Like Nixon, Maggie Thatcher was more loved abroad than at home. Like Kennedy, many will cheer her death and toast her demise with off colour jokes and a party. Unlike Carter, there was no lengthy healing glow of a political afterlife wandering the world as a pro-consul “doing good”. Maggie is marmite; you either loved her or loathed her. Today, as we learn of her death, there is no consensus in Britain as to her legacy. The nation does not join together in polite respect for a public figure who served her country as Prime Minister for eleven years, half the nation mourns her passing, the other rejoices. The wounds run deep and sore.
Like almost no other politician in my remembering (except perhaps Churchill who also instilled similar divisions) she divides the country even today, nearly twenty five years after her rule.
Like it or not we all live in a country made in Maggie’s image, we are all her children. She achieved great changes here and across the western world, but my feeling is that as the years pass the judgement of her posterity may be less and less kind.
She came to power because the country had simply had enough of the post-war construct. A lethal combination of over weaning Trade Unions, more bloody minded than Bolshie, hopeless industrial management who felt the world owed Britain a living for winning the war and saving the world (as if) and an incompetent series of governments that could not keep out of the way, brought Britain to a grinding, shuddering halt through strikes and ghastly economic management. Maggie came as little less than a saviour.
She undid much of the worst aspects of Britain. But her reforms damaged as much as they solved. She destroyed the Unions’ power, ultimately emasculating them and leaving unable to help the working classes in this present worst of economic winters.
The middle classes loved this union bashing, this was exactly the reform they had cried out for, until she hollowed out their professions and closed shop associations with the same zeal. Sluggish, complacent middle class middle management was decimated. Doctors no longer ran the hospitals, now the manager ruled supreme. In Maggie’s Britain the world had been delivered to the bean counters who knew the value of everything and the value of nought. Teachers were reduced to functionaries, Universities brought to heel. Most famously she de-regulated the stock market with its “Big Bang” making her the grandmother of the 2008 economic crash.
She did not recognise the value of the old structure. Famously she said there was no such thing as “society”. Individualism and greed walked together, and they still do.
She bought into Globalisation seeing that markets could be opened up to all and sundry, that service to customers improved and items were made more cheaply. Britain was transformed. No longer did you wait three weeks to a month to get a telephone. Industries closeted from foreign rivals for decades disintegrated in the face of faster quicker thinking, better managed foreign imports. True, the cars we drive today are better than the clapped out old bangers of my youth. But my car today is a Volkswagen and the home grown car industry died. My phone is mobile and cheap, but it is also not made here. These industries died from the medicine Maggie applied, as did shipbuilding, electronics, and, most divisively, coal mining.
Britain is a rock built on coal and the Union which gave Thatcher the most trouble and tried hardest to depose her was the National Union of Miners. Never mind, she could convert the power stations to gas and so set about to break the union. She succeeded in this, but we lost the entire industry. In killing King Coal she devastated whole towns and neighbourhoods, left them ripped apart never to recover, prey to chronic unemployment, crime and drugs. We are still putting sticking plasters on these communities today.
All of which was paid for by oil a wasting resource, and Banking a bubble waiting to burst. Rather than, as Norway, which ploughed the spoils of the North Sea into infrastructure, she used it to bolster the reforms and bribe the electorate with tax cuts wasting the advantages her revolution gained.
True, she showed resolve in retaking the Falkland Islands. For the first time since Suez, the empire struck back. She faced down American opposition in this, but also joined with Reagan to bring down the Soviet Empire (not that it needed too much of a push). It all aided her in going for a khaki election and romping home over a lacklustre Labour challenge.
Her success with the Falklands was overweighed by her failure to persuade the Chinese to renew the lease on Hong Kong. Its not a great balance sheet to save the Falklands but lose Hong Kong.
Her tough “handbagging” of Europe won plaudits but undid the work of Heath bringing Britain to the top table where she wasted many opportunities.
Her “Poll Tax” was the political equivalent of opting for a winter offensive on Moscow. Here her natural nous for getting the feel of the electorate failed her. Doomed from the start, it dragged her faltering reign down. Even today the hatred of this unfair tax means there is only one Conservative MP in all Scotland and most Conservative support lies in the affluent south-east of the country where the limited benefits were to be felt.
We are a very different country today from before she was Prime Minister. It is a more divided, shallower and less confident country.
Copyright David Macadam 2013