Editorial: Beware the potency of the Maggie myth

Lady Thatcher's career is a vivid test case for the law of unintended consequences

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Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister 10 months after The Independent on Sunday was launched. After such an early success, we feel that we are entitled to take a position that has not been much represented in the week's coverage of her passing. We were neither as much in awe of her as some of our older rivals, nor were we so fixed in our view of her.

Thus we hope we can see more clearly that she defies easy classification. In many ways, she was the most "right-wing" prime minister since the war, although some of her reputation was based on myths, as we note in our coverage today. In particular, she was a pragmatic pro-European for almost all of her time in government. Also, the sale of council houses liberated many people; she helped to weaken deference; and she took climate change as seriously as any believer in "the great car economy" could.

These contradictions are reflected in our ComRes opinion poll, which finds that the British people are resistant to the Conservative conviction that she was "the greatest British peacetime prime minister". The public approves of secret ballots for trade unions, for example, but it is unimpressed by the supposed success of privatising nationalised monopolies.

What is more, it says that she was the "most divisive" prime minister ever, but also that we need more "conviction politicians" like her. That phrase, "conviction politician", sums up her difficult legacy to her party. "The second word [was] as important as the first," as John Campbell, her best biographer, wrote. But too many Conservatives thought it was the certainty that was her secret, and, worse, they were beguiled by the simplified and mythologised version of her beliefs that she promoted after her time in office, rather than by her pragmatism and communication skills while she was in No 10. Even now, 23 years on, that legacy continues to render the party almost unleadable.

In that respect, as in many others, her career is a vivid test case for the law of unintended consequences. Her market liberalisation unleashed a wholly unconservative modernisation not just of the economy but of social mores. The blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote last week: "She wanted to return Britain to the tradition of her thrifty, traditional father; instead she turned it into a country for the likes of her son, a wayward, money-making opportunist."

A kind and polite person in her private life, as Dominic Prince writes today, she might have been pained to think – if she ever considered the possibility – that she had made greed and selfishness respectable. The problem with the cult of certainty is that it closes minds to the possibility that things may be more complex and unpredictable. As David Randall argues today, stridency in public debate has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished. Some of the opinionated nature of commentary today, including for or against the tasteless celebrations of Lady Thatcher's death, share something of her own take-no-prisoners style of argument.

Let the memory of her prime ministership stand, therefore, as a monument and a warning against certainty. Anyone who is sure they know what they think about Lady Thatcher has fallen victim to her myth-making. And anyone who is sure she was the greatest – or the worst – should think again.

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