The discussion following the death of Margaret Thatcher has quickly moved from a fragile peace to a divisive debate (see these ambiguous local press headlines). I don’t remember much about Thatcherism but I have vague memories, as Russell Brand wonderfully put it, of a woman on the TV telling people off and constantly saying no.
Having taught British politics I find it fascinating to see the differences between myth and reality in leaders from across time. Thatcher appears to be one leader who will be as wrapped in myth and controversy as Churchill. As Richard Vinen points out his great book on Thatcher, both left and right had an interest in creating a straw Thatcher, a repository of virtue or evil. Added to this, academics, supporters and others, including Thatcher herself, have piled on further layers of mystique. Her comments about there being ‘no such thing as society’, for example, are quoted out of context while her comments about immigration in 1978 are often forgotten.
Take Thatcher’s background as the famous ‘grocer’s daughter’. As Simon Jenkin’s (see a good article here) and biographer John Campbell argue in their works on Thatcher, Alderman Roberts was an important local politician – but Grantham gave her a ‘hinterland’ and an ‘outsider’ story to tell. More importantly the ‘outsider’ Thatcher developed her real contacts at that most establishment of places Oxford, where she gained the friendships that eventually found her a seat. An outsider perhaps but with at least one foot firmly in the establishment.
More interesting is Thatcher as a politician. Her portrait as an ideology driven ‘wrecker’ needs to be qualified. Vinen is not certain she ever read any of the ‘classic’ texts that were supposed to have inspired Thatcherism or that she regarded them as anything more than ‘polish’ (though this is not to underestimate her formidable intellect). Nor was she the first to privatise parts of government or acknowledge the financial arrangements were unsuitable-the prize for both of these goes to her ‘socialist’ predecessor. Her golden rule of politics was said to have been ‘always leave yourself a way out’ – not a very Thatcher thing to say.
As a politician Thatcher is seen as a model conviction politician. But, as John Major and Jon Snow both tried to point out, the same Thatcher signed the Single European Act of 1986 and agreed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Her privatisation began slowly and she backed away from reforming the NHS or privatising the Post Office. Only when she truly became an ideologue did she lose power.
Vinen highlights her famous 1988 Bruges Speech, seen now as the founding moment of the UK Eurosceptic movement in Britain, as one of the most misunderstood parts of her career. As a statement of Euroscepticism it leaves a lot to be desired. Parts of the speech are very pro-European, peppered with phrases such as ‘And let me be quite clear…Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community’-she even begins the speech with a gentle joke about her supposed ‘anti-European’ views.
Even Thatcher’s ‘iron resolution’ over the Falklands war may not be all that it seemed-these papers from the National Archives reveal Thatcher open to the idea of a negotiated settlement (borrowing from Churchill again who said ‘jaw jaw is always better than war’).
The most confusing aspect is her legacy, which can be less a verdict and more an on-going debate. Thatcherism shaped the views of what the state, the economy and society should do. In 2004 this all seemed to have been settled. Post 2007 light touch approaches to banking and food safety seem more questionable.
Thatcher herself spoke of her key achievements as being variously the creation of Tony Blair or the changing of ‘values’ and ‘common sense’. None of these take us very far in understanding what it was Thatcherism did. The difficulty is that debate is on two levels. One level we can (and are) discussing economic and social changes Thatcherism created. On this one I broadly agree with Ken Livingstone’s assessment.
But on another level, the argument is about something harder to define-this may be what Thatcher meant about ‘values’. Both left and right believe Thatcher did something less tangible. To the right Thatcher made Britain ‘great’ again as Cameron said, saving us from a terminal sort of ‘spiritual’ as well as economic decline-though some interesting and much debated research points to 1976, that year of terrible economic crisis, as being the time when the UK was ‘happiest’. To the left Thatcher ‘broke’ something about Britain and what Alexei Sayle called her ‘prejudice wrapped up as policy’ destroyed something worth keeping- a sense of community as difficult to measure as happiness.
The events of the last few days have showed that she has one unarguable legacy. Her idol Winton Churchill spent much of his life a divisive and contrary figure but, a year shy of his 70 birthday, transformed into a figure of national unity and ‘the saviour of his country’ (as a very left wing historian said). By contrast Thatcher, who claimed quoting St Augustine she sought unity, has left division and conflict.
Dr Benjamin Worthy is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck.