The passing of Lady Thatcher marks the end of a truly remarkable woman. Love her, hate her, it is simply undeniable that Britain radically changed under her premiership. Don’t think of her as a politician, think of her as a one woman revolution. Someone who took a country that had lost faith in itself, which had become the sick man of not only Europe but the Western World, and gave it a repeated slapping leaving it richer, stronger, and more confident than when she had entered Downing Street eleven years earlier.
There will be those who rejoice at the death of Lady Thatcher just as there will be many who feel saddened by her passing. For those who do not mourn her death I can understand their reasons. The closing of coal mines did damage large industrial communities that have never since recovered. Her grappling of the trade union barons helped to bring about the end of British ship building. Thatcher’s determination to drive through neoliberal policies resulted in some, who were resistant to radical change, being left behind. There is justification within these arguments to have a dislike for a woman who is perceived to be the enemy, who destroyed a way of life. However it is not only ignorant but also short sighted to blame Thatcher for all of the problems these communities faced.
Unions are there to represent their members and I support them in that fundamental objective. Yet in the 1970s and 80s the unions had become controlled by Marxists such as Arthur Scargill who considered the self confessed ‘socialist’ Labour Party of Wilson and Callaghan to be too right wing even for him. The unions brought down Ted Heath’s government of the early 70s and were increasing pressure on the Labour government to significantly raise wages, in some cases 35% above inflation. As a result inflation hit an eye watering 25% in 1975, interest rates plummeted and the recession deepened. International investment fell substantially and to the world our politics, our society and our economy appeared mortally ill.
Many who gloat at the death of ‘Thatcher the evil milk snatcher’ often forget the dire state the country was in before she became Prime Minister. Many within the Labour Party and on the left of politics today still do not agree with what Lady Thatcher did, but there is often consensus that something had to be done to deal with the mess the country was in. Labour never tackled the social and economic problems of the 70s out of a fear that the unions would split the Party. The only alternative to bring about some form of spring to a long winter of discontent was therefore to elect Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister, leader of a Conservative Party unchained from union paymasters, and that’s just what the country did.
Lady Thatcher was a conviction politician who had been elected in 1979 on a radical manifesto of privatisation, monetarism and neoliberal economic reform. She believed that freedom from government was crucial, that we should be able to run our own lives the way we want without the interference of the state. She implemented the Pit Closure programme not out of a determined attempt to destroy the working classes, but as the first step towards economic reform that was in desperate need. The unwillingness of union barons to cooperate and negotiate with the Conservative government led to strikes and civil unrest. The National Union of Miners kept their members out on strike for up to a year due to Scargill’s frantic insistency of bringing down another government. He failed. The Pit Closure programme was hard fought however coal mining simply was not profitable. Rising wages and increased costs meant the industry was uncompetitive and could no longer be subsidised by a country which was on its knees, and had to be bailed out by the IMF only some six years earlier. When coal mining was privatised only four pits out of nearly 20 were found to be making a profit. Increasing demands by the unions in terms of working hours and pay also meant the death of the ship building industry in the UK, as once again this industry became too costly and uncompetitive against emerging specialist nations such as Germany. Thatcher could be hard and uncompromising but to hail her as the pin up boy of hatred for destroying lives is incongruous. There are so many factors that brought down mining and ship building, not least an intractable self destructing ability of the unions. But Lady T did what was difficult yet absolutely necessary to end the unprofitable areas of the economy with the ambition of creating a new invigorated economy.
We often hear that Thatcher destroyed the NHS, this is far from true she restructured the NHS and increased the organisations budget by around 32%. She never attempted to privatise the health service and in fact it was Blair’s Labour government who introduced competition of the private sector into the NHS in the late 90s. Spending on Law and Order increased by over 50% as a result of an economy that was booming under her tenure. The right to buy your Council home was one of Thatcher’s greatest meritocratic achievements. Because of her fervent belief in self reliance hundreds of thousands were able to buy their homes for the first time. Many people like those in my family who had come from the working classes and a Labour background were finally given choice over the direction we wanted our lives to go. The buying of council houses empowered women just like my mother who faced the prospect of never being a homeowner to buy their home. The British people were able to become wealth creators and share owners under Thatcher’s privatisation policy of state owned industries such as British Telecom and British Gas.
Lady Thatcher’s economic revolution created a growing middle class. Many in my family who had been lifelong supporters of the Labour Party had a realisation that only with Maggie as Prime Minister would we be able to become part of a wider world that had always been closed to us. This was a world that we now had prospects in and potential to succeed for the first time in our lives. Lady Thatcher inspired people and taught us that aspiration is not something to be ashamed off. With hard work and determination we can achieve but that will only come from the effort of the individual which is absolutely accurate. She once famously said that if you work hard you’ll be surprised how often you’ll succeed, never were truer words spoken as the UK went from an unemployment rate of nearly 17% to one of the lowest we had ever had, that of 4%. If Cameron gets 11 years in power he will be lucky to see GDP rise by 5%, yet Thatcher oversaw a staggering 24% increase in GDP and she was rewarded by the British public by winning three successive election victories. In terms of votes Thatcher won almost 100,000 more votes during her last election then she did in her first, Blair on the other hand lost well over 4 million votes between his first and third election victories. Thatcher’s strong relationship with Reagan and her backing of Gorbachev to the US as a ‘man we can do business with’ successfully helped to bring about the end of the Cold War. The Iron Ladies belief in the extraordinary ability of man if set free from the state ran through every policy, initiative or war she was ever involved in.
The social democratic consensus implemented through Keynesian economic policies failed Britain in the 1970s. Radical neoliberal reform was needed to improve Britain’s standing in the world again. The reforms Thatcher introduced were not reversed by the last Labour government and in fact Tony Blair argued that it was his job to build upon Thatcher’s legacy. With her death the outcry from the international community has been astonishing. From Julia Gillard, Kissinger, Obama, to Gorbachev and even Banki Moon, the world recognises the important role that Lady Thatcher played, not only on the world stage fighting for democracy and freedom, but also how she rebuilt a nation that had become scared of its own shadow. Under Thatcher Britain once again has become a leading international force.
There are not many leaders of the free world today who we can all say we have been touched by, for good or bad. Blair was in power for ten years yet few of us can see how he affected our lives, the opposite is true of the Iron Lady. For myself I’m biased, she acts as an inspiration to me and someone I admired tremendously. I don’t write this article pretending it to be impartial, it’s not and I know I shall get attacked for praising a woman who can only be regarded as one of Britain’s greatest post war Prime Ministers. However we have to recognise that for many, and I would argue the majority, she acts as an inspiration and someone who revolutionised the way we think and live. She is the reason I entered politics and why I fight for the things I do. Lady T taught me that if you feel passionately about something and want to make a difference, then stand up and fight for what you believe in. I literally owe her everything. She changed the way in which we think about government and the civil service, that the state is your servant and not your master. She fought for democracy and for her people. Many of us, even those who despise her, are better off today, thanks to her toughness and resolve. History will remember her favourably as a lady who made Britain proud of itself once again, who gave us a renewed sense of purpose and as someone who did what needed to be done against all adversity. A great Briton has died this week, love her or loath her I can’t foresee the emergence of any politician with the vision, determination, strength of character and balls that the Iron Lady had.