It is a rare occasion that George Foulkes and I agree but his brief in memoriam on Thatcher at Labour Hame is both measured and honest, which, bitter political enemies as they were, deserves acknowledgement. There will be a flurry of such oeuvres over the next week because there were few lives over 30 in Britain that were not affected by her. and, since she is regarded as the most socially divisive premier the UK has ever had, they are likely to fall into two emotional camps.
As a Scot, resident back home since just after her fall from grace, I am in the unusual position of living the prequel to her reign and being intimately involved in politics here thereafter—but never having lived in the country one day under her premiership, other than brief business and social visits.
Seeing her influence on the eighties through the prisms of the Economist and New Statesman, of the NY Times and the San Jose Mercury, of Tom Brokaw’s Channel 6 New and the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour, was emotive enough. But the letters and visits from friends kept me posted just how hot things were.
I left Britain in the seventies because I was appalled by the place. Four years in Germany taught me what modern life in Europe could be. It wasn’t about grey commuter-stuffed trains clacking their way to the serried rows of terraced clones that were (are?) Streatham Common, nor the Dunkirk-spirited “I’m backing Britain” to offset the economic slowdown of a three-day week. It was not our finest hour.
Outsiders looked on, appalled at the ‘English Disease” (they meant “British” but nobody outside the UK worries about such niceties) as more hours of work were lost in strikes than the rest of the planet put together. Despite a Labour government (Barbara Castle’s white paper “In Place of Strife” must be the most ill-conceived/inappropriate title ever from an employment minister), the country lurched from dispute to dispute, culminating in the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent.
Anyone observing Britain in 1979 would have regarded it as a failure: a country that had once been the sine qua non of Victorian global domination had made itself bankrupt in two world wars, lost an empire, lost its purpose and was now being shown up in affluence by former colonies and in social progress by countries it defeated in war. Worst of all, no party had a solution: the Tories had buckled under Heath and Labour under Callaghan seemed puppets dancing to union tunes. Britain’s nationalised industries were used as case studies in business schools of what not to do.
Had Thatcher not appeared on the scene, the option would have been even more insipid socialism under Michael Foot, a bright, sincere but charisma-free Labour leader, whose rambling manifesto for 1983 was brilliantly lampooned by Gerald Kaufman as “the longest suicide note in history“. Had that path been taken, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire might have been one of the more optimistic models to describe Britain’s future.
If not Thatcher, then some version of her was the dose of salts Britain needed. Having purged many of the wets from the Tory shadow cabinet after becoming leader, she brought urgently required qualities to the post of PM. Forget her lack of empathy or even understanding for opposing views: if you want to rescue a major country from itself and set a whole new course away from disaster, you need that rare figure: a visionary with the personality to persuade people to support them, a clear plan that addresses contemporary problems and the hard work and guts to see it through.
She didn’t get it right at first. There was hesitation, squabbles in the Cabinet, some clumsy handling of issues. But the right-wing, classic Tory aspects of her administration were clear from the start: not for her the Ted Heath U-turn. “You turn if you want to; this lady’s not for turning” wowed the Tory Conference, whose grass roots were always her power base.
But her true launch pad came when the Argentine junta occupied the Falklands. Decisive as ever, her conviction that they must be retaken came from the core of her crusading being—that Britain’s decline must be reversed and here was a clear opportunity for the empire to strike back. She knew it was a huge gamble and, had it failed, had half the Argentine Air Force bombs not been duds, she would have lost office and with it the chance to remould Britain in her visionary image.
But the victory’s surge of popularity—and more importantly, self-belief—from the British people empowered her in a way no PM had been endowed since Churchill at his height. And she used it: privatisation of BT, British Gas, British Rail, the power and steel industries, etc; selling council homes to their occupants; rewriting union laws and taking on the miners in a bitter strike. Controversial though much of this was and intolerable as it all was to those of socialist beliefs, another crushing election victory in 1987 endorsed (as far as she was concerned) all that she was doing.
The opening up of much of British industry to competition culminated in the ‘big bang’ lifting of restrictions on trading in and around the LSE so that ‘financial derivates’ and other such fiscal instruments created London as a global financial centre in direct competition with New York. All of these developments, unthinkable in the turbulent seventies, put more money into the pockets of a wide swathe of the British public who, after such austerity and depressed outlook, bought shares, houses, two cars, holidayed abroad and took to a consumerism they had previously seemed too demure to embrace.
It was the era of the ‘loud-braces’ broker in the City, brilliantly spoofed by Harry ‘Loadsamoney’ Enfield. Having swept pretty much all before her, Thatcher grew ever more imperious, purging her Cabinet of opponents, even telling the media that “we have become a grandmother“. For Scots, most of whom spent her reign as PM in apoplexy, decimating their Tory MP contingent yet still having to endure her hectoring “Sermon on the Mound”, this was a time of deep frustration and resentment. It became the turning point from their full commitment to the union.
Because subtlety was not Thatcher’s strong suit. She saw the Union in the black/white terms she saw everything else. She genuinely did not understand someone who saw England and Scotland as separable, any more than she understood the deep community spirit of the miners (“the enemy within”) or the pivotal social role post offices played in small villages. Despite retaining the deep affection of Tory rank and file in the shires, she was brought down by having made enemies of just about everyone in her government. It was no coincidence that the ‘grey’ (if capable) John Major who succeeded her would have fitted into the Heath cabinet she fought so hard to reform with Tory radicalism.
Most of the comments on her death simultaneously praise her achievements while highlighting her divisiveness. Feminists bemoan her poor role model and socialists speak her name on a stream of spit. But not since WW2 had there been such clarity of purpose and a will to follow it at a time when Britain had lost its way and was in need of that. And most indicative of all, three Labour governments that followed did little to undo her works. Indeed, she was no doubt pleased by their fixation with PFI/PPP.
People may not agree with this new way she forged—some argue that the big bang was a direct cause of the 2007 financial crisis—but several things are clear:
- to continue as Britain did in the seventies was to endure further decline
- nationalised industries had become intrinsically inefficient with time
- coal and steel (or any industry) must be globally competitive to survive
- pure capitalism may lead to great riches for some but poverty for many: Reagan’s ‘trickle-down effect’ is delusion; it needs balance
- maximising a country’s GDP is not necessarily improving its quality of life
- there IS such a thing as society