On my first birthday- 4th May 1979- Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. In the thirty-four years since, Britain has been shaped more by Mrs Thatcher than by anyone else in peacetime. For good or bad, Mrs Thatcher (she will always be ‘Mrs’ Thatcher for those of us who grew up in the ’80s!) has dominated politics, public policy and public life.
There has been much written and said in the last day or so about Mrs Thatcher the leader, the woman, the bully of colleagues, the dominator of world leaders, the decimator of our industrial base or our mining communities, the Iron Lady. Whatever your view of her, you are likely to have had a view. She was a uniquely polarising politician or leader. There is very little sitting on the fence when it comes to Mrs T.
Before I offer my own reflections (minus the fence), I would like to mention- and it warrants no more than a mention- the vile behaviour we have seen by a small number who have ‘celebrated’ the death of an 87-year mother and grandmother. This behaviour is a stain on our country. It is disgusting. For those who have this hatred- and that is the only word that fits- it is worth remembering one thing; Mrs Thatcher was able to do what she did in government because she won three elections. She had a democratic mandate. She did not seize power in a military coup or have Jim Callaghan locked in the Tower. The people elected her. Celebrating another human being’s death simply demeans those who do it. I will always defend their right to free speech but I also have the right to be appalled by their exercising of it.
So on to my reflections of Mrs Thatcher.
She did stuff. And not just easy stuff, like making speeches and having her picture taken (although she did plenty of that!) but she did important, difficult stuff. All politicians (or wannabe politicians like me!) say they want to ‘make a difference’. No one could argue that Mrs Thatcher didn’t do that. She made more of a difference than any single politician in our history. Our economy, our society, our political parties and our country have changed beyond recognition since she first walked into No 10. Trade union reform, re-establishing Britain’s position in the world and pride in itself, reforming our economy, giving people the chance to break free of state control and own their own home, helping them buy shares and keep much more of the money they earned, totally reforming our failing state industry (her policy of privatisation was copied all over the world), gaining a huge rebate on Britain’s contribution to the EU and shifting the argument about its future, retaking the Falkland Islands and helping end the Cold War which if not done could have led to the destruction of this world around us. This list only scratches the surface of her achievements. She has an ‘ism’ named after her and she built a political consensus which replaced that which followed the 1945 election and still lasts today. John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron were elected Prime Minister because they positioned themselves as the heir to Thatcher. They owed their political success to the fact that they embraced and accepted her legacy.
She was a leader. Whether you agreed with her or not, you could not question her capacity to take a position- sometimes an unpopular position- and see it through. This courage is admirable in any leader but to see it in this leader who followed several Prime Ministers who had started off as radicals and then gradually retreated in the face of adversity is especially impressive. Mrs Thatcher stood her ground and delivered against the odds. She did not shirk the big calls. She had bottle. Never more so when she emerged from a near death experience in Brighton in 1984. Against advice, she said we would not be bowed. She led from the front, arriving on time and taking to the conference platform to deliver a speech that was every ounce about courage and leadership. It was business as usual. It was extraordinary.
She was respected around the world. The international reaction to Mrs Thatcher’s death has been incredible. World leaders, former world leaders, opponents and supporters all have taken time out to pay tribute or reflect on her life and work. I have been reading newspapers from around the world over the last 48 hours and her death is huge news. Why? Because outside of her domestic impact she had huge impact on the world stage. Especially as a women- the most high profile, powerful woman of hers or frankly any other generation in memory. She was a major player in ending of the Cold War and the bringing together of the two greater superpowers (remember that word!). She was a colossal figure. Love or loathe her; from Russia to Rotterdam, you could not ignore her.
She was lucky in her enemies. She fought two of the most unelected Labour leaders of all time; a windbag and a donkey jacket. She was able to defeat the NUM as much because of the hideousness of Arthur Scargill than because of her own skill. The ‘loony left’ was so out there that it made her appear more reasonable. General Galtieri made the mistake of underestimating her. A mistake that cost our two countries many lives. Her political enemies so often destroyed themselves and played into her hands.
She was full of contrasts. This is a women with lots of grey areas; not always black and white. She was anti President Reagan’s Star Wars in private but hugely supportive in public. Unionist in Ireland but signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, handing powers to Dublin. Hugely Euro-sceptic but a massive champion of the Single European Act and the enlargement of the Community. A women of principle (some would say dogma) but pragmatic to get stuff done. An advocate of ‘sound money’ but responsible for the biggest credit boom in history (until recently!). I spent the first 21 years of my life in Liverpool. I know first hand the damage that some of her policies did to my city. But she was the Prime Minister for the whole of the UK not one part of it and even though it hurt, it was necessary. She was what Britain needed. She was right for her time, not necesarily for all times. Too many previous governments had bottled the big choices because of the pain and political risk. Until her. By the way, the real and lasting damage to Liverpool and places like it were done by the Derek Hattons of this world not the Margaret Thatchers.
She will be remembered. This week, The New York Times ran the headline; ‘Margaret Thatcher Dies; Remade Britain’. Britain was on its knees in 1979. The oft-quoted ‘sick man of Europe’. But in truth the patient wasn’t just sick but dying. Her prescription didn’t always taste good but the patient needed it. Our recovery to full health, built on by governments since, was only possible because of her.
Her impact is and will continue to be massive. Her legacy- good and bad- will be with our country, our continent and our world for generations to come. This week, our great nation lost a great leader, our greatest in peacetime. She made a difference. She united. She divided. She won. She lost. She made big calls. She made mistakes. She remade Britain. She is gone now, but will never be forgotten.