'A heroine and a hate figure' - for better or worse, Baroness Thatcher remade our nation

Few British prime ministers have given their name to a political philosophy

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Baroness Thatcher, Britain’s longest-serving prime minister since Queen Victoria was on the throne, has died in the Ritz hotel at the age of 87. She had been ill for some time and barely been seen in public life for a decade. While a heroine for many people, she was equally a hate figure for others. Indifference wasn’t an option.

She was one of the two great prime ministers that the United Kingdom has had since the Second World War. The first was the Labour Party leader, Clement Attlee (1945 to 1951). The Conservative Party broadly accepted what Attlee had done until Mrs Thatcher (as she then was) challenged the post-war settlement. Attlee had founded the welfare state, created the National Health Service and nationalised major industries and public utilities. The NHS remained inviolate but one of Mrs Thatcher’s first actions as Prime Minister in 1979 was to give council tenants the right to buy their council houses at a discount. Over a million were sold before she left office. And denationalisation, or “privatisation” as Mrs Thatcher called it, was one of the most prominent aspects of her period in 10 Downing Street. Indeed we largely live in Thatcher’s Britain.

Not many prime ministers remain in people’s minds long after they have stepped down. Lady Thatcher was one, even becoming a character in plays and films. Only Winston Churchill exceeds her in stage and broadcast impersonations.

Fewer still have been the British prime ministers who have given their name to a political philosophy. The only other example since the war is “Blairism”, but what is that, other than a skill in political marketing? Its only followers are, bizarrely, the present Prime Minister and a handful of those close to him. To this day, “Thatcherism” is used all over the world to describe a brisk, unsentimental pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps approach. It can indicate political obstinacy. It has also become synonymous with “cuts”.

Moreover our political parties still advance and retreat across the very same battle lines that Mrs Thatcher first laid out – free enterprise versus state ownership, self-help versus reliance on government, further curbs on the unions versus preserving their privileges, and acting on the world stage as if we were still a great power versus focusing on aid for poor countries. Lord Lawson, one of her chancellors of the exchequer, recently urged David Cameron to start modelling his premiership on Margaret Thatcher rather than on Tony Blair. Many Conservative MPs agree.

Thatcherism was given its final definition on 22 November 1990 when Mrs Thatcher made her last appearance in the House of Commons as Prime Minister. It was a poignant moment. She had won three successive general elections and had recently vowed to go on and on. Nonetheless she had learnt earlier in the day that she would not have the support of many senior colleagues in the annual poll that was shortly to be conducted by Conservative MPs for the party leadership. She had no choice but to withdraw and announce her resignation. Technically still Prime Minister, at 4.50pm she rose to oppose the motion of no confidence put down by Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labour Party.

Mrs Thatcher was not a natural orator but she generally achieved her purposes by a mastery of her brief and force of character. That day, she was excoriating in her scorn of Mr Kinnock yet within the bounds of parliamentary custom: neither mean-minded nor petulant. At one point she declared: “I am enjoying this!” The essence of Thatcherism was expressed thus: “We have given power back to the people on an unprecedented scale… We have done it by curbing the monopoly power of trade unions to control, even to victimise, the individual worker… We have done it by enabling families to own their homes, not least through the sale of 1.25 million council houses… We have done it by giving people choice in public services… Labour is against spreading those freedoms and choice to all our people. It is against us giving power back to the people by privatising nationalised industries… Labour wants to renationalise electricity, water and British Telecom. It wants to take power back to the state and back into its own grasp – a fitful and debilitating grasp.”

By now she was very much the finished article. But she didn’t arrive in politics displaying the qualities for which she became famous. When she took up her first government post as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Pensions in 1961, she proceeded carefully: the main lesson she took was that civil servants had their own agendas and these were not necessarily the same as the government’s.

When Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970, Mrs Thatcher was appointed Secretary of State for Education with a seat in the cabinet. It was a form of torture. She stayed there for the full three years and eight months of the government’s life. In many ways it was the least suitable job that she could have been given. Education was supposed to be above politics; the government’s only role was to supply the funding. The idea was that professional educators rather than ignorant politicians would deal with policy. That would surely make Mrs Thatcher tear her hair out.

Surprisingly, given her later reputation, Mrs Thatcher was very good at extracting generous budget settlements from the Treasury. Her civil servants admired her very much for that. In a sense they had outsmarted her. They had kept her out of policy while she efficiently found the cash. In fact Mrs Thatcher’s first period in high office was to prove an embarrassment for her when viewed from the standpoint of the early 1980s, when she was an insecure Prime Minister, neither wholly admired by her colleagues in government nor much loved by the public. Her days of glory were to come later.

If the Mrs Thatcher that everyone remembers, the free enterprise warrior, had yet to emerge, her ferocious working methods were visible from the beginning. She was by nature a problem solver rather than a speculative thinker. She was meticulous. She read and made notes on every document that crossed her desk or was left in her box to be dealt with overnight. Nothing was missed. That could be admired.

But her personal style in dealing with officials, junior ministers and later with her cabinet colleagues was assertive, overbearing and surely counter-productive.

She was reluctant ever to lose an argument. One of her biographers, John Campbell, wrote: “With juniors and seniors alike, she was always determined to win arguments, at whatever cost in bruised egos. If she was losing the main point at issue, she would abruptly change tack to pick up a different point in order to win on that.” A ministerial colleague stated: “These battles are totally exhausting… They cannot be good for government. They’re a quite unnecessary expenditure of energy. They almost never result in any clarification, mainly because of her habit of going off at a wild tangent and worrying away for half an hour at a minor detail.” A junior minister at the Department for Education said that he came out of meetings with her feeling “like a peeled banana”. Roy Jenkins said of her style in European meetings that she was “almost totally impervious to how she offends other people”.

Mrs Thatcher’s cussedness in argument, day in and day out, had a good side. It was transmuted into the robust, courageous leadership she provided when Argentina invaded the Falklands on 2 April 1982. She was outraged. As John Campbell noted: “It was as though Grantham [her birthplace] had been invaded by the Germans.” And the risks for her in handling the crisis were breathtaking. Hugo Young wrote: “She would be damned if she did not get the Falklands back. But she would be double-damned and destroyed, probably alongside her government, if she tried and failed.” Indeed the difficulties of retaking them were immense: the islands were only 300 miles from the Argentinian coast but 8,000 miles from Britain. Winter was just beginning in the South Atlantic.

That was just the start of the problems. Could a task force be swiftly assembled to sail south? It could. It left port on the following Monday. Would it be able to provide the air cover necessary for carrying out an opposed landing? Not as conventionally defined, but in the event 4,000 men were successfully put ashore. Would our soldiers, sailors and airmen lose their lives in the conflict? That was always expected.

Some 255 British military personnel died during the fighting. Some 777 were wounded. Six ships and 20 aircraft were lost. Yet on 14 June white flags were flying over Port Stanley. Argentina had surrendered. Apart from Churchill, no other prime minister of recent times could have seen the war through to success with such single-minded vigour and a sense of righteousness as Mrs Thatcher did.

The domestic equivalent of the Falklands War was the government’s defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984. In Mrs Thatcher’s mind, the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, played the same role as General Galtieri, the President of Argentina. The strike intensified and became a pitched battle in May when 5,000 pickets at the Orgreave coke depot near Sheffield tried to stop the movement of coal to Scunthorpe steel works. This went on for three weeks.

The strikers were eventually beaten back by mounted and heavily armed police. Indeed the miners got nothing out of the year-long strike, neither an agreement on pit closures, nor a pay rise until the overtime ban was lifted, nor an amnesty for convicted pickets. But whereas people could luxuriate in the Falklands triumph while mourning the dead and remembering the injured, no such emotion greeted this “victory”. It left a scar on the nation’s soul. Some 11,291 people had been arrested, of whom 8,392 were charged, mainly for breach of the peace, obstructing the police and obstructing the highway. A historian of the labour movement later wrote that this was without doubt “the most important defeat for the trade union movement since the collapse of the General Strike and the TUC’s abandonment of the miners in 1926… As in 1926, it created or reinforced for another generation a hatred for Conservative politicians.” That venom still circulates in the British body politic.

As soon as this was over, the Prime Minister opened up a new front that again led to a pitched battle, this time in Trafalgar Square in central London. These were the poll tax riots. What was being attempted seemed at first glance to be a sensible reform of the rates or local property taxes paid by homeowners to their local councils. The new idea was that everyone who used council services should pay equally towards their cost. As every adult resident had a vote in local elections, so every adult resident should pay for the services received rather than homeowners alone. It was officially called a community charge but because it was levied per head, it became known as the poll tax (from the Middle  English “polle”, head of hair). The Prime Minister,  by then becoming dangerously self-regarding, called it “the flagship of the Thatcherite fleet”.

Two problems quickly emerged. It would be difficult to collect. And it would be a regressive form of taxation, levied as it was regardless of income. And of course many people who hadn’t been ratepayers would pay local taxes for the first time. There would be a lot of losers. The Conservative Party became uneasy. Tory councillors in Oxfordshire and Yorkshire resigned from the party rather than be responsible for introducing the tax.

On the second reading of the Bill, 17 Tories voted against and 15 abstained but the Bill was approved. There were disturbances in Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Hackney, Lambeth, Swindon and Maidenhead. Finally on 31 March 1990 what were described as the worst riots seen in London for a century engulfed Trafalgar Square. Eight months later, Mrs Thatcher had resigned and it was left to her successor, John Major, to bury the policy.

What finally brought Mrs Thatcher down were two factors. The first was the widespread feeling that she had run out of steam. The Independent, in a leader published after the Conservative Party conference in October 1990, observed: “Her early efforts were ... major achievements. But times have changed. The country is saying with increasing clarity that it wants more emphasis on health, education, transport and the environment... The impression she left [in her conference speech] was of someone still fighting battles that have been won.”

The second negative was her intransigent attitude to further European integration; this put her in a minority in her own party. But re-reading her strident speeches today gives no sense of them being out of date or belonging to a bygone era. She dismissed the idea of a “united states of Europe” as a fantasy. I believed in it at the time, but now I see that she was correct.

She thought that the European Union should simply be a free-trade area with limited co-operation between sovereign nations. That is what an increasing number of us who were once fervent Europeans would like to get back to. As she said in a famous speech in Bruges that was widely criticised: “Working closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy... We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”

With this speech she reversed the Conservative Party’s established attitude to Europe. In due course this led to the resignation of her Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe. She later lost her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, for different reasons. And from that it was only a short step to losing the confidence of most of her cabinet. And that in turn led directly to her resignation.

Europe was the greatest challenge facing Mrs Thatcher’s premiership and it was her “greatest failure”, Mr Campbell, wrote nearly 10 years ago. The late Peter Jenkins told readers of The Independent that “had she ever managed to rise above her small-town shopkeeper prejudices, Mrs Thatcher possessed the authority and qualities of leadership which could decisively have reconciled the British people to Europe. Sadly, rather than play the card of European patriotism she preferred to bang the dismal drum of nationalism.”

But in light of the perpetual crisis in which members of the eurozone have found themselves – as a result of misjudged integration – since the onset of the financial and banking crisis in 2007, those negative judgements now appear wrong. In this respect at least, she was an example of the prophet without honour in her own country.

Further reading:

Obituary: Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first and only female prime minister

Margaret Thatcher: Round-up of today's full coverage

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