Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first and indeed only woman Prime Minister, has died at the age of 87. She had been in poor health for some time. Many loved her, yet many more hated her: conviction politicians can be polarising presences. But that she left her mark on this country’s politics can be in no doubt. So, apart from helping to bring soft scoop ice cream to the world, what did she achieve?
The state of the country in May 1979 is often exaggerated, but the Trades Unions had undoubtedly put the ball in their own net with the “Winter of Discontent”. A growing number of voters were in favour of union reform. She gave it to them. That, sadly, included provoking the 1983-4 Miners' Strike. Thus significant parts of the country that will never forgive her, whatever else was achieved.
An early flirtation with monetarism was quietly put aside after interest rates soared and inflation broke through 20%. At this point she was the most unpopular PM in living memory. But the Falklands War turned matters around, and with an opposition hopelessly split, the Tories won a landslide victory in 1983 – with 58% of the popular vote being cast for other parties.
Some policies were effective and genuinely popular, especially the Right to Buy for council house tenants. Selling off formerly state controlled industries – gas, electricity, water, telecommunications – was also well received, although much of the small shareholding was later consolidated in far fewer hands. The effect of all this was a measure of prosperity – achieved by ramping up the stock of debt.
The City of London was deregulated in what was dubbed the “Big Bang”. Easier money then created more debt and some winners, but then came the equivalent bust. And then Mrs Thatcher espoused one radical policy too many in the infamous Poll Tax, and soon afterwards she was out. All the while, this was in a still male-dominated party. She triumphed despite her gender.
This was down to Denis, unswervingly and usually silently there in the background. He had already made his pile and so could ensure her career continued unhindered. And he did one very sound thing: she always ran ideas past him. Whenever the nutters tried to raise the issue of capital punishment, and she broached the subject at home, Denis would shake his head. And that was the end of it.
The Europhobes would do well to study the Thatcher approach to the EU: there was no flouncing out. Instead, she played hardball, but she always remained in the room. Despite all the calls to do so, she resisted the idea of selling off the railways and allowed BR’s management to improve the network while keeping a unified whole. And she commanded respect, even from her sternest critics.
I disagreed with much she stood for. But Margaret Thatcher made a difference.