Actually, the title was true yesterday: it was on 3 May 1979 that the General Election was held which resulted in the last change from Labour to Tory Government. After the “Winter of Discontent” – and the winter of 1978-9 was grim in itself – no leader had been more eagerly awaited than Margaret Thatcher.
Standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street for the first time, Thatcher memorably quoted St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, let us bring harmony”. For many, this became a sick joke. Here was a Prime Minister with an ability to polarise the electorate like no other, which turned out to be, given the UK’s electoral system, an asset to her and her party.
Thatcher was, simply, a lucky general – whatever her politics. She acted ungraciously when David Steel stood down as Liberal leader, out of vindictiveness because Steel had sustained Jim Callaghan in power through the Lib-Lab pact. But it was this very move that kept Callaghan in place long enough to be damaged by the “Winter of Discontent”, giving Thatcher the advantage which was then turned into electoral success.
The post 1979 spilt within the Labour Party and the lack of coherent opposition, together with the Falklands War, salvaged a landslide electoral victory in 1983 from a position two years earlier when polls showed Thatcher to be the most unpopular Prime Minister ever. The “Falklands Factor” was a perversely rewarding thing for Thatcher: the spending cuts set in train by her government arguably provoked the Argentine invasion. Her government went from regarding the islands as unaffordable to considering their sovereignty to be non-negotiable.
By 1987, the economy, previously brought to its knees by the dalliance with Friedman quack doctory, was at last recovering, and this helped the Tories secure a third election success. But the luck then ran out with the adoption of the reviled and iniquitous Poll Tax, and soon she was gone.
What was the legacy? Home ownership for the many, curbs on trade union power, selling off state assets, and the deregulation of the City, the last a greedy child whose conspicuous consumption in adulthood ended up in the lap of Pa Broon.
Also, under Thatcher the Tory Party became rather more diverse and meritocratic than the collection of rather good chaps in the Macmillan cabinet. This thought does not appear to have troubled the present generation of Tory cheerleaders, as they survey yet another collection of predominantly good chaps who pretend to emulate the longest serving Prime Minister of the last century.
I’ll revisit the Thatcher anniversary, looking at local government and Europe, later.