Thatcher at 80: What does she mean to you?

Tonight, the Queen and Tony Blair will be among 650 guests at Baroness Thatcher's birthday party at a London hotel. Not invited: Tory leadership hopefuls David Cameron and Ken Clarke. The Independent asks several key figures what is the legacy of this extraordinary politician
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Thirty years ago, Britain had lost confidence in its capacity to run itself economically and politically. People really did think Britain was finished and many emigrated because of it. But Margaret Thatcher turned around the economy. It was not merely a technical achievement but an exercise of her political will to tackle all the problems that people had been avoiding.

Her critics said she split the country but I do not think that's true. She opened up opportunities for people, whether it was by buying their own council house or creating a business.

She was the first woman prime minister. This radicalised everything. Her economics were based on home economics, the idea that we cannot spend what we haven't got, that we must be alert to value when we shop, that one must keep their house well - people would tease her and say it was crude but it represented women's understanding of life in that period. She imported all that language into politics and male politicians did not know how to deal with it. It made her formidable. No one can ever think that women cannot run anything.

She was also the most important European political leader in the defeat of Communism which has revolutionised the world we live in.

Will Self, novelist

I think people have an exaggerated idea of the kind of great men or women of history. Thatcher was, for the free-market, empty capitalist wing of libertarian economics, the right woman at the right place at the right time. She was a bizarre mix of social conservatism and economic radicalism and she unleashed a Pandora's box of change, but she had no conception of what she was opening. She harkened back to Victorian values and the imperialist past of Britain when it was becoming less and less significant on the world stage. Now, not only do we have deregulated market-driven economics, we also have the highest proportion of cocaine and heroin and a culture dominated by celebrity and pornography. This is Thatcher's legacy as much as anything and her true heir is Tony Blair. He is not an agenda setter but a telegenic face. There is very little he has managed to reverse.

Alexei Sayle, author, actor and comedian

She never pretended that she wasn't a bastard and in that respect she was more honest than Blair and Co - so it's less of a crime, what she did. The thing I remember most was the miners' strike. In retrospect you can see Thatcher handled it well and the opposition from the miners was inept. Thatcher knew exactly what she wanted to do and she did it. Through their arrogance, Scargill and his people blew it. Thatcher made some astonishing inroads into civil liberties. I always remember meeting a Trotskyist on a train up to Liverpool who told me he expected the city to be Britain's St Petersburg; the place where the revolution started. It never happened of course. Heseltine may have helped calm things down [after the 1981 riots]. With the country's economic decline, the changes in Britain would have happened anyway.

Billy Bragg, musician

It is a spiteful legacy, because the legacy of Thatcher damages the basic compassionate society that the welfare state was trying to build - and perhaps would have built if it wasn't for her.

Thatcher tried to turn the clock back to before the welfare state was created, rather than move the idea forward. We see that today in the way that we've moved away from the welfare consensus and state investment that emerged after the Second World War.

With regard to strengths, she was a genuine radical and knew what she believed in - that's lacking in politics right across the board now. She wasn't trying to please everybody: it was very much "them or us".

Her ideological legacy for the Tories has been quite poisonous. The forces of nationalism she unleashed in her core vision of the nation state, particularly after the Falklands War, went about tearing the Conservative Party apart over Europe.

Roger Law, co-creator of Spitting Image

Margaret Thatcher's fucking legacy is Tony Blair. Just as David Cameron is now watching Blair and copying his ideas, Blair watched and copied her. There are a lot of similarities between Thatcher's and Blair's policies: arse-licking American presidents, starting wars, privatising everything.

We've become America in case you haven't noticed. We've dismantled the safety net we had with a mixed economy. I was a secondary modern boy who went to art school on a scholarship; she dismantled that.

The difference between her and other politicians was summed up by The Guardian's Hugo Young, who wrote the first really intelligent article about her. He told me: "This woman will do what she says. She will do it." And of course she did.

There was a lot of bollocks that she swept away. For instance, I used to work in journalism and the print unions were a fucking joke. Gone. But the problem is that it swung so far to the other side.

When historians start totting it all up - the free markets, the getting rid of all responsibility in society - I suspect it will seem like a bad idea. Just take a look around you.

John Kampfner, editor, 'New Statesman'

On the debit side: apart from destroying the unions, increasing poverty, denying the role of society and tearing the country apart, Maggie displayed the worst of Britishness in her ignorance of and hostility to the European continent. She was the first prime minister to embrace spin and set a new brutalist tone in her public pronouncements.

On the credit side: for all the talk of a love-in on the White House lawn with Ronnie Reagan, she was not shy in telling the Americans where to get off, as she did during their invasion of Grenada. This was a lesson a certain Labour successor of hers failed to learn. Perhaps her great contribution, however, was to so divide her own Conservative Party that it was pushed into the political wilderness for at least a decade.

Correlli Barnett, historian

Ever since the war we had lived in a form of state socialism with tremendous controls and regulations over economic and social life. I can remember when you couldn't even buy a house abroad without special permission from the Bank of England. People who think the pre-Thatcher years were a golden age really didn't live through them: just ask anyone who rode on the clapped-out railways or tried to make a telephone call when the Post Office ran the phones.

When she came to power she transformed the country. The moribund industries relying on taxpayer funding - all gone. The trade unions - all gone. She abolished exchange controls, completely liquidated the state sector of industry and threw the economy wide open.

It's certainly true that she was so powerful a person that cabinet government in the collegiate sense began to diminish. More and more they were like a collection of staff officers around the general. Blair has taken that further and deliberately adopted a presidential style in every possible way. The main difference was that she had genuine feeling, conviction and leadership. In my view, during the last eight years, Blair has proved a very plausible conman who promises much but hasn't achieved it.

Nitin Sawhney, musician

I was very excited when she became the first woman prime minister because I thought we would see a more thoughtful and considerate approach to people - less cold-heartedness in politics. But this is the woman who stopped free milk for kids, was responsible for the poll tax and, after she left No 10, joined the tobacco industry to promote smoking. She left behind growing xenophobia - I remember her eulogy when Oswald Mosley died and when she branded Nelson Mandela a "terrorist". Through her behaviour with the American president Ronald Reagan, she set the precedent for Blair and Britain to follow George Bush around like a poodle.

On economic policy, she lied blatantly. She tried to blame mass unemployment on the world recession but she was responsible for it: she implicated the policies of Milton Friedman, which required mass unemployment to control inflation. She ran a smug, dictatorial, patronising government based around her ego and I find it unbelievable she's being celebrated.

Mary Archer, friend

We will never see her like again - it is not a cliché when applied to Margaret Thatcher. As each day goes by, she looks more like a giant of 20th-century politics. To the outside world, Lady Thatcher may appear to be the Iron Lady, but her friends saw a warm, kind and thoughtful person who does not desert you when you are not in vogue.

I think her great achievement on the domestic front was unleashing a spirit of enterprise and pushing back the stifling hold of the unions and the public sector at that time. On the foreign policy front, she undoubtedly played a seminal role in the fall of Communism. Historians will judge her as a very great figure.

In my view, the Conservative Party is still suffering the consequences of the manner of her removal.

Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to the Prime Minister, 1979-90

We are enjoying her legacy now. I think that needs to be said. The reason we have enjoyed the last eight years is not because of Labour's conversion - Labour fought every reform she brought forward. It's because she bequeathed an exceptional economy. We have done very well, and we wouldn't have done very well but for her. The most important thing was that she brought order to public finances. She then brought the trade unions within a framework of law. They were bringing the country to its knees. And she freed up the economy. The bonfire of controls released the nation from regulations and allowed it to express itself, and eventually it did. It took about six years, and there was a lot of pain - we cannot deny that - but it is pain that France and Germany still need to go through. She stopped the rot - at least for a time. She raised Britain's standing in the world and forced the Labour Party to reform.

Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

There is no more substantial Thatcher legacy than the whole New Labour phenomenon. New Labour is best understood as eight years of consolidation of key aspects of Thatcherism. New Labour shares Mrs Thatcher's arm's-length approach to trade unions, her passionate attachment to whichever US president happens to be in office at the time, her distaste for Labour-led local government and her unwavering focus on middle-class, middle-England voters. It's unsurprising that in the early years of his premiership, Tony Blair met Mrs Thatcher in Downing Street to ask for her advice.

Baroness Williams, Education Secretary in the Labour government, 1976-79

Without any doubt she made a very substantial contribution in facing down powerful interests like the trade unions. When I was in cabinet, one of my great worries was that the TUC had an effective veto over policy, before the matter came before Parliament. As a traditional liberal believer in parliamentary democracy, I found that very offensive. She stood up to extra-constitutional pressures that were coming into the constitutional structure. In particular, she stood up to Arthur Scargill [president of the National Union of Mineworkers]. Previous Labour and Conservative governments had not had the bottle to do that. But she also presided over more destruction of small businesses and traditional industries than was necessary. We have suffered from that ever since.

Lord Tebbit, Conservative Party chairman, 1985-87

Her lasting achievements were to have resolved the industrial problems which had so wrecked the economy that we were spoken of as suffering the "English disease". She took Britain from being a basket-case to being one of the most successful economies in the world. She brought to government a better understanding of economics and destroyed the false idea that inflation could be defeated by incomes and prices policy and laid the foundation for the long-term defeat of inflation. She turned the loss-making nationalised industries into national assets, and with Ronald Reagan brought about the end of the Cold War and the liberation of central and Eastern Europe. But because the economic problems were so severe and the resolution of the Cold War so difficult, she never had enough time to carry through the reforms of education, welfare and the NHS which were in her mind.

Tessa Jowell, culture secretary

Her legacy was a dreadful rise in unemployment and negative equity, and public services that became services only for the poor and from which the middle class took flight, and a generation that felt that they did not belong.

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