Margaret Thatcher – 1925-2013
Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and Prime Minister in May 1979 as the first British woman to hold that office, with a majority of 44 in the House of Commons. She won re-election by a landslide in the 1983 General Election and again in 1987. She was deposed as Conservative leader in 1990 by members of her own Parliamentary Party who feared for their re-election chances following the Poll Tax riots and controversy over her approach to Britain’s membership of the European Community.
Margaret Thatcher was the reason that I first joined the Conservative Party in 1983. Her leadership in 1982 following the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Fascist junta then ruling Argentina was inspirational. She showed true grit in ignoring the faint-hearted and taking the word of the Admirals who told her that they could muster a task force and recover the islands for their people and British pride. She did not flinch when things went wrong and was rightly able to take the credit when the islands were successfully recovered.
Despite her opposition to all forms of Socialism she was one of the first to recognise the potential of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as someone “we can do business with”. She stood shoulder to shoulder with US President Ronald Reagan as he built up the US Armed Forces and in so doing bankrupted the Soviet Union but as a firm supporter of the “Special Relationship” she also persuaded Reagan and his successor George Bush Snr to talk to the USSR and its leadership about reform and arms control. It was the Soviet leadership which christened her “The Iron Lady”.When the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union collapsed she was a keen supporter of bringing in the newly free nations of Central and Eastern Europe. However, she was vehemently against the emerging plans for a federal European superstate. She fought many battles with the EEC/EU despite starting out as pro-EEC at a time when the Labour Party wanted to withdraw.
At home she took an economy which was on its knees and turned it around with a firm belief in classical Monetarism and the importance of sound money. She ignored the large number of those who stood against her and told her that she should accept the inevitability of British decline. She believed in helping people to help themselves and she despised the statist socialism of the Labour Party of the day. Her economic approach was the principal component of what became known as Thatcherism. It was one of liberalising the markets, reforming the Trades Unions, privatising state industries and encouraging personal aspiration.
She gave many people the means to achieve their aspirations and to hand something on to their children. Her policy of selling Council housing to those who had lived in them for decades brought home ownership to people who had never dreamed that they might own property. The same was true of the privatisation of formerly state-owned companies like British Telecom, British Gas and British Petroleum by selling shares to ordinary citizens. Whilst exciting deep opposition from some parts of the country her policies were able to garner support from sections of the country which previously had not voted Conservative.
Her speeches in the House of Commons and at Party Conferences were legendary. I was at the 1986 and 1987 Conferences listening in awe and admiration as she spoke, with the memories of the 1984 Brighton bombing still fresh in the minds of those present. She had the adoration of ordinary Party members but sadly not of all of her Parliamentary Party. I well remember the shock and anger amongst ordinary Party members at the actions of Conservative MPs who stabbed her in the back. It left a scar in the Party which was an open sore for years afterwards.
Margaret Thatcher was undefeated in a General Election and even in the 1990 leadership election she got more votes than her opponent, just not enough to win outright on the first ballot. It is no exaggeration to say that she put the “Great” back into Great Britain after decades of decline, the chaos of the 1970’s and the humiliation of having to be bailed out by the IMF.
She was a controversial figure at home, adored by many and loathed by others. I was privileged to meet her on several occasions and remember how her face lit up when I told her that I had served in the Falkland Islands. She never lost her interest in the people of the islands and I know that they worship her as a national saviour. She was also personally very kind to people working for her and took a close personal interest in their circumstances and any difficulties in their lives. The people she was hardest on were her political colleagues and opponents who she considered should be able to defend their views and argue their case convincingly. She had no time for those who wilted in the face of challenge to their arguments and thoroughly enjoyed political debate and argument.
In my view she was undoubtedly the greatest post-war British Prime Minister, winning three elections in succession, liberating the British economy, taming the Trades Unions, and restoring pride in our nation. She is a towering figure of 20th Century politics who leaves a legacy head and shoulders above her successors.
Her funeral will be at St Paul’s Cathedral on Wednesday 17 April.
May she rest in peace. She will be greatly missed.