reasons, especially the miners who have extremely hard working conditions; but the truth is the country had been brought to its knees as a result of the unions’ actions. Before Thatcher, Heath, Wilson and Callaghan had all tried and failed to control the unions. Heath’s U-Turn on his unions policy was particularly disastrous and humiliating for him. Thatcher’s crushing of them, is considered by most historians and economists (and people at the time), a complete economic necessity for the UK. Where she failed (warning: opinion coming in) is that the money she raised from this, she didn’t reinvest into the regions affected. She instead gave tax cuts, which were in line with her monetarist economic beliefs.
4.2. Continuation from the above point. It has been argued that she did not ‘create’ the North-South divide, and that a cultural and economic one existed prior. I think this is a fair argument because regional differences do exist, and the capital of the country is in the South. What she did then, was widen it, or rip it open depending how you see it. I think this was her main failing, as I mention above, as she did no reinvest in affected communities and try and stimulate economic recovery in those regions. But one has to remember, there have been governments since then, who have also failed to really remedy this divide.
5. Privatisation. She privatised a lot of loss-making industries, but of course, this did mean people lost their jobs in the public sector. The ones she privatised, were more focused on utilities and industry, for example British Petroleum, British Gas and Rolls Royce. The NHS did not suffer under her privatisation policies, but it was effected by her market-driven policies imposed on the public sector.
6. The concept that she is the root of the 2008 financial crisis has both truth and misconception to it. What Thatcher did was oversee legislation which caused the ‘Big Bang,’ which deregulated the the stock markets, thus giving more freedoms. This was continued, and I think detrimentally, by Blair and Brown – something I think is all too forgotten. These regulations made room for the reckless behaviour of the City bankers, which caused the crash. However, it did boost the economy of the time (for Thatcher, and the Blair-Brown bubble), and has played a crucial role in making London the global financial capital it is today.
7. She was elected three times, and left due to alienation of her party, which was already divided, mostly over issues to do with Europe. She was incredibly strong-willed which served her well in her first and and in particular her second term. This strong will however, was eventually her downfall: her attitude turned people detrimentally against her, most famously her once-ally Nigel Lawson.
8. She was not a typical ‘tory toff.’ She was middle class and her father was a successful small business owner, which is where her ideas on the importance of small businesses came from. She got a scholarship to study chemistry at Oxford.
9. She is responsible for legislation such as the ‘right-to-buy’ which created thousands of new home owners by allowing people to purchase their council flats. She was also behind things like Section 28 of the Local Government Act of ’86 which was very negative for LGBT rights. What I want to show here is that there was positive work (right to buy) done by Thatcher, and regressive work (Section 28). Not everything was great, not everything was awful: it is much more complex than that, and it is a misconception to give an 11 year tenure of very mixed actions one label, whatever that label is.
10. She was the first true monetarist in modern British history. She was not a stop-go, Keynesian economist, as her predecessors were, and their policies had greatly overheated the economy by 1979. Her implementation of monetarism, allowed me to compare her budgets and its effects to the stop-go budgets before her. What I concluded is that neither are great, they both can create bubbles and they both can effect the economy and the population negatively; basically, both types of budgets we seem to get in the country, are by no means perfect.
I hope what I’ve shared can shed some light on her and her time in power. You still may hate or admire her, but I hope I’ve brought up some new facts, and now you can judge from a more balanced perspective.
What I do think is truly awful, is the celebration of the death of an elderly woman with dementia, who has a family with feelings. I especially think this is awful, if the reason for doing so is that she was ‘evil.’ Have a quick look at the definition of ‘evil’ and then look at regimes like Khmer Rouge, which in four years killed almost a quater of Cambodia’s population, or earlier ones like Chaing Kai-shek’s Nationalism in China, and of course, Stalin, who lead the regime which caused the most deaths in one country in modern history. These examples – in my opinion anyway – are true evil.