Monday, 8 April 2013

In Memoriam: Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the twentieth century, died today, aged 87. This tribute from David Doyle originally appeared in Portsmouth Point magazine.

Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)
(source: Wiki Commons)
One of my earliest memories of childhood is sitting at our home in Stockport, on the outskirts of Manchester, in the dark! This, sadly, was not some recreation of the dismal, distant Victorian era; rather, socialist Britain in the 1970s. Blackouts were a regular feature of the failed policies of the Labour government (shored up by the Lib-Lab pact) which had taken our country to the point of despair in a few short years. Prime Minister James Callaghan had proved that the unions were in charge of the country as firmly as they had been in 1974 when former Prime Minister Ted Heath had asked the famous question, “Who governs Britain?” when seeking a dissolution of Parliament for a general election which he lost comprehensively.

As the 70s drew to a close, the 3-day week was crippling the economy and the stranglehold of unionism and the inability of the government to act proved both dangerous for the country and embarrassing for its international reputation. The Labour Government of 1974- 1979 had proven one of the most crisis-prone in British history, leading the country to a state of virtual bankruptcy in 1976 when a collapse in the value of the currency on the foreign exchanges forced the government to negotiate credit from the International Monetary Fund. Before the days of 24/7 cable news, the internet and twitter, the daily newspapers and twice-daily television news were our only information source, showing us images of rubbish piling high in the streets and bodies not being buried, all due to the strikes. Labour, as the famous Maurice Saatchi billboard campaign for the Conservatives stated, was not working.

Then came 4th May, 1979, and the victory of the woman who was to take on the worst of the unions and socialism and restore both economic and political stability as well as national pride and respect to Great Britain.

Margaret Thatcher was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, and became an MP in 1959, having spent many years fighting for the opportunity to stand as a Conservative candidate. Despite many rejections on account of her gender, she never gave up; forced to stand in a safe Labour seat, Dartford, she even managed to reduce the Labour majority sharply. Her tenacity (which was a sign of what she would later bring to her Premiership) finally paid off when she became Conservative MP for Finchley, which she represented for 33 years. MT served in Ted Heath’s government as the ‘token’ woman, in the position of Minister for Education, in which role she showed her loyalty to what was right and to her party: a policy to remove free school milk to school children aged seven to eleven saw her labelled in the tabloids as “Thatcher, milk snatcher”. However, it was a government policy, forced through by the Treasury, for which she alone bore the wrath of the country. As she herself stated in government papers released in 2001, she thought that the complete withdrawal of free milk for school children of all ages would be too drastic a step and would arouse more widespread public antagonism than the saving justified.

However, Heath’s ineptitude as PM and a second general election loss in October 1974 led, ultimately, to his downfall and MT decided she could not allow the country to continue on a downward spiral. Despite reactions ranging from irritation to downright contempt from some of the more traditional Tory MPs of the day (echoing her experiences when first seeking to stand as an MP), she won the leadership election and, in February 1975, Britain had its first female leader of a mainstream political party. Many were surprised how comprehensive her victory was and any thought of her being a stop-gap leader soon dissolved.

She was elected Prime Minister in 1979. She began cautiously, not wanting to alienate those still loyal to Heath and knowing there were still many in and outside of the party who did not believe she had the capability of making a difference. Over the next eleven years, she cut the government deficit and repaid debt; she sharply cut income tax for all tax payers and reduced public spending as a share of national income; job creation increased overall and more than one million small firms were set up in the UK. By the end of her three great terms in office, sixteen of the twenty-five most profitable companies in Europe were British.

Her greatest victory, of course, had to be against the trade unions, which had become corrupt, out-dated and self-serving organisations, dominated by a left-wing leadership which had as its goal the crippling of all British governments and capitalism itself.  Left unchecked and unchallenged, they would have cemented the idea of Britain being “the sick man of Europe”, as we were being called by our neighbours. Successive governments had been weak in challenging their power and, as was subsequently seen with the Blair and Brown governments, recent Labour administrations have done their utmost to restore the unions’ power. MT brought in legislation to outlaw secondary picketing (in which anyone could walk out on strike for a cause that had nothing to do with them), enforce secret ballots, remove state aid given to both unions and their representatives and give back the right of self-determination to businesses and to their workers.

The greatest opposition to these attempts was the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. I remember very clearly the elation and relief of the vast majority in Manchester on hearing the news that the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, had been defeated. He had tried to use the hard-working miners for his own political purposes and lost. However, he had been incompetent enough to take on a government whose popularity was at a height after the Falklands conflict, during one of the mildest winters on record with stockpiles of coal at a 10-year peak.

Naturally, every great leader has her detractors, MT more than most. I am often confronted with inaccurate statements about her time in office or about what she achieved. One great misconception is that the poor became poorer and the idea of there being such a thing as “society” died. Utter nonsense! MT gave the majority of the country a way out of the national poverty of the 1970s; she renewed this country’s pride in itself and the respect nations around the world had for us. How many of the European countries would have gone to war for one of its dependencies, as Britain did for The Falklands?

No leader is perfect but the reason that I have enormous respect for Margaret Thatcher is that she believed in Britain and in making it a better place. Unlike subsequent PMs, she was not in office for herself (or her spouse), for fame or fortune; she was a true servant of the nation.

She summed up her achievements in a speech during the Nicholas Ridley Memorial Lecture in 1996:

It was a strategy. It was not a set of policies cobbled together from minute to minute, begged, borrowed, or stolen from other people. It was successful because it was based on clear, firmly-held principles which were themselves on a right understanding of politics, economics and, above all, human nature. (Margaret Thatcher – The Collected Speeches. Ed R Harris. Harper Collins 1997)

If only we could say that about anyone since.

2 comments:

  1. RIP to the country's greatest leader of men since Churchill.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A very accurate and true summary of the life of not only one of the greatest British PM's of all time but one of the greatest political figures of all time.

    ReplyDelete

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