She was Britain’s greatest peacetime prime minister of the modern era. She inspired love in her admirers, hatred in her foes, and fear among many of her own ministers. It was her achievement to halt a national economic and industrial decline that had seemed irreversible. She dominated her government and the nation like no other British leader since 1945.
To grasp the impact of Margaret Thatcher it is necessary to recall Britain’s condition in 1979. Trade union tyranny was institutionalised. Grossly inefficient state industries dominated the economy. Many perceived themselves as citizens of a failing state which had languished since World War II, with scant prospect of regaining dignity or momentum.
The Conservative Party resigned itself to the expectation that, even if it regained office, it could never breach Britain’s socialist consensus. It must be content with managing decline; with top rates of tax over 90 percent, with industry incapable of building a decent car. Most Britons travelled abroad bearing a flag of apology for their society.
Thatcher had never expected to be prime minister. In her years as a young Tory and junior minister – she entered parliament in 1959 – she aspired to influence rather than power. All that changed, and she gained the Tory leadership in 1975, because she dared to challenge Edward Heath.
Her stridency and right-wing ideology won warm admirers but many enemies. When Thatcher won the 1979 election she was 53. Her first chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, adopted one immediate initiative by abolishing currency exchange controls. For the first time since World War II the British people could spend and invest abroad as they chose.
For two years Thatcher held her radicalism in check. The government faced a succession of wearily familiar challenges: strikes; turmoil in Ulster and on Britain’s inner-city streets; a tottering economy and a struggle to curb expenditure. Its only popular measure was the sale of council houses to tenants. In her first year inflation rose from 10.3 to 21 percent. Howe cut public spending with a brutality that shocked colleagues and the electorate.
By 1981, Thatcher had become the most unpopular prime minister since polling began. By the spring of 1982 it was widely believed that she would lose the next election. One man did more than any other to transform her fortunes – Argentina’s dictator, General Leopoldo Galtieri, whose 1982 invasion of the Falklands precipitated a crisis which at first seemed likely to bring down Thatcher’s government. When she dispatched a task force to recapture the islands by force, many anticipated its failure. Instead, she achieved a triumph. Britain’s victory transformed her into Maggie the warrior queen.
The 1983 election campaign devastated Labour’s “loony left”, returning Thatcher to power with a majority of 144. Within two years she achieved another decisive success – against striking miners led by Arthur Scargill. Her dominance of Britain’s political scene reached its zenith.
The rout of foes at home and abroad set the stage for her transformation of Britain’s economy and industry. Tory “wets” were expelled from her government. Trade union power was broken by introducing compulsory secret strike ballots, a ban on secondary picketing and strikers losing their state benefits.
Privatisation of state industries – steel, electricity, gas, telecoms – not only produced dramatic efficiency benefits but enriched many small investors. Two-thirds of the state’s assets were sold off. Three million equity shareholders in 1979 Britain became nine million a decade later.
The sale of council houses created a million new homeowners, a huge step toward the “property-owning democracy” she sought. A mass of government activities were transferred to agencies and private contractors. Top tax rates were progressively slashed to 40 percent.
Thatcher was single-mindedly, obsessively dedicated to using power to change Britain. She perceived the market as the proper arbiter of almost every activity, and was startlingly successful in promoting enterprise and transforming the culture of business and industry.
But she largely failed in bringing similar reform to parts of the state sector unfit for privatisation, above all health and education. Her contempt for the “dependency culture” was well merited, but created an appearance of indifference to the plight of the weak, the underclass, which contributed much to her unpopularity, and, to many Tories, seemed a passport to election defeat.
Thatcher ruled by confrontation. She could seldom be accused of exploiting her sex, but it was a formidable weapon. Most men were fascinated by her persona, the extraordinary novelty of her regal femininity.
Douglas Hurd, her last foreign secretary, said she “carried the authority of her office always with her. It was in her handbag. She was asserting it the whole time”.
She presented an implacably formidable face to all save her devoted consort, her husband Denis, and imposed her will on every department of state.
Thatcher told critics who claimed she ruled by terror: “There’s not much point being a weak and floppy thing in the chair, is there?”
She once opened a ministerial meeting by banging the famous handbag on the table and proclaiming: “Well, I haven’t much time today – only enough time to explode and have my way!” She perceived the duty of her office in terms of permanent struggle: “Life for me was always a daily battle.” When urged by her staff to take a holiday, she famously said: “I must govern!”
The exclamation marks, the appetite for conflict, the burning zeal won her the devotion of admirers, but wore down and alienated a long succession of ministers. She herself was inexhaustible, content with four hours of sleep a night and indifferent to weekends and holidays.
Charles Powell, longest-serving of her private secretaries, said: “I’ve always thought there was something Leninist about Mrs Thatcher which came through in the style of government – the absolute determination, the belief that there’s a vanguard which is right and if you keep that small, tightly knit team together, they will drive things through.”
Thatcher’s achievements at home enabled her to pose more impressively abroad than any British leader since Churchill. Most of her European counterparts disliked and feared her. But their people were as fascinated as the rest of the world by Britain’s Iron Lady.
In Washington, she was especially feted by President Ronald Reagan, whose commitment to confronting communist tyranny she shared.
She won his gratitude by backing the 1986 US bombing of Libya. Even under the Reagan-Thatcher partnership, US foreign policy was not always helpful to Britain – to her disgust, the president privately sought to persuade her to surrender the Falklands in the midst of the 1982 war. But she displayed a star quality, a defiant self-reliance, which entranced many Americans. Her personality enabled her to dominate foreign stages in a fashion most prime ministers can only dream of.
Geoffrey Howe, who surprised everyone by proving her nemesis in 1990, wrote later: “Margaret Thatcher was beyond argument a great prime minister. Her tragedy is that she may be remembered less for the brilliance of her many achievements than for the tenacity, the recklessness with which she later defended her own increasingly uncompromising views. The insistence on the undivided sovereignty of her own opinions, dressed up as the nation’s sovereignty, was her undoing.”
Although Thatcher achieved another handsome victory in the 1987 election, her popularity was waning. Opposition to her policies, notably the hated poll tax, grew apace. The economic boom, stimulated by Nigel Lawson as chancellor, turned sour and inflationary.
Her hostility to the march of the EU towards what she saw, with remarkable prescience, as a federal state rather than its proper role as a trading bloc, became increasingly strident. Her fears about the dire consequences of attempted European integration appear entirely vindicated by events, but at the time her stubbornness in the face of opposition from colleagues raised doubts about her judgment.
In November 1990, a majority of her own ministers persuaded her to withdraw from the Conservative leadership contest. Her fall inspired lasting bitterness in the prime minister as well as among her admirers.
Yet it is the fate of even the greatest democratic leaders eventually to exhaust the patience of their colleagues and the voters.
Thatcher’s blazing courage and conviction had done all that human endeavour made possible, to set a new course for her country and revive hope among its people. By 1990, however, to paraphrase Disraeli’s line, she was an exhausted volcano.
Perhaps the most striking tribute to the epoch-changing character of her premiership is that when a Labour government was again elected in 1997, its leader professed commitment to many of her objectives, above all enterprise, low taxes and the free market.
Thatcher almost entirely destroyed Old Labour with its Marxist ideals, though her years of office fell short of her own aspirations
. The commitment to national harmony she proclaimed in 1979 was never fulfilled. She was one of the most divisive prime ministers of modern times, and remains so today, as historians, right and left, battle over the significance of her era.
Rejection of consensus and a determination to plough her own course heedless of all foes and obstacles defined her rule, her greatness and her fall. Though a peacetime prime minister, she was a warrior to the roots to her soul.
Her legacy is that she reinvented her society on a scale few thought conceivable when she took office. She restored the primacy of individual opportunity to a nation crippled by the burdens of state collectivism.
If Britain prospers in the 21st century, its debt to Margaret Thatcher will be greater than to any of her successors. And if the nation languishes, it will be because it has proved unable to use wisely the wonderful opportunity for resurrection which she created. – Daily Mail