international analysis and commentary

Understanding Thatcher


“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.’” That famous statement to the 1980 Conservative Party Conference captured in an instant the combative style of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s only woman and longest-serving peacetime prime minister who died this week aged 87. Regarded today as one of Britain’s political giants she was also one of the most divisive leaders in recent history.

Her views and style were intrinsically linked to her origins and her moment in history. The daughter of a Grantham greengrocer (a fruit and vegetable seller) she had to fight against class and privilege throughout her life. This struggle was of course compounded by her being a woman at a time when Britain and the Conservative Party were deeply patriarchal. In a sense Thatcher was a series of inspired contradictions. She was both deeply conservative and yet revolutionary, patriotic but also pragmatic. 

Known today for her role as a stateswoman and victor of the 1982 Falklands War, she came to power in 1979 on the back of a disastrous Labour government which had reduced Britain to the “sick man of Europe”. From the moment she stepped into 10 Downing Street she rejected the cosy Establishment consensus that government was simply the management of Britain’s inevitable decline. She sought the re-invigoration of Britain and in so doing broke the post-war statist consensus and moved the political centre ground to the centre-right – where it stayed until this current age of extreme political correctness. Indeed, she probably despised an age in which even thought, it would seem, must now be policed.

Her methods at home were little short of brutal, as she believed Britain needed a short, sharp, shock if it was to compete in a changing world. Her economic policies were not universally successful and certainly not universally popular and she probably did more damage than was necessary to British industry. Moreover, her focus on keeping interest rates high did much damage to small business and many of the home-owning class she claimed to champion. However, that much had to change cannot be questioned. She successfully faced down the mighty National Union of Mineworkers in 1984 during a strike that was as much about who governed Britain as industrial policy.  

Her foreign policy stature grew in the wake of the Falklands War. She was not slavish to the US and had real political influence in Washington due to her ideological “marriage” to US President Ronald Reagan who trusted her political instincts. Britain really did then enjoy a Special Relationship with the Americans which boosted her own standing. This was evident in her 1985 meeting with soon-to-be Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a man she “could do business with”.  

However, it was perhaps her attitude to European integration that most defined Thatcher internationally. She was deeply concerned about German reunification believing that in time it would lead to a German-dominated Europe. She successfully righted the patent unfairness of Britain’s 1973 terms of entry into the then European Economic Community (EEC) by negotiating a rebate with the famous slogan, “I want my money back!”

And yet that very slogan also highlighted a fundamental problem in her dealings with other European leaders. Maybe, just maybe, had she been able to build relationships with the likes of France’s President Mitterrand and Germany’s Chancellor Kohl, Britain may have been invited into the inner leadership sanctum of the Franco-German axis. However, her instincts told her otherwise (almost certainly correctly) but her tendency to “handbag” other leaders made the forming of a new power triangle at the heart of Europe even more unlikely. Today that moment has passed and Britain faces a choice of subjugating itself to the German sphere of influence or standing aside from it.

Her basic beliefs were those of a lower middle class Englishwoman whose formative years witnessed first the appeasement and then the defeat of Hitler and then the emergence of socialised state.  She rejected both appeasement and the socialised state.  In her fervour to tackle the latter she placed too much importance on the goodness of the market.  It was Thatcher who in 1986 liberalised the City of London which first boomed and then in 2008 crashed under the weight of its own corruption. Indeed, she had an essentially Adam Smithian view of the world by which small government should support the talented to work hard and succeed precisely to keep government small. 

Has Thatcher left a legacy? The neo-socialist obsession of London’s out-of-touch metropolitan liberal elite would suggest that Britain is again facing many of the same problems as in the 1970s. She would have utterly rejected the current obsession with equality over quality, and that diversity somehow generates strength. She would have hated the all too comfortable return to short-termism and mediocrity even if that means Britain’s ultimate demise.

She was the “conviction politician” of all conviction politicians who stood on a set of principles that are alien to lightweight political leaders. 

For a brief moment she made Britain count again and as such spoke to a silent majority who shared (and share) her patriotic beliefs. As such she was the antidote to the professional political class that is today so despised in Britain. 

Above all, Thatcher’s political instincts were invariably correct about the big issues of the day. The simple maxim she followed throughout her political career was that of the greengrocer’s daughter she was; a country cannot spend more than it can afford. Something Britain’s current crop of leaders are again all too familiar with.