A sad day for the people of Britain and indeed for those who celebrate freedom and democracy the world over. Baroness Margaret Thatcher died this morning at the age of 87.
It is impossible to overstate her influence or her impact on the fortunes of these islands. She was a shopkeeper’s daughter from Grantham who became the first woman Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the age of 53, in May 1979.
When Mrs Thatcher came to power, Great Britain was, famously, the sick man of Europe, a country on its knees. Militant trade unionism and a world-owes-me-a-living culture engendered by socialism and the welfare state had devastated British manufacturing and exported jobs abroad in their millions. Public services turned into inefficient state monopolies by Labour were losing money hand over fist. Inflation was in double figures. A British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, had been reduced to begging for a loan at the feet of the International Monetary Fund. By February 1979, the infamous Winter of Discontent, the unions were holding government to ransom by orchestrating strikes in essential services, literally allowing rubbish to pile up in the streets. The dead were going unburied in Liverpool and Greater Manchester.
She was the Prime Minister who had the determination and courage to bring to an end decades of decline following the war. She set free the nationalised industries, making them viable and efficient enterprises. She defended the right of the people’s democratically elected government to govern, where leaders before her of both political complexions had surrendered to the trade union barons.
When a foreign power presumed to raise its flag on British territory, the Falkland Islands, in 1982, she led our armed forces to victory against them, ensuring that Argentina’s piracy was defeated. When Irish republican terrorists went on hunger strike in British prisons, she was happy to allow them to kill themselves rather than give in to their demands.
But for me the engagement which most defines her time in power occurred in March 1984, when Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers picked a fight with her government. The militant trade unions had been accustomed to having their own interests take precedence over the policies of democratically elected governments for years, but Mrs Thatcher decided that it was time for the British people to win for once. Her government had, after all, won a General Election by a landslide only eight months earlier. Scargill by contrast had not even dared to ballot his own members.
A year later the people had indeed won, and the political landscape was transformed. The hard left unions had been neutered. Their corrosive capacity to disrupt British industry and send jobs abroad, as they had done to such devastating effect in the ’60s and ’70s, was greatly diminished. And they had forever lost their power to superimpose their own hard left agenda over the people’s choice of government. As Norman Tebbit put it so well, “we didn’t just break the strike – we broke the spell”.
Thatcher has often been described as a “divisive” figure, but that badly misses the point. The British Left’s opposition to her, aided and abetted by a broadcast media largely sympathetic and supportive to them, was bitter and vitriolic. Her great crime from their point of view was her success. She had proved them wrong, consigned socialism in this country to the dustbin of history, made ours a society in which we could take pride, once again. How could the Left forgive that? She was the architect of the proud, economically prosperous and self-reliant Britain that arose from the ashes of the industrial nation destroyed by the Labour movement. In a real sense, she was the Mother of our Nation.
It’s true to say that there was no great consensus for the course she planned, but had she waited for that, she could never have wrought the dramatic transformation in the fortunes of our country that she did. She was a conviction politician, not a consensus politician, as she famously declared herself.
But she won the three General Elections that she fought by decisive majorities. Her convictions always carried the weight of a democratic mandate, and she always made it count – because she was a winner. She defeated Labour in three successive General Elections. She defeated the republican hunger strikers, the Argentines, the GLC and the NUM. She won her battle over the economy in the early ’80s. She even played a large part in facing down the Soviet Union and bringing to an end the Cold War.
Perhaps the definitive mark of her precious legacy is that the first Labour government following her time in power, having already abandoned Clause 4 of its constitution in opposition, adopted a programme of privatisation of its own.
Each of us who considers him or herself proud to be British owes her a debt of gratitude we can never repay. She was and will remain a massive inspiration to me personally, for her vision and her singularity of purpose. I have never heard a serious criticism of her that wasn’t essentially clueless or spiteful. Perhaps our present Prime Minister, David Cameron, has put it best: