There is such an outpouring of emotive grief, of Britain donning sackcloth and ashes, of ancient politicians long thought dead being resuscitated to utter their reminiscences of her – plus the ceremonial, if not, ‘state’ funeral – it’s still nigh on impossible to place Margaret Thatcher into proper perspective just yet.
The Left – via Peter Oborne, once a Labour apparatchik, writing in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph (a.k.a.’The Torygraph’) – was warned to hold its tongue and be magnanimous; however they viewed her excesses, for a window of time the nation loved her and carried the Grantham grocer’s daughter to three General Election victories.
Way back in the late 70s/early 80s, before I’d become politically neutral, I loathed Thatcher and the pre-‘neocon’ faction of the Conservative Party she inspired, after Right-wing ideologue, Sir Keith Joseph (not for nothing dubbed The Mad Monk) conceived what became known as Thatcherism.
In those days I PR’d for a Labour MP friend and my daughter reminded me last night of how I took her, a star-struck eight-year-old, to meet the then party leader, Michael Foot. Probably the last of his generation’s brilliant, tub-thumping orators, he was too kindly an old gentleman to lead a far-Left drifting sect, riven by schism, let alone tame Thatcher’s blitzkrieg Conservatives in the 1982 General Election.
In truth, Thatcher was never a Tory, but more a 19th Century Liberal Free Trader.
She viewed her party’s paternalistic Old Guard of noblesse oblige, knights of the shires, with contempt and refashioned the party along the lines of Joseph’s vision of dismantling the state and empowering – oh, how I hate that word – the people to go forth and generate wealth for themselves. Money was no longer a dirty word and Britain should be a home-owning, share-buying meritocracy, where classlessness ruled.
To achieve such ambitions, Thatcher had to two prime targets to overcome: the unions and the cosy, dozy old boys’ network that ran what was euphemistically known as The City, but was a far flung cry from what it is today.
She was fortunate in picking her first enemy, because the unions were exemplified by the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, an unyielding, rabble-rousing, power-monger, who’d already brought down Ted Heath’s Tory Government in March, 1974 (those old enough will remember the Three Day Week, when the nation’s lights went for four nights in any seven, candles were a luxury and – for obvious reasons – a baby boom ensued).
So the Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985 became a battle of wills between Scargill, red in tooth and claw, and Thatcher, blue to the bone if not in blood. And nothing since has seen Britain slide closer to the brink of revolution, as dark forces played for and against both sides.
From a personal perspective, I loathed both in equal measure, but knew there was bound to be only one, outright winner when the immovable object (Scargill) met the irresistible force (Thatcher). And it wasn’t ever going to be the miners.
Like much of British heavy industry – from ship-building to steel – they were as much the victims of modernisation and market forces as the Iron Lady’s Roundhead Tories, because a remorseless tide of the emergent ‘global economy’ basically made Britain uncompetitive.
There was another factor that played heavily against Scargill and his crass, ill-starred generalship – patriotism. Because still fresh in the public conscious was Thatcher’s victory over the pipsqueak Argentinian military junta in the Falkland’s War two years earlier.
You didn’t have to like the woman, people said, but you had to admire her, especially after she was iconically pictured in triumphal white, riding imperiously in a tank turret, goggles on, a reborn Boudiccea and the epitome of British resolve.
So no-one cavilled when she fast-tracked the next stage of her economics revolution – privatisation of the nationalised industries. Gas, water, electricity and more were artfully flogged off, the bait being Joe Public could snatch ‘free’ shares in newly-formed conglomerates and we’d all become mini-capitalists.
Remember British Gas wooing punters with its slick ‘Tell Sid’ ad campaign, whose bottom-line message was ‘you can have shares in your own energy company’.
I recall thinking at the time, ‘If I already own it, why do I need shares in it?’, but nonetheless registered for my entitlement, grabbing a dollop and selling them – as most small investors did – a few months later, as the market price rocketed.
That was all part of the ‘empowerment’ – that ghastly word again! – of the people and it came in tandem with the Big Bang of 1986, when Thatcher deregulated The City, taking the shackles off genteel trading, and spawning a new generation of get-rich-quick wheeler dealers.
The bowler hat and brolly brigade were replaced by brash, crafty, sharp operators. Cut-crystal accents gave way to Cockney twang, spewed by wide boys in garish red braces, a la Gordon Gekko. Moolah was the only totem and amorality ruled.
One of this ilk told me at the time, ‘It’s just like shootin’ fish in a bloomin’ barrel’. Only he neglected to add we, Joe Public, were the prey.
Unsurprisingly, it spawned a tsunami of iffy ruses, which the financial services alchemists are still inventing to this day for all I know. Because Thatcher and every UK government since never countered with a City watchdog wise and vigilant enough to nip such flagrant misselling in the bud.
Thatcher had two more tricks up her blouse’s sleeve, too, that were undone by the ticking clock of future reality, the first being council house sales.
Based on her premise that a home-owning democracy would not only put money in the hoi-polloi’s pockets, it would induce a sense of responsibility in working class renters, she ordered councils to sell off their housing stocks to any tenant who wanted their own home.
It helped fuel the house-price boom of the Nineties and Noughties…and today’s dilemma –manifested by Chancellor Osborne’s ‘Bedroom Tax’ – whereby the nation’s stock of public housing dwindled to comparatively zilch.
However, it was the final card Thatcher played that lost her the game: the Poll Tax.
Abolishing the hated local authority rates system, based on a notional value of a property, seemed a good idea when the Tories flagged it in their 1987 election manifesto. The problem was Thatcher didn’t say what she’d replace it with to provide councils with the revenue they needed.
So when the reviled Poll Tax was introduced in 1989, using Scotland as a test bed, its fault lines were exposed. This would be a punitive tax on bigger families, since each member of a household suddenly faced a surcharge, and it would hit the poor far harder than the rich.
Ergo, what didn’t work for John of Gaunt in the 14th Century, much less for Charles II in 1660 and William and Mary nine years later, had as much chance of doing Thatcher’s government an iota of good as a chocolate fire-guard.
Naturally, the people rebelled. Poll Tax riots exploded in Scotland, 200,00 shouted their disapproval in Trafalgar Square and so many refused to pay the despised tax, it was judged too expensive and counter-productive to prosecute them.
The Iron Lady was not for turning – her catchphrase, ‘There is no alternative’ had morphed into the acronym TINA – but the Tories, scenting defeat at the 1992 General Election, were and Thatcher’s days were done.
Rather like Marie Antoinette being trundled to the guillotine in a tumbril during the French Revolution, the woman who had radicalised, revolutionised and regalvanised what had become known as the Nasty Party, departed Downing Street, politically isolated and abject.
Never in the 20th Century had Britain been ruled by such a divisive leader – a heroine to some, a hated martinet to others – but, whatever he failings, she bequeathed a remarkable legacy…socially, economically and politically.
Back in the late 1970s, she and her coterie of likeminded radicals recognised Britain was only going south, as the power-mad, strike-happy unions held the rust-bucket economy to ransom.
To halt the tailspin would require new thinking, resolve and conviction, all of which Thatcher had in abundance. Whether the nation would elected its first woman Prime Minister was a gamble, but here was one with more cojones than most men.
There were times – like the Falklands conflict – were she displayed a rare, feminine fragility; there were others – such as how she handbagged the EU into financial concessions – when her gutsiness was inspirational.
She was, incidentally, pro-European, but detested the Brussels Eurocrats pernickety interference in a sovereign state’s internal management.
Thatcher was also an astute player on the international stage, forging stronger commercial and strategic bonds with Ronnie Reagan’s USA and playing no small part in toppling the white supremacist apartheid regime in South Africa.
Though she opposed sanctions, her back-channel diplomacy did more than most to free Nelson Mandela and convince F.W. De Klerk, the then newly-elected president, only a rainbow nation could flourish. Significantly, Mandela and De Klerk were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes and both have been fulsome in their praise of Thatcher.
There is much more she accomplished without fanfare but, like all political leaders, she had a limited shelf-life, in her case 11 years.
Despite the misjudgements and policy failures every statesman – and stateswoman – is culpable of, probably Thatcher’s greatest achievement was getting Britain to believe in itself once again.
And for that I give thanks and I’ll mourn her passing.