Gavin Barwell, Croydon Central’s Conservative party MP, struck a slightly begrudging tone this afternoon when, in commenting on Twitter on the death, at age 87, of Margaret Thatcher, described her only as “one of our greatest Prime Ministers”. “Margaret Thatcher didn’t get everything right (who does?) but she reversed this country’s decline. One of our greatest Prime Ministers,” Barwell wrote. It is a welcomed, more moderated approach to what seems likely to be a couple of weeks of virtual mass hysteria, through to the funeral at St Paul’s with “full military honours”, in which Thatcher will be lauded as more saintly than Mother Teresa, her many faults and errors either ignored or left unsaid, either out of respect for her family’s grief or cowed by threats from the rabid right. The benefit of distance and hindsight – not to mention the release under the 30-year rule of classified documents – allows a proper perspective of the contribution of leading figures in the past. Thatcher, rightly, must be among the top five PMs of the 20th century, together with Lloyd-George, Clem Attlee and Harold Wilson. And then, of course, there is Churchill. Anyone who experienced the post-imperial and industrial decline of Britain in the 1970s – for which the 1970-1974 government of Thatcher’s predecessor as Conservative party leader, Ted Heath, ought to carry a hefty responsibility – will concede that The Iron Lady did indeed change the tide of history in this country.
As Tony Benn, the former senior Labour party figure of the period, said, “In the course of her life, Mrs Thatcher took on half of the British population and tried to coerce them to her will and she did not succeed. But she was a conviction politician, a sign post not a weather cock; but one that I always felt was pointing the wrong way.”
Giles Radice, a Labour MP during Thatcher’s premiership, in a review of Gillian Shepard’s biography, The Real Iron Lady, makes some apt observations, notably based on comments by those who worked closely with her. It can be no coincidence that Thatcher was loathed by the Conservative party leader who preceded her (for her disloyalty) and treated with deep suspicion by her successor. Radice writes, “… Witnesses cite her devotion to work and attention to detail, her drive and energy, and above all her conviction and courage. All agree on her courage; the courage that it took to stand for the Tory leadership; to appear at the scheduled 9.30am starting time for her party conference at Brighton after the shocking IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel the night before; and, more controversially in showing her powers of leadership during the Falklands conflict. Even her political opponents admit that she was formidable. The former general secretary of the TUC, John Monks, acknowledged ‘her clear leadership, tactical skill, and her powerful executive ability to get things done her way … qualities which mark her out as an exceptional prime minister.’
“There was, however, a darker side to Mrs Thatcher which is also revealed in this work. John Major says that she was ‘a women of contrasts who could behave with great kindness yet who was equally capable of great intimidation’. As Shephard remarks, there was ‘too much evidence to ignore that Mrs Thatcher did become increasingly overbearing in her approach, particularly in the second half of her Premiership’.
“She increasingly tended to reduce her cabinet to subservience and to be openly rude to her colleagues. For example, Nigel Lawson wrote in his autobiography that she treated Geoffrey Howe ‘as a cross between a doormat and a punch bag’. In the end the worms turned, and, following the resignation of Howe and the challenge of Michael Heseltine, her much-despised cabinet forced her to resign. Douglas Hurd commented: ‘the main reason for Margaret Thatcher’s loss of the leadership was … her failure over the years to make the best of the cabinet system’.” And then there was the long-term 3 million unemployed as a means of inflation control and union-bashing; the “selling off the family silver” of publicly owned utilities, often converting state-owned monopolies ultimately into private ones; the tasteless and ill-deserved triumphalism over an avoidable post-imperial war; and the trashing of what remained of the nation’s primary and manufacturing industries. Was Britain’s economic decline reversed under Thatcher? Probably not. Have you looked down Croydon’s high streets lately, or seen the long-vacant factories, and the dole queues? Once Thatcher’s government had fuelled the first housing boom of the early 1980s and taken the proceeds from selling off gas, electric, water and BT to help bolster the Exchequer, the last 20 years have seen this nation’s economic frailities masked by North Sea oil revenues and then by banking deregulation which, at first at least, generated huge sums, but as we now realise, at horrific cost. Yes, Margaret Thatcher changed this country forever. Just not necessarily for the better.
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