THEY THOUGHT THE GROCER’S DAUGHTER, Margaret Thatcher once said — speaking of the disdainful regard in which her aristocratic male colleagues held her — didn’t really know how things were done. But, she added, they also knew that they simply didn’t have it within themselves to see things through.
With the death this morning (GMT) of Margaret Thatcher, Great Britain has lost one of its most significant political figures of the 20th century, and its greatest postwar Prime Minister; the UK’s prestige and reputation in the world was restored by Thatcher after decades of decline, and the changes she enacted in Britain have proven more durable than anyone could have foreseen upon her election to office in 1979.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher LG OM PC FRS, née Roberts (13 October 1925 – 8 April 2013) won the 1979 election in Great Britain with a simple objective: to reverse Britain’s decline.
Britain’s first female Prime Minister faced obstacles in the form of some of her own colleagues within the Conservative Party, over and above those any Conservative leader would face when attempting to effect significant change; and in the end, these were by far the more potent threat to her ability to complete what she saw as her mission in politics.
Thatcher — the lower middle class daughter of a grocer from Grantham, married to a successful and wealthy businessman — entered the House of Commons as Member for the London constituency of Finchley in 1959; a scientist and lawyer by profession, she was described in the parliamentary handbook’s “new members” section as “the mother of twins.”
After backbench stints in government before 1964 and in opposition following the Labour win at that year’s election, Thatcher experienced rapid promotion; upon the return of the Conservative Party to government in 1970 under Edward Heath, she became Secretary of State for Education.
It was in this role — charged with finding reductions in expenditure — she gained the unwanted moniker “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” after cutting the free milk program for school children aged 7 to 11. She later wrote: “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”
But Heath’s government was doomed; oil shocks that reverberated across the Western world in the early 1970s, along with a miners’ strike which determinedly sought to bring a Tory government down, found their mark. Ted Heath narrowly lost two elections in 1974, with the second (in October) resulting in a wafer-slim but outright majority for Labour.
After the loss, Thatcher challenged Heath for the party’s leadership in 1975; Heath failed to obtain the number of votes required under Conservative Party rules on the first ballot and withdrew, and Thatcher defeated his preferred successor, Willie Whitelaw, on the second.
Yet from that point on, sections of the Tory Party refused to accept her legitimacy as leader; some felt she would prove a mere stopgap, whilst others believed the Tories would be consigned to at least two terms in opposition, with Thatcher destined to lose the election to be held before the end of 1979.
But just as the unions helped destroy Heath’s government with a miners’ strike, so they helped to destroy the ensuing Labour government; the “Winter of Discontent” — a series of rolling strikes initiated by unions over the 1978-79 winter — had disrupted sectors such as waste collection, cemetery workers, emergency services and transport workers.
It destroyed public support for James Callaghan’s Labour government, and as the rubbish literally piled up across the United Kingdom, the Conservative Party moved — and won — a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.
Taking office after winning the resulting election held in May 1979, Thatcher publicly enunciated a wish for her government: it was the Prayer of St Francis, which runs
Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.
Where there is error, may we bring truth.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
And where there is despair, may we bring hope.
These were words that were time and again flung in her face by opponents and detractors.
As a middle-class woman from the Tory Right, Thatcher was obliged to allocate a significant number of ministries in her government to internal party opponents.
Typically, these were Conservative grandees; landed gentry figures whose careers in public office were built on a culture of consensus and a tolerance of the creeping socialism that had all but strangled Britain in the postwar years prior to 1979: the very attitudes Thatcher saw as the root causes of the decline that she regarded as her mission to reverse.
This was the basis of the notorious “wet-dry” schism for which the early Thatcher government was known; the “wets” on the Tory Left, mostly loyal to former leader Heath, went to great lengths to frustrate and obstruct the Thatcher agenda in government.
But — in Thatcher’s own famous words — the lady was not for turning.
The Conservative Party had come to office in a country blighted by inefficient and uncompetitive industrial practice, a rampant and militant trade union movement, declining living standards, and the suffocating effect of nationalised industries operating in outdated or obsolete markets: unable to compete in the world or retain market share, the slow creep of socialism was choking the very life out of the country.
So after two years of internal warfare, Thatcher jettisoned the “wets” from her cabinet; in return, the “men in grey suits” never ceased to look for the opportunity to tear her down.
Thatcher’s government was remarkable in that it initiated radical and widespread change in virtually every aspect of British society: nationalised industries and state-owned assets were privatised; the outdated and inefficient framework of British industrial practice was torn down; the stranglehold of unions over industry was broken; and the decades-old culture of consensus government at a snail’s pace was replaced with an emphasis on personal responsibility, private enterprise, and what is still known as the “opportunity society.”
Like any period of sustained change, there was indeed dislocation, and there were indeed losers. But Thatcher was an agent of change, and the transformation her government undertook of the United Kingdom was necessary, urgent, and long overdue.
Indeed, the vindication of those changes lies in the fact that almost a quarter of a century after Thatcher left office, much of what was controversial in the 1980s is remains in place, regarded very much as the norm.
Certainly, Thatcher made enemies, and fought many battles against them; in 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers — led by militant mining figure Arthur Scargill — attempted to bring down the Thatcher government in the same way it had engineered the demise of Heath’s government in 1974; but the miners acted and illegally, and in breaking their strike, Thatcher effectively broke the militancy of the entire union movement.
And IRA terrorists made an assassination attempt on Thatcher at the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton; whilst they succeeded in killing or maiming a handful of the party’s people in the attack, Thatcher survived unhurt.
But it was the invasion by Argentina of the Falkland Islands in 1982 that provided the pivot point for nationalist pride to begin to be restored; Thatcher’s swift dispatch of a military taskforce to the South Atlantic, and its recapture of the islands after a brief but successful war against the Argentinian forces of the dictator Galtieri, was a turning point in both the country’s self-esteem and in the political fortunes of the Conservative Party.
The Falkland Islands conflict is widely credited as a major factor in the thumping election win recorded by the Conservative Party in 1983; a second landslide re-election would be achieved four years later, in June 1987, as the British economy boomed, and many believed that Britain’s structural economic problems had been solved.
Thatcher left her mark on international affairs beyond the Falklands; in 1980 she reached a settlement with the black majority in white-governed Rhodesia, from which democratic Zimbabwe was born, and of which Robert Mugabe became its first Prime Minister (in 1980, there was no indication of the murderous regime Mugabe would run; indeed, Britain won international praise for the settlement it reached in Rhodesia at the time).
Her dealings with paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s led to the simultaneous return of Hong Kong to China, and the opening of China to British trade.
And she will be remembered as perhaps the pivotal influence in bringing the Cold War to an end; it was Thatcher who identified Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a man the West could “do business with;” through her close personal and political relationship with US President Ronald Reagan, the pair were able to speed the spread of democracy in eastern Europe and the fall of communism, culminating in the dissolution of the USSR itself.
But throughout her years in government, the “men in grey suits” waited, and watched; Thatcher had forced one of their number — Michael Heseltine — out of the government in 1986, over a dispute centred on the bailout of a helicopter company, Westland.
And in 1988, Whitelaw — the “wet” whom she had beaten to the Tory leadership, and who subsequently served as her deputy — retired, removing what had been an important balancing and moderating influence on her.
Thatcher’s third term in office marked the onset of drift; disputes with her ministers became more frequent, as colleagues of her own generation were replaced by younger and less experienced men and women as the government matured.
But it was her policy of a poll tax — the principle by which a duke would pay the same charge for council services as a pensioner — that sowed the seeds of destruction of her government; conservative voters in Tory strongholds demonstrated against a conservative government for the first time in living memory.
(Ironically, the continuing Major government restructured and neutralised the tax, but its basic premise remains largely unchanged, and has been operative for 20 years).
And her Eurosceptic, anti-European views ultimately provided the trigger for her party to dump her.
Key ministers Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe resigned in 1989 and 1990 respectively; Howe’s resignation speech was widely seen as an invitation to Michael Heseltine to stand against Thatcher for the leadership, which he did.
Heseltine had spent his years on the backbench befriending backbenchers and canvassing their support, with the consequence Thatcher failed to win the first ballot; and rather than risk a loss in a second ballot, she took the honourable path, and resigned.
Following her retirement from the House of Commons in 1992, the Queen created her a life peer — Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven — although she rarely sat in the House of Lords.
Thatcher gradually withdrew from public life; her beloved husband, Denis, died in 2003, shortly after which Thatcher suffered a series of mild strokes that affected her mobility and short-term memory. As is well known, prior to her death she also suffered from dementia.
She lived her final years in the privacy of a flat in Belgravia, in central London, and is thought to have been staying at the Ritz Hotel when she died to enable easier access to her by medical personnel who had been treating her.
Thatcher is survived by her twin adult children, Mark and Carol, and their families.
Her legacy will be one of lasting change in Britain, and of indeed reversing her country’s decline, both in its own standards of living and in its place in the world.
Britain, and the wider world, is a better place for her time as Prime Minister, and the enduring nature of the changes her government made — both in Britain, and in the countries around the world that adopted them — is testament to her remarkable achievement born from a simple wish to restore the greatness of her country.
Like any agent of change, she will be revered by some, and reviled by others: such is the nature of politics and politicians, and the impacts they engender upon democratic societies.
But as Margaret Thatcher (or Mrs T, or simply Margaret, as those of us who were fond of her were wont to call her) herself often remarked: “It’s a funny old world.”
This column wishes to express its great sorrow at Mrs Thatcher’s passing; we trust she is resting in peace, and may God rest her soul.