On the 30th anniversary of the 1979 General Election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power many journalists, bloggers and politicians have been reflecting on the significance of that result. I was a few weeks short of 13 at the time but I vividly remember the sense of change and hope that accompanied the change of government.
I do not come from a particularly political family but I know that my parents (a teacher and a nurse) had been driven to despair by the financial crises, the strikes, the power cuts and the rampant inflation of the 1970s. A Labour government had led Britain to the brink of bankruptcy and the humiliation of seeking a loan from the IMF. Also, whatever their claims then or since, it was a Labour Government (with Liberal support) that implemented the only real cuts to the NHS and education, that this country has experienced.
It was also striking that Britain was the first major Western nation to elect a women as head of government. It symbolised that the age of men deciding the fate of the world was coming to an end and although Mrs Thatcher did not do as much as some would have liked for women, her victory was itself a sign that things had changed.
Her 1979 victory, with a decent working majority, also marked the end of a decade of political instability that had seen two inconclusive elections in 1974 alone. Her subsequent two election triumphs led to the reshaping of the British political scene with the SDP breakaway from Labour, the formation of the Liberal Democrats and, most significantly, the acceptance by Tony Blair’s “New Labour” of the economics of the free market, private enterprise and low personal taxation.
In short, Margaret Thatcher’s election victory was revolutionary. We did not know it at the time but her pioneering of privatisation gave individual citizens a meaningful stake in British industry and laid the foundations for an economic turnaround that changed Britain from “the sick man of Europe” to one of the most enterprising and rapidly growing. All this was bought at a cost of industrial strife and reorganisation but who of her critics would honestly want to turn the clock back to inefficient state industries dominated by Trades Unions that were in turn manipulated by a small clique of militant socialists.
There can be no doubt that Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister transformed Britain. Her detractors will nit-pick about her style and some of the things that she left undone but the magnitude of the task facing her in May 1979 was immense. Yes all human beings make mistakes and the benefit of 20:20 hindsight is a wonderful thing however, time after time she refused to accept the prevailing consensus that all the Government could do was manage Britain’s decline. She determined to halt and reverse that decline and to a large measure she succeeded.
It is tragic that after all Margaret Thatcher did between 1979 and 1990 that the next Conservative Government will be faced with another economic catastrophe, once again bequeathed by an incompetent Labour Government. It is all too easy to become complacent and assume (as Gordon Brown did) that the good times will continue to roll but some of us argued for many years that as Chancellor Gordon Brown was unpicking the seams of the garment that had covered us in economic success. Unfortunately for all of us the entire garment is now lying in pieces on the ground. It will take care stewardship over probably two terms of Parliament for the damage to be repaired and the finances once more returned to order.
In 1979 many people had doubts about Margaret Thatcher. Her policies to some seemed unformed and unclear and she had been deliberately vague about taxation and spending. Some also doubted that she had the strength of character and experience to lead Britain through the difficult times. All the same criticisms are being levelled at David Cameron. We will have to see if he rises to the challenge as superbly as Maggie did.
I believe that he will.