Unforgiven? The rehabilitation of Mrs T

This week’s dramatisation of the fall of Margaret Thatcher shows her as a more human figure than often supposed. As the Iron Lady is re-evaluated on TV, we asked some of those who were prominent in the 1980s how they regard her now


Sir Max Hastings Editor of
The Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s

She regenerated the capitalist system in Britain and was right to privatise large areas of state ownership, but failed to reform such vital sectors as education and health which could not be delegated to private management. After a decade in power she had exhausted her energy, ideas and credibility, and governed increasingly erratically. I was much relieved that, after I was obliged to sack her daughter during a round of bracing Thatcherite redundancies, she never spoke to me again.

Sir John Tusa Managing director of the BBC World Service, 1986-92

Her most significant acts were fighting for the recovery of the Falklands and recognising that she could “do business” with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. She was wrong to say and believe that “there is no such thing as society”, undermining the essential bond that connects a humane society – shared responsibility for one another. She began the coarsening and degrading of local and national community.

Tony Benn Labour MP in the 1980s and previously a Labour minister

She mounted a counter-revolution against the welfare state and the 1945 reforms, strangled local government and privatised public assets. Trade union legislation today is less progressive than in 1906. Her greatest achievement was New Labour, which is a Thatcherite party. When Eric Heffer [a Liverpool Labour MP] died, I spoke at his memorial. Someone was coughing behind me, and it was Thatcher. I thanked her for coming.

Jonathan Aitken Backbench Conservative MP during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and former suitor of her daughter, Carol

She was right about the Falklands War, the excess of the unions and general economic liberalisation. She could be unnecessarily combative, abrasive and harsh. But what you saw was what you got.

Hanif Kureishi Playwright, screenwriter and novelist

Her view of human nature and of people was that that they were aggressive and competitive and only interested in themselves. She took it for granted that people were not altruistic, which has brought us to where we are today – a consumer society obsessed with celebrity. We are only now reopening the way we think and talk about ourselves in light of the bankruptcy of consumer capitalism. Once in the National Theatre, I turned round to find that I was with the Queen, Michael Heseltine and Thatcher. Had I been in possession of a bomb, Britain would have been considerably changed.

Sir Bernard Ingham Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary

Her most significant act was to stand against the prevailing pale-pink consensus which had stood for 35 years. She didn’t do a lot wrong. She might have been less abrasive but then she would not have achieved as much.

Beryl Bainbridge Novelist

I never voted Conservative, but she was a strong and able woman, well educated and she wasn’t scared of men. I saw her a couple of years ago with Carol. I had had a drink and I just went up to Margaret and kissed her. I felt terribly ashamed afterwards. Carol asked me why I did it and I just said, “she’s nice”.

Germaine Greer Writer, academic and feminist

Her most significant act was introducing cervical cancer screening for women, although I didn’t think it was a good idea at the time. The Falklands War was wrong but from the perspective of her leadership it was right. It reversed her fortunes as a leader but it was very cynical.

Will Self Novelist and columnist who grew up in Margaret Thatcher’s constituency

She spoke to us in the sixth form. I was only 16, but I never understood the sexual allure she held with some people in the Cabinet. Maybe it was power.

Tariq Ali Novelist and left-wing political campaigner

The Falklands War and inciting consumerism and xenophobia as a result of that conflict was her biggest act. Both laid the basis for the new consensus. Did she do anything right? No.

Billy Bragg Singer and left-wing activist

Taking on the National Union of Miners was her biggest act because, by destroying them, she broke the back of the post-war consensus.

Anything she did right was obscured by the vindictive way she carried out her policies. We are still living with the legacy of what she did wrong.

Edwina Currie Health minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government

Her most significant act was to defeat [the miners’ leader] Arthur Scargill and to open up the economy. She failed to respond in 1989-90 when the downside of the economic revolution was making itself felt. But she called those of us who were worried about it “moaning minnies”. She was a fantastic leader to work with and very supportive. She made the men look like wimps.

Ann Widdecombe Backbench Conservative MP under Margaret Thatcher

Privatisation was her biggest act and doing away with the idea that the state has to own everything that was essential. But she failed, as all successive Prime Ministers have, to get to grips with the welfare-dependency culture.

Lord Coe Olympic 1500m winner in the 1980s and Tory MP in the 1990s

At a Downing Street reception ahead of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 she asked me when I was going out, and I said I would go early because I needed four weeks to acclimatise. She said: “You don’t need that amount of time.” I said: “I think I do.” “I think you’re wrong and I am a research chemist,” she said. “I think I’m right and I have won the title twice,” I replied. I don’t think she understood sport.

John Fortune Satirist and cast member of Yes, Minister

Encouraging people to buy council houses was her biggest act, and she was right in that. She was wrong to demonise Arthur Scargill and the rest of the miners and to create the idea that the working classes were the enemy within.

Robert Lawrence Falklands War veteran and subject of the film Tumbledown

I met her and Denis at a fundraiser. He was introduced to me and was told I was the subject of Tumbledown, but he misheard and said: “What a load of left-wing crap,” and walked away. I passed the word along that I was outraged. When it got back to him the garden party parted like the Red Sea as he strode towards me and grabbed my damaged hand saying: “Bless your golden heart, sonny.”

Alexei Sayle Comedian and cast member in The Young Ones

I remember them dropping litter in St James’s Park so she could go round and pick it up on camera as a Keep Britain Tidy message. That told me a lot about her and her mind. I always made sure I never met her or I would have had to punch her.

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