Margaret Thatcher didn't get everything right but she will be remembered as one of this country's greatest Prime Ministers
Earlier today, I heard the sad news that Margaret Thatcher had passed away.
More than twenty years after she left Downing Street, she continued to arouse strong feelings - adored by some, admired by many but loathed by some too. My own view is that whilst she didn’t get everything right (who does?), history will remember her as one of this country's greatest Prime Ministers, someone who reversed this country's post-Second World War decline, turning around our economy and restoring our standing in the world.
It may help younger readers of this blog, who weren’t alive when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, to explain just what a mess this country was in when she came to power.
The trade unions were out of control. They had brought down the Conservative Government of Edward Heath in 1974 and then, thanks to a wave of strikes known as the Winter of Discontent which culminated in the rubbish being piled up in the streets as this photo of London’s Leicester Square shows and the dead being left unburied, the Labour Government of James Callaghan in 1979. One of the abiding memories of my childhood is doing my homework in candlelight because striking miners or power plant workers had led to the power being cut off. This was the issue that made me identify with her - when I was seven or eight I was diagnosed with cancer and the consultant who treated me left the NHS and emigrated to Kenya because he was fed up of having to brave picket lines to treat sick cancer patients.
Inflation was a major problem. It peaked at 25 per cent in 1975, so if you had £1,000 in the bank it would only be worth about 80% of that a year later.
Many major British companies were owned and (badly) run by the Government including British Aerospace, BA, BP, BT, Cable & Wireless, British Steel, Jaguar and British Gas.
Income tax rates were very high. The basic rate was 33 pence in the pound compared with 20 pence today; the top rate was 83 pence with a 15 pence surcharge on investment income giving a marginal rate of 98 pence, meaning that the Government took 98 pence of every pound you earned above a certain threshold compared with 45 pence today.
And worst of all, there was a growing sense that these problems were insoluble, that we were doomed to continue to decline. James Callaghan, the Labour Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher defeated, told his colleagues:
"Our place in the world is shrinking: our economic comparisons grow worse, long-term political influence depends on economic strength - and that is running out. If I were a young man, I should emigrate."
Mrs Thatcher changed all that. She tamed militant trade unionism, she brought inflation down, she privatised businesses that the Government should never have been running and she reduced income taxes for the rich and poor alike. She gave thousands of Croydon residents the chance to buy their council house. And when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 she had the courage to risk her Premiership by sending British forces to the South Atlantic to defend the Islanders’ freedom.
Unlike most British Prime Ministers she had a profound influence abroad as well as here in the UK. Governments across the world adopted her economic policies. She played a key role in developing the European single market, but she was a fierce opponent of the single currency. And alongside Ronald Reagan, she played a key role in winning the Cold War and bringing freedom to eastern Europe. When others were arguing for unilateral disarmament in the hope that the Soviet Union would follow suit, she understood the lessons of history that it is strong deterrence not appeasement that delivers security.
As I said at the start, she didn’t get everything right. If the country as a whole benefited from the economic revolution she initiated, some areas – primarily those that depended on industries like coal mining that were in decline before she came to power - suffered. And though the Government invested significant sums in those areas, there is no denying that the people who lived there felt that she and her Government viewed them as necessary casualties of change. The Conservative Party continues to pay a political price for that perception in Scotland, parts of Wales and the industrial cities of the North of England today.
Margaret Thatcher was not a consensus politician. She believed that it was her job to set out what she thought was right and that people would then either support her or reject her. She understood and accepted one of the fundamental rules of politics: that you cannot please everyone, that if you stand for something, some people will support with you and others will disagree. If anything, she was too indifferent to opposition. But her conviction politics had two important benefits. Whether or not you agreed with her, you knew that if she said something, it was because she believed it not because some pollster had told her to say it; and that she would do what she said she would do. And that’s why even many of the people who disagreed with Margaret Thatcher still admired her. They knew she was in politics for the right reason – because she cared about this country and had strong views about how to change it for the better.