How Margaret Thatcher built the myth of The Iron Lady

Saviour of the nation from post-war decadence, or heartless milk-snatcher who destroyed heavy industry and decimated whole communities? Paul Vallely sifts the reputation from the reality
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No British prime minister of the last century has created greater myth than Margaret Thatcher. And yet there are huge chasms between the myths and the Mrs.

Those seeking to deify her visualise a saviour who rescued the nation from a post-war Socialist decadence with a weak currency, feeble business spirit, ineffective incentives and an interventionist, consensus government. She cut taxes and sold off council houses and flabby nationalised industries. She stood up against the unions at home and the Russians and Argies aboard. She made Britain great again.

But there is an obverse of that coin. The myth of those who, in the words of Elvis Costello’s song, want now to “Tramp the dirt down” on her yet undug grave, is that she was the hard, unfeeling, wicked witch of selfishness and privilege. She began by ending free school milk for schoolchildren – “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher”  and then went on to kill Britain’s great heavy industries, create mass unemployment, destroy entire communities, take money from the poor and give it to the rich and deregulate the City, paving the way for the global financial meltdown of 2008.

The day she resigned they sang “Ding dong the witch is dead” outside Downing Street and made pacts to throw parties to celebrate her funeral.

She was Britain’s first woman prime minister and yet there is not even agreement on what that meant. Her notion of women’s rights – to compete, fight, and succeed on equal terms with men – did not fit the orthodoxies of contemporary feminism. She made great play with the bogus idea that the economics of housewifery can be transferred to the Treasury. She tickled the spare rib of those who felt women to be the superior sex. On the Labour benches she liberated the repressed misogyny among male MPs who chanted “ditch the bitch” when she entered the Commons. They called her Attila the Hen and likened her voice to “a perfumed fart”.

Another new myth was forged in 2011 – it surely won’t be the last – with the film The Iron Lady, which recast Thatcher according to two distinct narratives: one in which she was a member of the lower middle class struggling to overcome the snobbery of Tory upper-class culture and, most strongly, as a woman who vanquished all comers in a male-dominated world. It was about as accurate a portrait as that of Richard III at the hands of Shakespeare.

But just as others have cast Thatcher in widely divergent lights, the truth was she had long re-made her own image. As Education Secretary in the Cabinet of Edward Heath – a grammar school scholarship boy, note, rather than a well-bred Tory patrician – she did not object to the middle-of-the-road policies of the time. But by the time she entered Downing Street in 1979 – and had the temerity to quote the prayer of St Francis of Assisi, “where there is discord, may we bring harmony” – she had remoulded herself into a hard-line free-market monetarist. 

As her policies were refashioned so too was her image – her shrill voice was softened, her fussy frills and furbelows banished, her teeth straightened and her hair made more elegant.

Even so, the simplicity of the myths concealed a chain of contradictions.

She promoted the idea that inflation at 27 per cent was somehow the fault of inefficient nationalised industries and the failure of a post-war mixed economy when it had as much to do with the quadrupling of oil prices after the Yom Kippur War.

By contrast, the idea that she killed off British shipbuilding, coal-mining and steel-making does not bear scrutiny, for all were in long-term decline long before she took office: the acceleration of their decline was as much to do with global recession as Thatcher governments.

There were other paradoxes. The great tax-cutter, we now know, actually opposed her Chancellor’s 1979 decision to cut income tax from 83 per cent to 60 per cent. Though she sold off many state-owned enterprises, the welfare state actually expanded in her time. Unaccountable regulators now wield the power once exercised by the bosses of nationalised industries. She emasculated local government and promoted the remorseless growth of big and intrusive government at the centre. 

On Europe, for all her passionate Eurosceptic “No-no-no” speechifying, she led the Tory Yes campaign in the 1975 referendum on staying in the Common Market. In 1986 she signed the Single European Act which strengthened the European Economic Community and gave away many British independent powers.

The contradictions abounded. For all her fierce nationalism over the Falklands she passively handed Hong Kong over to China (completed in 1997) without insisting on democracy for its residents. On Iran, when President Jimmy Carter asked her to withdraw diplomats from Tehran to support the US she refused; yet later she allowed the SAS to storm the Iranian embassy in London

With the IRA, she publicly spoke about unwavering resistance to terrorism. She stood firm and watched 10 Republican prisoners, one of them an MP, starve themselves to death for their political rights. Yet recently released government papers show she authorised three sets of negotiations with the IRA in secret.

For all the myth-making, Margaret Thatcher was a conservative who promoted accelerated change. She was for a traditional view of life but in the end promoted the individual – there was “no such thing as society” – over the family and the common good.

All political lives, Enoch Powell famously wrote, “end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”. Perhaps myth is what makes that different. Myth does not, in the end, require fact or explanation. “Myth is never driven out by reality, or by reason,” wrote the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, “but lingers on until another myth has been discovered, or elaborated, to replace it.”