Britain at the start of 1979 was a horrid place to live. Tens of thousands of public sector workers were on strike; lorry drivers refused to deliver heating oil, forcing the closure of over a thousand schools; bodies in Liverpool lay unburied because grave-diggers had downed tools.
It was Britain’s Winter of Discontent. Large-scale industrial unrest caused by trade union demands for pay rises clashed with the governing Labour Party’s policy of pay freezes.
Margaret Thatcher was leader of the opposition Conservative Party at the time. As Charles Moore, her official biographer noted yesterday, she saw that “her nation was failing. At home, trade union power, over-government, over-borrowing, high taxes, inflation were destroying it. On the international scene, Soviet Communism was threatening the future of freedom in the West.”
This malaise was reflected across an increasingly impotent nation: Sir Nicholas Henderson, the British Ambassador to France, noted in a diplomatic communiqué (later leaked and widely published) that Britain’s “economic decline in relation to our European partners has been so marked that today we are not only no longer a world power; we are not in the first rank even as a European one.”
I don’t need to point out that today Britain is an economic powerhouse, a political heavyweight, a military big gun and a global exporter of culture. That the United Kingdom would be in this place was far, far from certain in 1979. In fact, it was more likely that the received wisdom of the day would come true: that the end of the Empire and the economic strategy of “Butskellism” would see a managed decline in British fortunes.
The policies which lifted the British trajectory upwards are well known.
Mrs Thatcher’s governments stopped subsidising coal mining and other economic activity which was uncompetitive and inefficient. Council homes were sold off to their owners by the hundreds of thousands in the right-to-buy programme, barriers to entry in the financial services market were demolished (most spectacularly in the ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of the City of London in 1986), the nation’s ‘family silver’ was sold off in a massive series of industrial privatisations and share-owning became widespread.
Internationally, Mrs Thatcher repeatedly spurned closer integration with the European Economic Community, now the European Union. She allied Britain closely to the United States through the personality of Ronald Reagan, which whom she had a surprising affinity: he the smooth movie star from California famed for his fireside chats, she the daughter of a grocer from Lincolnshire whose stern public personality largely masked her warmth and kindness. But the two of them played, together with Pope John Paul II, pivotal roles in managing the soft-landing of the Soviet Union as it broke up – peacefully, unlike the Arab Spring.
Her biggest gamble – and, in hindsight, stroke of luck – came with the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982. By many metrics, life in Britain was even worse in 1982 than it had been in 1979. Had an aircraft carrier been sunk or a few more troop carriers and warships, the British task force would have been forced back from the Islands; the war would have been lost; and with the war, the Conservatives’ chances of winning the 1983 general election.
But she triumphed.
The capstone to her victory, paradoxically, was Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. This was due to the invention of New Labour and Tony Blair’s recognition that the British political fulcrum is to the centre-right. This is the greatest legacy of Mrs Thatcher.
It is not my intention here to revisit the politics of the 1980s nor to weigh up the benefits and costs of Thatcherism and Thatcherite policies. Yes, there were costs. Council housing was sold off without building replacements. This heralded the sub-prime era and a widespread shortage of social housing that has contributed to severe homelessness. British relations with Europe were poisoned by her intransigence and hostility, even though European integration continued, albeit at a slightly slower rate.
This was the dynamic which precipitated her defenestration as Party leader and Prime Minister in November 1990. I share David Alton’s view of Mrs Thatcher’s embrace of free market liberalism: she failed to see the consequences of mass deindustrialisation. The human cost of shutting the coal pits and ‘rationalising’ the workforces of British Rail, British Gas and other fragmented monopolies was simply enormous.
Alton saw it first hand, as a councillor in inner city Liverpool and then an MP in the city: “Phenomenal unemployment in cities like Liverpool paved the way for civil unrest, for today’s benefits culture and decimated the coal field communities. A failure to cushion the blow and to provide transitional work led to social unrest and division.”
Norman Tebbit’s famous remark about his unemployed father getting on his bike and looking for work in the 1930s supposed that the same occupational and geographical mobility was appropriate for a radically different economy 50 years later. We Conservatives failed to build strong economic and civil communities in former industrial and manufacturing heartlands of the North. Britain still suffers today because of it.
The simple fact is that there are large swathes of the North where Tory candidates lose in every election because there is an insufficient basis for enterprise and work outside of the public sector to grow. Two current policy initiatives may change this. One is Education Secretary Michael Gove’s free schools programme and his effort to lift educational achievement. The other is Iain Duncan Smith’s massive welfare reforms which aim to shift the benefits system away from disincentives to work.
But much of the country are off-limits to the Right, directly as a result of the failure to do enough to replace the lost industries of the 1980s.
Mrs Thatcher’s personal strength as a woman is represented neatly in the dozens of famous phrases attributed to her. She quoted St Francis of Assisi’s prayer on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street in 1979: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth”. She told the Conservative conference in 1980, “To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”
My favourite, for what it’s worth, is “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
In the current funk of global recession today, let’s hope for more leaders with the vision and courage to implement the necessary reforms for stable, secure job creation and economic growth. As Alton puts it, Mrs Thatcher “always described herself as a conviction politician and no one was ever in any doubt about what she believed and why.”
But remember: all quotes need a context. The steely resolve that radiated from the Iron Lady must be tempered with a sensitivity to the full consequences of political actions.
Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London.