Recently, a bronze statue of the late Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square has been blocked by the Government due to fears that it will be vandalised by Left-wing activists. This episode is but one of many in the demonisation of Britain’s first woman prime minister.
Indeed, for a prime minister to have been compared by some to ‘the Devil’ and whose death was followed by recitals of Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead, one unaware of Thatcher’s premiership might assume that she had done something terribly wrong.
Perhaps she had destroyed her nation-state’s economy, as every single socialist leader to date has done? Or perhaps she had presided over a relative decline in Britain’s image on the world-stage, as every post-war prime minister until 1979 had done? The reality, of course, is that Thatcher did no such things. To the contrary, when she left office in 1990 after eleven and a half consecutive years – the longest term of any 20th-century premier – Britain was in a better state than it was when she entered office in 1979. It is for this reason that for every person who demonises Thatcher, there is another who celebrates her and her legacy.
In 1979, Britain was on its knees as the ‘sick man of Europe’, to use the phrase of the foreign commentators of the time. No less than three democratically elected prime ministers were removed from office by the abuse of trade union power. Britain’s post-war nadir was the ‘winter of discontent‘ – widespread strikes triggered by trade unions demanding higher pay, when bins went uncollected and corpses went unburied. The photographs from the period are nothing short of chilling. The country had a three-day week. Television companies were required to cease broadcasting at 10:30 p.m. in order to conserve electricity. Nationalised industries, in the absence of market competition, were not producing wealth; they were consuming it.
So low had this country fallen in 1979 that it would be but totally unrecognisable to the privileged youth of contemporary Britain. Until 1979, post-war prime ministers saw their role as amounting to the ‘management of decline’, a policy predicated on cosy consensus with the unions.
But after years of civil unrest, economic decline and incompetent leadership, the British people had had enough. On 4 May 1979 Thatcher was effectively elected to office, becoming the first female leader in the Western world. In Thatcher’s words, ‘I can’t bear to see Britain in decline. I just can’t.’ Her rise from a middle-class family in Grantham to the highest office in the land was nothing short of remarkable. Far more remarkable was that she was the first post-war prime minister who turned this country around from the pitiful state it found itself in.
Indeed, her economic policies ultimately lowered inflation and increased economic growth. Loss-making national industries were privatised and council housing was sold off to aspiring families creating a nation of share-holders and home-owners. In so doing, Thatcher cut back the size of the state and extended the liberties of the individual. She appreciated that industries that could not survive competition on the free market were not industries worth propping up at the expense of the taxpayer.
As she wrote in The Downing Street Years:
‘The 1980s saw the rebirth in Britain of an enterprise economy. This was by and large a decade of great prosperity, when our economic performance astonished the world. Whereas Britain lagged behind other European Community countries in the 1960s and 1970s, our economy grew faster in the 1980s than all of them except Spain.’
Granted, Thatcherite policies ultimately increased levels of inequality in Britain. This will mean more or less to someone depending on their political persuasion. To use it to berate Thatcher, though, would be to misunderstand the priority of her ministries. That priority was never equality; it was liberty. Her supporters may be willing to concede this point on increased inequality, but they will not concede it without also pointing out that whereas socialism is the equality of misery, capitalism is the inequality of prosperity (to paraphrase Winston Churchill). The lesson of history is that the latter is infinitely preferable to the former.
Mrs Thatcher can be commended as much for her foreign policy as for her domestic policy. Her determined leadership earned her the nickname of the ‘Iron Lady‘, a name gifted to her by the Soviets and one which she adopted with pride. In April 1982, the fascist junta of Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in an act of unprovoked aggression. The Islands were thousands of miles away from mainland Britain and home to a minuscule population. Nonetheless, the Iron Lady was adamant that foreign aggression could not go unpunished. Within ten weeks the Falklands were successfully recaptured, the Argentines surrendered and consequently the British flag flies high on those Islands to this day.
Together with President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher solidified the special relationship with the United States – ‘that Europe on the other side of the Atlantic’ – and used it to face down ‘the Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Union, whose self-defeating economic policy eventually led to its collapse in December 1991, signalling the fall of communism and the triumph of capitalism.
With regards to the European Union, as I point out in an earlier article of mine, Thatcher was all in favour of increased economic integration and market liberalization but she became increasingly disenchanted with what she saw as the increasing political integration and market regulation that pervaded the continent.
In her Bruges speech of September 1988, Thatcher lamented the European Union’s unholy trinity of creeping regulation, regional protectionism and political integration. All these things she saw as contrary to the culture of free enterprise and individual initiative that she had fought for in Britain. Hence her maxim:
We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.
It was her determination that secured Britain’s rebate with the European Union. It was her foresight that kept Britain out of monetary union with Europe. And it was her prescience that saw exactly which direction the European project was going; a direction antithetical to British national interest.
People today do not talk about other modern prime ministers in the same way that they talk about Thatcher. The simple reason for this is that Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, John Major and others did not change Britain. Thatcher did. This country was left stronger both at home and abroad when Thatcher left office in 1990. There can be no denying that she had transformed Britain.
Yet, despite these undoubted achievements, her record remains one of the most contentious and demonised in British politics. Contention is healthy; it entails debate and insight. Demonisation, however, is not. Demonisation simplifies the past and, in so doing, distorts reality. It goes without saying that Thatcher was not a perfect leader; history has no example of such a figure. Sir Geoffrey Howe sums up her legacy thus:
‘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 opinion – dressed up as the nation’s sovereignty – was her undoing.’
Thatcher’s time in office was not a perfect time. But that is not to say that it was a wrong, far less an evil, time. Her policies – both domestic and foreign – sparked controversy. But that testified to the fact that they were policies that stood for something.
Hers was the politics not of consensus but of conviction; hers was the determination not to follow the policy of her predecessors – a policy of managed decline – but rather to fight for Britain both at home and abroad. In so doing, she put the great back into Britain. Her unwillingness to appease everyone – dead or alive – was precisely her triumph. Those who resort to demonising her distort the record of history and do nothing to credit themselves.