Eamonn De Valera always said that if he wanted to know what the people of Ireland thought, he only had to look into his own heart. Though Margaret Thatcher would never have used such exalted language, she would have understood what he meant. However embattled she became, she never lost her political self-confidence, which was rooted in her belief that she was the ordained spokesman and leader of the best people in these islands. That explains her strength and her legacy. She was a great Prime Minister because she was a petit- bourgeois revolutionary.
At his peak, Tony Blair was more popular than Mrs Thatcher ever became. Nor has he aroused the visceral hatred she frequently encountered. "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie: out, out, out" - there were always lots of people who loathed her. Not many people hate Tony Blair, though an increasing number are beginning to despise him. But his popularity has never rested on her secure class basis.
That was why Mrs Thatcher never minded about the hatred. She was always accused by her opponents of being a divisive figure, she regarded that charge as a compliment. She had come to emphasise division; the division between good and bad; the division between her people and the enemy within.
Mrs Thatcher's people were the hard-working mercantile middle classes, like her husband Denis, they might have inherited small family businesses and then built them up. Or chaps who had started their own businesses. But they were not the hereditary rich. Though Mrs Thatcher's people were happy to become grander and to count grandees among their acquaintances, they were rooted in solid middle-class stock.
They were also provincial, even when they lived in London. Before they moved to Downing Street, the Thatchers had a house in Chelsea, but only because she needed to be near the Commons. In real terms, she belonged in the Surrey hills, among people whose dream was not stucco in South Kensington but stockbroker Tudor somewhere around the Hog's Back, in a house big enough to have its own tennis court. Mrs Thatcher came from a world where the husbands played golf and the wives made jam.
This was a world which it is fashionable to despise. In an increasingly sensitive society, where all forms of humour are intensely scrutinised in case of some involuntary slight to a minority group, it is still permissible to mock the bourgeoisie, and especially the petit-bourgeoisie from whom Margaret Thatcher sprang. She was often mocked. It never worried her. It also led her opponents to underestimate her political strength.
In the mid-1970s, Britain was in a chronic state of economic crisis. There were regular rumours and panics about likely shortages of vital foodstuffs. Around that time, in an interview for a popular magazine, Margaret Thatcher advised elderly people to use their spare cash to stock up with nourishing tinned foods so that they would always have something to rely on in an emergency. Among the sophisticated classes - Tories included - there waswidespread derision. How could she be so gauche? Among the unsophisticated classes, always the majority, I suspect that there was a different reaction and a sense that here at least was a politician who understood the conditions under which most people had to live.
There had never been a Prime Minister whose moral values were so shaped by lower middle-class origins. To her opponents, this was a recurrent source of amusement. To her, it was a constant source of confidence. Though she may have been a Christian, it was as if she believed that the petit-bourgeoisie had no original sin. She seemed certain that, left to themselves, they would always ensure that the country was in good shape.
She also tended to evaluate everyone else by their moral standing, or otherwise, in petit-bourgeois moral terms. In her long years as Prime Minister, she came to like and respect many civil servants. She often found them easier to work with than the ministers who were their notional political bosses. Yet, exercising the prerogative of her sex, she never reconciled the particular and the general. To the end of her days in office, she instinctively believed that en masse, civil servants could not be much good. Otherwise, they would have proper jobs in the private sector.
Her much-resented successor, John Major, a man of broad human sympathies, understood what it was like to be trapped without hope at the bottom of the social heap. She did not. If she had been put on the psychiatrist's couch, and asked to respond to the word "unemployed", she would have said that it referred to those who were too lazy to find work.
She would have thought it disgraceful for any able-bodied man to live on the state. A Prime Minister of Elizabeth II, she would have sympathised with the justices of the peace under Elizabeth I, who ordered sturdy beggars to be whipped from parish to parish.
Her rootedness in lower middle-class values was profoundly unfashionable. But without it, she could not have achieved the economic transformation which occurred during her 11 years in Number 10. Although she would have been bewildered to learn that her successes could be analysed in Marxist language, that is the case. She fought the class war on behalf of the middle classes.
So Tony Blair, building on her successes, was able to be a post-class politician. Yet this has made him a rootless one. That also explains his ambivalence towards Mrs Thatcher. He can never decide whether she was a wicked witch who wrecked the public services which he is now rescuing - or whether she was a great figure, and he is her natural heir.
He is not the natural heir, because he is not sufficiently in love with a coherent vision of Britain. "I always had a certain idea of France", said De Gaulle, which did not prevent him from pursuing his idea of France by policies which alienated many of his fellow Frenchmen. Mrs Thatcher would have understood. She, too, was an instinctive Manichean. If she had been ahead in the opinion polls and winning by-elections 18 months into one of her terms of office, she would have wondered what she was doing wrong.
She never deliberately sought unpopularity. Nor did she expect to be liked. She would not have gone so far as to agree with Caligula: "Oderint, dum metuant" - let them hate me, as long as they fear me - but like a good old-fashioned schoolmaster, she was interested in respect, not popularity.
Poor Tony Blair wants to be popular, with everyone. He is now discovering that this is not within a Prime Minister's gift; that to act decisively is always likely to lead to enmity. That is why he is now under such strain.
Margaret Thatcher never deliberately courted unpopularity. But she knew that it came with the territory. She also felt that in the longer term, achievements mattered and short-term popularity did not. She was right. That is why she was able to use her term in office so productively and to become this country's greatest peacetime Prime Minister. Tony Blair's lack of an equivalent moral strength will ultimately condemn him to littleness. She was a warrior; he is a narcissist.Reuse content