Baroness Margaret Hilda Thatcher was born the daughter of a Grantham grocer in 1925. Never has a politician so split the country like Mrs Thatcher and as such it will be rather a challenge to give a neural account of her life and career but then Thatcher always preferred people who had wrong opinions than those that didn’t argue at all.
“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.” October 1980, Conservative Party conference
Baroness Thatcher is no doubt one of the foremost world figures of the 20th Century and obviously one of the great British Prime Ministers of at least the last 100 years regardless of whether you liked her or not. What is my basis for saying that? Well most people enter politics to help people or change things and there are few who have changed things more than Mrs T.
“No woman, in my time, will be prime minister or foreign secretary—not the top jobs, anyway, I wouldn’t want to be prime minister. You have to give yourself 100 percent to the job.” – Thatcher in 1969
Sir Winston Churchill always has it wrapped up in the race for the best Prime Minister ever but it is often said that Thatcher is the greatest peace-time PM. She has considerable competition from my own hero Liberal David Lloyd-George who was instrumental in the early years of the 20th Century of pushing through reforms including Social Insurance and leading the country through WW1. Labour PM Clement Atlee is another who famously oversaw the creation of the welfare state and institutions such as the NHS.
“I don’t mind how much my ministers talk, as long as they do what I say.”
Mrs Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister and first global leader in an era when in Britain and around the world, women were treated almost as second class citizens. Women still could not do simple things like arrange mortgages and she was berated and often despised for being a lowly provincial woman from people in her own Conservative Party who for some reason found it harder to come to terms with her than the opposing Labour Party members did.
Britain isn’t not prepared to stand down. We have ceased to be a nation in retreat.
When she became leader of the Conservative Party in the Mid-1970’s she had supplanted the old style of gentleman Prime Ministers. It was widely though that Britain was in a total terminal decline both internally and internationally. Broke financially, broken industrially and economically on a scale perhaps surpassing Russia after the Soviet Union. It was a spiral that no-one had been able to stem and indeed it was pretty well accepted by politicians of all sides that the country was pretty much history.
Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. Margaret Thatcher
She was never a gifted orator as so many British politicians and Prime Ministers are. She couldn’t inspire like Churchill and smooth talk like Blair but she had determination and a strong character. She pretty much forced her opinion on her government and the country. This could be seen in the satirical sketch show Spitting Imagewhen she took her Cabinet to a restaurant and decared to the waiter that she was going to have beef to eat and the waiter asked about the vegetables. Referring to her Cabinet ministers, she instructed that they will have the same as her.
Her first years in office gave little away of how she was going to transform the country. The real turning point was in 1982 when Argentina invaded and occupied The Fallkland Islands. Against all the odds she decided to prepare Military Task Force to sail 8,000 miles round the world, engage in WW2 style ship to ship combat and amphibious landing. It was something even the United States military stated was impossible. Achieving a complete and quick victory though at the cost of many lives she was able to win re-election on a wave of popular support.
The Iron Lady had showed her mettle and quickly became close friends and partners with President Ronald Reagan in the USA. Together they formed an alliance which was finally to see off the Soviet Union, the Iron curtain and Communism, at least Russian style communism.
Her no-nonsense style won Reagan’s admiration as did her lack of fear of speaking her mind to him and telling him how to do his job. There is famous anecdote of Thatcher calling Reagan whist he was having a meeting with his government heads and as she shouted down the phone telling him off, he put the phone handset in the air so everyone could hear and declared “Isn’t she wonderful”.
Her economic policies were similar to Reagan too but perhaps even more far-reaching. Thatcherism as it came to be known came to stand for denationalisation of state industries (privatisation)and economic liberalisation Only Defence was off-limits meaning the U.K. started on the path of total free market economics with industries in nations such as Germany and the USA that were protected, being open to foreign ownership and government closure.
She created a nation of small-time share owners and attracted support from a new wave of voters who traditionally would have voted for Labour. She created the right to buy scheme which gave the lower class tenants the right to purchase their state owned homes.
However, Thatcher was nothing of not controversial. She was determined to destroy the Unions which led to the country being near paralysed by national coal strikes, steel strikes and strikes in many other areas. Her government decided the Britain could and should not compete in heavy industry with the growing Asian economies and so traditional industries such as ship building were wound down leading to large parts of the country having no viable employment and ruined communities which lingered for decades and in some cases have never recovered. Some would say that she ruined Britain, others would say she created the modern service economy that allowed the City of London to be the financial centre for the world. Perhaps both are true.
If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.
Her robust foreign attitude to Argentina and the Soviet Union was matched by her support for Israel and the refusal to apply economic sanctions to South Africa. Her defence of the Falkands led her to firmly believe that the British government would make no concessions to the IRA. One of her annual party conferences was targeted by the IRA with consequences though bad enough, were almost disastrous when a bomb exploded under a bed in the room below Thatcher who survived unscathed.
If anything, this understandably hardened her attitude and she even deployed the SAS to take out terrorist squads with great effect even if shoot to kill policies were controversal and so led to the loosening of television regulation and changes in television franchise licenses. It wasn’t the first time she brought in the SAS, she also deployed them to great effect in the Iranian Embassy hostage situation in London.
Thatcher simply changed every aspect of Britain and once again set it apart from her European neighbours. Despite this she fought for Europe and for European influence in the world. She wanted it to be competitive and it is largely down to her that the European Union is at all relative today when it is considered how protective the other nations were. Where she drew the line was when Europe wanted to interfere with national institutions.
In her later years as PM, things began to go downhill for Thatcher. Constant arguments with what is now the European Union, the disaster of the Poll Tax and the simple fact that she had alienated much of her political party after 11 years in power led to her being deposed by her own Conservative Party.
Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides. – Mrs Thatcher
Her legacy lives on in the UK and world at large. Successive governments though often losing the harsher elements of Thatcherism continued many of her policies with the only later PM who followed her and comes close in comparison, Tony Blair, admitting that he admired her and learnt from her.
Countries around the world have copied her economic no-nonsense policies and she almost single-handedly restored the international reputation of Britain even if internally it took perhaps the 2012 Olympic Games before the people became once again proud of their country.
Margaret Thatcher suffered from ill-health for over 10 years and had already arranged with the government and Queen to have a Ceremonial funeral with military features as she did not wish to have a State Funeral.
News of her death has once again split Britain. Leaders of the three main parties have led tributes to her though in many British cities there has been celebrations that the Milk Snatcher is no longer with us.
My main view that I would like to add to this article is that we miss having a strong and principled leader of any ideology. Once she got something into her head, she stuck with it. No matter how unpopular with the media she would stick to her guns even with hugely unpopular policies such as not compromising when a succession of political prisoners went on hunger strike. She wouldn’t be swayed and was of the opinion if they want to martyr themselves, let them. By comparison there don’t seem to be any democratic leaders anywhere with backbone like that. Modern Presidents and Prime Ministers get panicked at the first sign of a bad headline. That is why she was often portrayed as a battle-axe, a Britannia and Bodiecea figure.
International tributes to Baroness Thatcher were led by President Obama “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend. She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered. She helped restore the confidence and pride that has always been the hallmark of Britain at its best. As an unapologetic supporter of our transatlantic alliance, she knew that with strength and resolve we could win the cold war and extend freedom’s promise.”
In Moscow, the former president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, saluted Thatcher as “a great politician” who would “go down in our memory and in history”, while in Jerusalem the prime minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, said he was in mourning and described her as “a truly a great leader, a woman of principle, of determination, of conviction, of strength; a woman of greatness. She was a staunch friend of Israel and the Jewish people. She inspired a generation of political leaders. I send my most sincere condolences to her family and to the government and people of Great Britain.”
Ghana’s former president John Agyekum Kufuor said: “Thatcher was warlike, and uncompromising in her ways. I know that in her country some people admired her for that, but to many of us that wasn’t impressive. Her position on the ANC wasn’t acceptable. She proved to be too conservative. She didn’t seem to appreciate the rapidly changing world. She believed that there are only a few creators in this world, entrepreneurs and investors, and that you protect them – they are the people who will increase the wealth of the nation and create jobs for people. That is a philosophy I also subscribe to.”
In China, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the populist state-run tabloid Global Times, wrote: “People’s most striking memory is of her being tough. As a successful woman in politics, she was revered. As a politician, her experience and policies stirred feelings.The ‘Iron Lady’ era is over. Today is the era of co-operation.”
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, hailed Thatcher as “a true landmark in 20th-century history” and said it was “a sad day for Europe as a whole. Margaret Thatcher led the UK government at a key moment in history,” he said. “Her unerring commitment to freedom, democracy and the rule of law, as well as her firm determination to reform, constitute a most valuable legacy for European leaders who, akin to the 80s when it was her turn to be in power, have to face very complex challenges which require greatly ambitious stances and political courage.”