Was Mrs Thatcher a great leader or a divisive ideologue?

So was Mrs Thatcher a great leader or did she do more harm than good?

Was Mrs Thatcher a great leader? The passing of great leaders tends to produce a flood of retrospective comment on the qualities of the leader, their achievements and their legacy, and those who see them as their current inspiration can move quickly to deify them. The death of Lady Thatcher yesterday is one such event, although opinion is divided as to whether she would deserve the term “great”. Thus there is no actual state funeral, as was accorded to Churchill for example. After all it is history that awards the term and it can be a fickle judge. Lady Thatcher, or as we all knew here in the UK, Mrs Thatcher or “Maggie”, inspired both love and hate, both amongst her opponents and her admirers at different times, and many in the UK would say she was a divisive force in politics rather than the unifier that one might expect of a “great” leader.

Mrs Thatcher
Mrs Thatcher

Luck was on her side

Like many leaders, one could say she was lucky. Again, however the skill of the “great” is to take advantage of circumstances. This quality she demonstrated in abundance. Soon after winning the 1979 election, her government’s policies produced a severe backlash and for a while the Conservative Party was deeply unpopular.

Then came the Falklands War in 1982. Her fellow ministers advised caution and an appeal to the UN but seemingly against the odds she championed the dispatch of a naval task force to eject the Argentinians who had seized the islands, their “Malvinas”, in the belief they were taking what was rightfully theirs. The Argentinians were duly removed and in the subsequent election the Conservatives thrashed their Labour Party opponents. Of course it should also be said that those same opponents were themselves divided and had just committed to a very left-wing manifesto, “the longest suicide note in history” as it was later dubbed. Even so, we were provided with an excellent example of how wars, especially distant and small-scale, can divert attention from internal conflict and unite a nation, and are thus a useful weapon of an embattled leader. Of course it has also saddled the UK with a long-term problem in maintaining forces at very considerable distance against a hostile neighbour. However, it can be said that Maggie proved herself and the lesson was not lost on her potential and actual opponents. She would be resolute and determined in the face of the “enemy”, both internal and external

There is no alternative

Lady Thatcher was a “them versus us” thinker. When she spoke of “us”, she didn’t mean the UK as a whole but those who were with her and her team. She was a “conviction politician”, in the  terminology of the time, in contrast to the tendency in the ’70’s to negotation and consensus that had led in her view to the industrial unrest of the “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-89. She was about taking on and defeating her enemies, and enemies there were aplenty.

She believed she was right. She was nicknamed “Tina”, an acronym from her tendency to repeat “There is no alternative”. She would set and stick to her course. This of course can obscure the various adjustments she did actually make, but she presented her approach as firm and focused.

Arguably the times needed it, and she gives us a good example of how leaders emerge to fit a situation. Her style was charismatic, leading from the front: “this is the way”, she implied, and she thus set about inspiring her followers. Not that she didn’t also cajole and coerce. Her opponents in the cabinet were dubbed “the wets” (ie. weak and feeble”) and one by one removed as she consolidated her power base. People used to talk about her “handbagging” her opponents. As a minister, you didn’t go in and have a conversation with her; you went in and had a lecture.

Radical conservatisim

To be a radical conservative can seem a contradiction in terms, were it not that she would argue that she was returning matters to a perceived older, liberal entrepreneurial status quo and reversing the seeming omnipresence of the State and what she called “socialism” in citizens’ lives. Many would say that is one of her enduring legacies of today, as no politician has yet dared to revert to the “statism” of 1945 to the 1970’s. Strikingly Blair sought to work within the dispensation she had created.

She was about “rolling back the boundaries of the state”. Although her thinking of her own seems now to be very “homespun”, as befitted a very conventional grocer’s daughter from Grantham, she very ably took up the ideas of others. Thus a major change took place, not without significant conflict and thus many today see her as divisive.

In economic policy, intervention in the major economic recession of the early 1980’s was limited to raising interest levels to a very high point, to some extent in line with the new monetarist beliefs advocated by people like the Conservative ideologue Sir Keith Joseph. Many business closed, particularly manufacturing, with a legacy we arguably still have to this day, resulting in a small manufacturing base and an economy dependent on a bloated finance sector. The car industry for example became became almost entirely foreign-owned. This policy was a move away from the interventionist policies used in the 1970’s and most successfully since seen in France. While the Thatcher governments advocated entrepreneurialism very successfully, again a major legacy of the period, we had a relaxation of financial controls, the 1986 Big Bang of deregulation in the City of London, and the untrammelled financial policies that initially seemed very successful in the growth of the UK financial sector but arguably also led to the collapse of 2008.

It is this “laissez-faire” approach to economic management, the belief in the market and in market forces that was of profound importance, since today politicians hesitate to do things differently and still hark back to the alleged success of the period. Yet we still have the desolate areas of the former industrial areas of the UK, with whole communities still dependent on benefit, to remind us of what was done. This policy occurred during the apparent “boon” of the development of North Sea oil, but rather than squirrel it away or fund industrial regeneration, the bonus to government revenues allowed a funding of the deficit, buttressed also by the sale of state assets, the “privatisation” of many state-owned industries. Today, these industries, although many now foreign-owned, have considerably expanded and arguably function in a way that is far more consumer-orientated, and thus the jury of economic history is perhaps still out in terms of gains and losses to UK industry from this era.

Thatcher’s children

This radical conservatism has been taken up by “Thatcher’s children”, the political generation who were teenagers in the 1980’s and who now are a powerful force in the current coalition. It is in this context that we can understand the policies of Ian Duncan Smith and the re-drawing of the Welfare State to, as he would say, favour work over welfare. Equally, the National Health Service is being re-cast to favour competition for services, despite the denials currently being made, as GP commissioning groups in the charge of NHS budgets replace regional and local health authorities. Education is being removed from local authority control to a series of academies which are capable of private control. In three key areas of public policy a revolution is arguably taking place and one that some argue was not submitted to the electorate in the last election.

The defeat of organised labour

Another major contribution was the defeat of the union movement in the eary 1980’s. Partly because of their economic policies, the coal mining industry was facing major contraction and their union decided to take on the government in what what really a very political strike, from 1984-85. The miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, was an ardent “hard” left union activist whose defence of miners’ jobs was overlaid with left-wing rhetoric. Mrs Thatcher had her ideal adversary, and by skillfully using a well-organised police (she put up their wages on coming to power in 1979) and having retained the neutrality of the Nottinghamshire miners was just about able to prevent the shut-down of industry that had occured when the miners last took on the government and won in 1974. Her victory over the miners was absolute and lasting. It was accompanied and followed by a raft of laws to limit the previous legal immunities enjoyed by unions from being sued for damages and effective weapons such as secondary picketing and the closed shop were illegalised.

To this day, organised labour has been emasculated and thus there has not been the resistance to government policies seen in other European countries. Union membership has shrunk and union effectiveness is now largely limited to the public sector. In itself this was a major shift from the power of the traditional “working class” of earlier in the 20th century, accompanying the profound changes in UK society that in any case have seen a major dilution in this sector of society, and a major weakening of the old power base of the Labour Party. However, others point to the decline in incomes and job security as a lasting legacy that is arguably hampering economic recovery.

The Iron Lady of international politics

The Soviets gave her the title of the Iron Lady in 1976 and her partnership with Reagan in opposing them probably helped contribute to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the demise of communism, although it is usually argued that the regimes collapsed from within from their own contradictions. Throughout the 1980’s British defence spending was steadily raised, although there was concern at one point that nuclear war was getting uncomfortably close when Cruise missiles were deployed in earnest in the UK.

Mrs Thatcher built an excellent relationship with President Reagan, who followed similar economic policies, and her reputation in the US remained high after her departure from office. She was seen as a true defender of freedom and entrepreneurialism, which are strong US values.

However, her relationship with her European colleagues was less easy and there were a number of bruising confrontations, as when she demanded “my money” back in the process of securing a UK rebate on contributions to EU funds. However, despite these moments, she was also a pragmastist, despite how she is presented as a Eurosceptic today. Although not happy with further European integration she was a strong supporter of The Single European Act which opened up the single market in goods, and she advocated bringing in the former Eastern block countries to EU membership.

People gained a healthy respect for this most determined of British Prime Ministers. In a way it would be hard not to argue that Mrs Thatcher did contribute to a raising of the UK’s profile in international affairs and certainly helped restore pride in the UK within the country.

The dropping of the pilot

It’s easy in retrospect to pick up the old political footballs of the era, as memory dies hard and people have a long memory of the conflicts of the period. For her opponents, she was bitterly disliked and by her supporters much admired. No doubt, as with Disraeli before her, a myth-making machine will get to work and she will be elevated above the status that longer-term history might give her, and she will become a political weapon in the hands of the Tory right.

However, it worth remembering that the Conservatives did finally “drop the pilot,” to borrow a term from Bismarck’s time. Mrs Thatcher had put her by-now diminishing political capital behind a revamp of local authority financing, the Community Charge, or “poll tax” as it was dubbed, only to be faced by widespread civil resistance, a tax strike and riots. The tax was dropped and soon after moves were made to put up a leadership candidate against her, Michael Heseltine, and she was brought down in 1990.

The Conservatives traditionally (although not now) have been very loyal to their leaders, but also ruthless in moving on those seen to be actual or potential failures (Cameron beware). No doubt in the coming weeks and months, as praise upon praise is piled on her, it might also be remembered that the Conservatives perhaps rather ungratefully disposed of the most successful politician of the day, the winner of three general elections. People will hark back to the “good old days” and seek to emulate her policies, and perhaps forget that, for the Conservative party, one very big legacy has been division in its own ranks.

This pattern of division is a supreme irony. As she divided others, wittingly or unwittingly, she also divided her own. After her fall, her successor John Major, although to many people’s surprise the winner of the next election, also presided over a bitter internal conflict over Europe and the moves towards setting up the Euro. John Major attempted and failed to join the Euro in 1992 and arguably the Conservatives have not recovered from the debacle. Today, a massive section of the party want withdrawal from Europe and Cameron has attempted to buy them off with the promise of a referendum after “renegotiation” of membership. The latter looks unlikely and the Conservative right won’t let up. Europe is a toxic issue for the Conservatives and could produce a split. Hence Cameron’s unconvincing juggling, much to the intense irritation of our European colleagues. The result has been Britain’s isolation and lack of influence in Europe. We have here potentially echoes of two earlier Tory splits, both concerning a vital national interest, the Repeal of the Corn Laws and Imperial Preference, both ironically about British trade.

Yet, Mrs Thatcher was always clear that you must be “at the table”. You had to be there with the others to influence the outcome. Despite her ideological posturing she was also a political realist. Today, in foreign policy as in domestic policy, her “children” do not seem to have her outstanding ability and political “nous”.

Greatness is a very subjective term, and as I have said opinions differ, but she probably wasn’t that far off it.

Some links

Opinions on her contribution are favourable, just about

Some statistics

A Thatcher apologist

An economic journalist’s view

And another

While on the left her name produces paroxyisms

Amazingly but not surprisingly, when someone dies, ghosts of the past are stirred up. Here’s a view on Arthur Scargill and the Miners’ Strike, one of Maggie’s victories: click here

And the voices of people of the time

There is a superb BBC iPlayer program about Lady Thatcher for those in the UK, here.

What was “Thatcherism”?


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