Margaret Thatcher was a woman of purpose and achievement, who set the tone of events and forcibly altered the trends of the time. She grabbed opportunity as it came, and created opportunity when it was needed. In the words of The Guardian editorial on her demise: “Whether you were for her or against her, Margaret Thatcher set the agenda for the past three and a half decades of British politics. All the debates that matter today in the public arena, whether in economics, social policy, politics, the law, the national culture or this country's relations with the rest of the world, still bear something of the imprint she left on them in her years in office between 1979 and 1990. More than 20 years after her party disposed of her when she had become an electoral liability, British public life is still defined to an extraordinary degree by the argument between those who wish to continue or refine what she started and those who want to mitigate or turn it back. Just as in life she shaped the past 30 years, so in death she may well continue to shape the next 30.”
“She rode the wind of history with an opportunist's brilliance” is how The Guardian described Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in the UK and how she remained the longest serving Prime Minister of the last century.
The prototype of divisive politics she defined the trend of British politics, economics and society, through her time in office, the stamp of which continues to this day. It is an irony of our times that those who most mourn her loss, 20 years after being embarrassingly removed from office, are drawn from the opposing ranks of British politics, that continues a battle to be distant or at variance from what “Thatcherism” came to mean in the lexicon of British politics.
She was a woman of purpose and achievement, who set the tone of events and forcibly altered the trends of the time. She grabbed opportunity as it came, and created opportunity when it was needed. In the words of The Guardian editorial on her demise: “Whether you were for her or against her, Margaret Thatcher set the agenda for the past three and a half decades of British politics. All the debates that matter today in the public arena, whether in economics, social policy, politics, the law, the national culture or this country's relations with the rest of the world, still bear something of the imprint she left on them in her years in office between 1979 and 1990. More than 20 years after her party disposed of her when she had become an electoral liability, British public life is still defined to an extraordinary degree by the argument between those who wish to continue or refine what she started and those who want to mitigate or turn it back. Just as in life she shaped the past 30 years, so in death she may well continue to shape the next 30.”
She came to her own by defeating Edward Heath for the Conservative leadership in February 1975 becoming the first woman to lead a major British political party. Manipulating the politics of her own party, where she was less popular than other key members, she used the strategy of winning arguments without making promises, and the continuing weakness of Labour and the Liberal Democrats to emerge as the Conservative Prime Minister in May 1979, the first woman to hold this office in the UK.
Her campaign for leadership saw populist trends that were dangerous, but useful for her purpose. A clear example was her warning that Britain's white population feared being "swamped" by immigrants. Analysts saw this as a comment that earned her contempt from the left, but to her it was worth valuable working-class votes for the Conservatives. Her attitudes to immigration, urban deprivation and South Africa attracted accusations of racism, but she was not moved by such criticism. She declared the African National Union a terrorist organization, was not pleased to oppose apartheid, and her attacks on the Soviet Bloc earned the jibe of “Iron Lady” from the Russians, but she used the epithet to her own advantage.
What she said on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street no sooner she took office, “where there is discord, may we bring harmony" was in complete contrast to what she brought about in office. Harmony was the aspect least seen in UK society during her time. What she did was to change the very cornerstones of British society as they stood since the end of World War 2 – target the welfare state in most aspects, bring immediate tax reductions to the higher earners, increase VAT to meet the cost of these concessions for the rich, that seriously affected the lower income earners.
Her monetarist economic policies saw disregard to rising unemployment and a sharp fall in industrial output. She was more concerned with the market, financial services, the need for deflationary budgets, cutting public borrowing and raising indirect taxes, which affected lower income earners. This was the background that saw the Brixton riots in April 1981, followed by the Toxteth riot in July the same year and strong protests in many parts of the country. Through all this she refused to accept that these disturbances might be linked to rising unemployment. The situation was such that by end 1981 opinion polls showed her to the most unpopular Prime Minister since records began. The question in most minds was whether Labour or the new alliance between Liberals and Social Democrats would make a dramatic gain in the next election.
The Falklands opportunity
That is when the winds of opportunity came her way, with the Argentineans occupying the Falkland Islands, which they called the Malvinas, in April 1982, after she overruled moves to acknowledge Argentine sovereignty over the Falklands. She went against the advice of her own Cabinet, and the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence advice. She saw here the chance to demonstrate that she was indeed the “Iron Lady”, and dispatched a Task Force to the South Atlantic to regain the Falklands, even rejecting her close ally Washinghton’s suggestion for negotiations.
It was a short war, and there are many questions that remain to be answered about the strategy and tactics of the British to this day. But the victory for the British troops was the clear rising star in her political life, with her image growing both in the UK and elsewhere in the world. The success of the war saw her begin a long election campaign with a victory tour of the Falklands. The victory that followed was stunning in all aspects. Divisions between Labour and the SPD saw the Conservatives win with a majority of 144.
She had to soon face grim economic reality with unemployment and mortgage rates rising. It is in this background that she made her major attacks on trade unions and loss making state institutions - the key aspects of “Thatcherism”. Here begins the real legacy of Margaret Thatcher. It was the time of another Battle of Britain – when all lines were drawn against the coal miners, and every strategy, open and covert, was used to weaken the unions, even encouraging individual miners to take legal action against the NUM President Arthur Scargill for refusal to hold a strike ballot. The miners strike ended in the worst defeat for the unions, and led to major changes in the coal sector with the closure of mines, and new laws that controlled trade unions. The Iron Lady was at work, and the welfare state, was targeted, with privatization of major assets carried out with speed and the entire structure of the British economy and society changed.
Decline and fall
Her negotiating style was mainly one of no compromise. This was seen in her dealings with the European Union, when she was tough in getting most of the concessions that the UK wanted from the EU without joining the Euro.
But she also was a keen supporter of the expansion of the European Union that saw the new nations that came out of the Soviet Bloc join it. She was decidedly against the Soviet Union, and the so-called Communist system that prevailed under the leadership of Moscow at the time. She was the first to spot in Mikhail Gorbachev a likely future partner in international affairs, in a new political order, and urged her closest ally Ronald Reagan to take to Gorbachev, which changed the pattern of world politics.
Her inflexibility was also evident in handling the Northern Ireland issue, and allowed Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers to starve themselves to death in 1981, and was hardly moved by the near fatal IRA bomb attack on Brighton’s Grand Hotel during the 1984 Conservative Conference, in a bid to assassinate her. Her unwavering ways saw many clashes within her Cabinet, and increased disagreements on policy saw the beginning of her downfall. There were many internal clashes within the Conservative Party. A key mistake in policy that would see her go down was the idea of abolishing rates – leading to what was called the community charge or poll tax. As The Guardian describes it: “The community charge or poll tax…saw her name indissolubly linked to a policy that caused riots on the streets, and was rightly seen as a flagrant breach of the principle that taxes should not fall equally on the rich and the poor.”
Her downfall was swift with a by-election defeat for the Conservatives in July 1990, the increased internal challenges to her with the resignation of Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe in November that year. In what was unquestionably an open call or her removal from office when Howe said: "The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long". Just one day later Michael Heseltine announced he was challenging her for the party leadership.
This was a shock she never expected, and within days the advice of many of her loyalists was that she should stand down. She announced her resignation on the morning of November 22, 1990, ending a premiership that lasted 11 years and six months, and on November 28, John Major won the second round in the leadership contest of the Tories.She did not take her defeat easily. She did not seem able to come to terms with the fall she had. She saw the Conservative Party go into defeat after two terms of John Major and Labour come back under Tony Blair. But Labour’s return was with a greatly changed policy, much closer to her own thinking than the older Labour that she first defeated, and without the commitment to the Welfare State that was its key policy line from the days of Clement Attlee, in 1945. She left the House of Commons in 1992, and entered the House of Lords as Baroness Thatcher the same year. She saw the Tories struggle in defeat under successive leaders, noting it with vengeance, but grew weaker in body and mind. But this woman who defined the trends of politics in the UK and abroad in her days in office will continue to dominate the politics of the UK for many more years – as we see David Cameron trying to live up to an image he could never match, and also try to distance himself from all the negatives of “Thatcherism”, while Labour struggles to get over Tony Blair, who was more of a Thatcherite than any Tory of today would ever be.
There are many who see the crises faced by Britain today as being caused by the Thatcherite policies of overarching belief in the market, and the importance given to the service sector than to industry. The UK suffers the consequences today of not having the industrial strength it once had. The country is in the midst of a raging debate on social security – unemployment keeps rising, pensioners suffer and the old are losing the benefits of welfare. The UK is now in the midst of a third great economic crisis since World War 2. The monetary policies that attracted Margaret Thatcher are now being blamed on the financial crisis in the West, and David Cameron struggles to make a new definition of the UK’s position vis-à-vis Europe, without the opportunities that Thatcher had in her day. There is also the nagging question of the sinking of the Argentine warship ARA General Belgrano, killing 700 Argentine naval personnel, when it was outside the military exclusion zone earmarked in the battle in the Falklands War. The question of this being a major War Crime by the UK remains an issue that calls for resolution. It is clear that Margaret Thatcher and the most divisive politics that she brought to Britain will be in focus for decades to come.