Editorial: Margaret Thatcher ruled – and she divided

What began as an asset turned into a liability as she appeared to lose touch

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More than two decades have passed since a tearful Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister. There were those who mourned and those who rejoiced, but the significance of that moment escaped no one. The curtain had come down on a premiership that had both defined and transformed this country – for better and for worse.Her twilight years on the fringe of British politics  did nothing to change that.

The 1970s seem an age away; not only Britain, but the world, has changed. But the passions she aroused from the day she took office are as live now as they were then. And, for all the improbable tributes through that time - notably her invitation to tea with Gordon Brown after he became Prime Minister – the divide that her 11 years in power had opened up was as sharply in evidence yesterday, when her death was announced, as itDivisions that are still felt in the Britain of today was when she left office. It was a rare epitaph that was not prefaced with the sentiment “like or loathe her”.

Perhaps she understood how divisive a figure she was to become, when she famously quoted the prayer of St Francis after her first election victory, asking that “where there is discord, may we bring harmony”. But the fierce conviction with which she approached her leadership first of the Conservative Party and then of the country – and which so contrasted with the muddle and depressed mood of both – was at once her signal strength and, in the fullness of time, her fatal weakness.

Without the single-mindedness she showed – whether for sound monetary policy or popular capitalism (marketing shares in utilities to first-time investors), or selling off council houses, or, after 1988, combating climate change – she would not have been able to achieve what she did. But there were times when her refusal to compromise at all made her political life harder than it might have been and eventually proved her undoing.

The Falklands war, seen from the perspective of victory, was perhaps her finest hour. But could that war have been avoided if she had not ruled out talks? Was there a way in which the excessively disruptive power of the trade unions could have been diminished without the trauma of the miners’ strike? And might there perhaps have been peace in Northern Ireland sooner? Her supporters would say No; her refusal to yield – after the 1984 Brighton bombing, say – was necessary. Leaving aside Northern Ireland, perhaps, her detractors would disagree. There is no meeting of minds even today, and a broad seam of bitterness endures close to the surface of British politics.

By virtue of her very ordinary origins – the much-mocked grocer’s daughter – and the fact of being a woman in what was even more of a man’s world than it is now, she could not but be a striver and an outsider. Those career impediments, however, also gave her a very practical understanding of what motivated people – the direct line to Middle England that all her successors have tried to find, with varying degrees of success.

What began as an asset, though, turned into a liability as she appeared to lose touch with the very constituency to which she owed her power. The “poll tax” riot – which forced one of the few U-turns from the lady who wasn’t for turning – showed how far she had become detached from the tax-paying public, whose interests she had so feistily purported to champion. With hindsight, it may be asked whether she did not have a point – as something of the same battle over the balance of local taxation bubbles up again today – but the hostility she provoked was at once the harbinger and proof of her decline.

And very many of the policies with which her name is identified to this day retain the negative aspects for which they were opposed then. Council tax sales depleted the stock of social housing, running up a bill the country is still paying. Popular capitalism produced new shareholders, but new losers, too, when the financial crisis struck. The “Big Bang” that freed trading in the City from many of its constraints can also be seen with hindsight as the genesis of the excesses of the 1990s and 2000s. The de-fanging of the trade unions – among whose beneficial effects was to make new ventures, such as The Independent, possible – also contributed, it can be argued, to the problems of low-wages and low productivity in the largely deregulated economy of today.

Abroad, Mrs Thatcher, as she was always known, was seen in a far less ambiguous light. Throughout East and Central Europe she came to be adored for her high principles and plain-speaking. Her relationships with Ronald Reagan and with Mikhail Gorbachev, on whose reformist credentials she took a risk early on, helped to lay the foundations for the end of the Cold War. But they also gave Britain the sort of global influence that it had not enjoyed, perhaps since the days of Churchill, and – for all Tony Blair’s ambitions – has been unable to command since. Her Euroscepticism was of a piece with her very English Conservatism. Compared with the virulent strain that infects British politics today, however, it seems on the one hand more serious; on the other, almost benign. Europe was nonetheless the party quarrel that brought her down.

For 11 years, Mrs Thatcher dominated Britain and cut a figure on the global stage. And she set the standard for how to wield prime ministerial power. Which is why Tony Blair co-opted her audacious language of change even as he degraded it with spin; why Gordon Brown invited her to tea, and why David Cameron must watch his back over Europe in the Thatcherite shires. But it says much about her domestic legacy that, while Thatcherism is an acknowledged creed, she herself has no philosophical or political heir. David Cameron was careful early on to distance himself from her statement that “there is no such thing as society”.

And while the Britain she so unwillingly ceased to lead in 1991 is a very different country in 2013, many of the battles she fought – whether over taxation, or deregulation, or labour relations, or to protect British sovereignty in Europe – are issues again today. That may be a measure of her prescience, but it also reflects the constraints that even the most forceful and courageous politician faces in trying to effect change in a democracy.

Margaret Thatcher in her heyday offered a one-woman lesson in leadership. But the British – as so often – proved stubbornly, admirably even, reluctant to be led.

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